Back in 2015, I reviewed Michael Booth’s ‘Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know about Cooking’ and interviewed the author himself. Booth has a lot of people’s dream jobs – he’s a best-selling author and journalist who writes predominantly about travel and food.
‘The Meaning of Rice: and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan’ is the second of Booth’s books on Japanese food. If eating your way around Japan is your idea of heaven, or you want to learn more about the complex world of Japanese food and the industry, this book will give you some serious cravings.
‘The Meaning of Rice’ is the result of Booth and his family’s travels around Japan ten years after ‘Sushi and Beyond’. A surprising but also concerning amount has changed in a short space of time. The devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake has had a huge impact on the production and sale of food from the region, and therefore many people’s livelihoods, and the effects of climate change can be seen in the availability and growth of some staple foods (nori, eel, uni to name a few). In the face of changing demographics and young people’s tastes, less people are eating foods that were only a few years ago eaten by almost everyone in Japan. This theme of rapidly approaching change is a running theme throughout the book and paints a fascinating insight into a culture that many westerners, myself included, sometimes mistakenly view through rose-tinted glasses.
Another change between the two books is that Booth’s two sons, Asger and Emil, are now teenagers and somewhat more independent. Incidentally, taking weeks out of school to travel around Japan with you writer dad is something I would readily sign up for! (The family lives in Denmark, which clearly is more relaxed about schooling than the Brits!). It’s not essential to read ‘Sushi and Beyond’ first to appreciate ‘The Meaning of Rice’, as Booth is still discovering a whole range of new Japanese foods. However, if you are an insatiable foodie, I highly recommend reading both!
One of Booth’s justifications for returning to Japan is that he felt like he’d barely scratched the surface on his first visit (something almost anyone who has visited Japan will say). The world of Japanese food is incredibly varied, which isn’t surprising given how diverse it is geographically (from tropical Okinawa in the south to the cold northern reaches of Hokkaido). Okinawa to Hokkaido just so happens to be route Booth and his family take on their culinary adventure, so the book is helpfully divided by the various Japanese regions.
What makes ‘The Meaning of Rice’ a particularly enjoyable read for foodies is it’s more than just a book about Japanese food, but also the industry, culture and history. I found the section on Kyushu particularly fascinating. Not only is it an amazing place to visit and home to some amazing foods, but it also played an important historical role in the success of many popular Japanese foods. Booth’s individual encounters with ‘shokunin’ – Japanese food artisans – are also very interesting and offer a look into Japan beyond “I went to this place and ate some great food”.
While there’s plenty of new foods you’ll discover whilst reading (I didn’t realise that the insect food market was that popular!), Booth also revisits some very popular Japanese foods, such as ramen, sushi and curry rice. Rather than just talking about why certain foods are popular, he goes into depth about how they have been adapted and what might be the next trend… So, what is the meaning of rice? You’ll have to find out yourself.
Coming later this week… I’ll be interviewing Michael once again about his latest book!