American chef-turned-writer Matt Goulding examines Japan through the prism of food and drink

From love-hotel room service to fermented sea cucumber intestines, Goulding has explored every part of the Japanese kitchen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 2:00pm

Many think of Japan as a land of outrageous fads, visionary technology, and ancient temples. But for others, Japan is the Land of the Rising Meal, a country punctuated by food-focused shokunin, artisans deeply devoted to their craft. (Jiro Ono, title character of 2102 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is one of them.) These food artists populate Japan’s restaurant culture – take for example, a 80-year-old tempura man who’s spent the past six decades gauging the subtle differences that come from certain temperatures and motion. American food and travel writer Matt Goulding spent two intense years experiencing and exploring the island nation through the prism of food. He discovered that devotion to artistry has made Japan one of the most intriguing and layered food destinations in the world. Given that Tokyo has 300,000 restaurants (compare that number to New York’s 30,000 and you will quickly understand the national level of food obsession), Goulding broke out his chopsticks and went to town (and country) for a non-stop feast of food, culture and psyche. His new book, Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture, takes us from the counters of the sushi masters of Tokyo, to the street food stalls of Osaka, and the ramen kiosks of Fukuoka. He talked to Alison Gee about room service in love hotels, fermented sea cucumber intestines, and his friendship with Anthony Bourdain.

What first fascinated you about Japan?

I first travelled to Japan in the winter of 2008, looking to eat and drink as much as possible in 10 days. I had a lovely time, but the real revelation occurred years later, when I came with my wife on our honeymoon. It was a cup of coffee that did it – at an old-school kissaten where a guy named Katsuji Daibo turned the simple act of roasting, grinding, and filtering a cup of coffee into a religious ceremony of deep personal significance. Between hand-selecting the beans and removing any that had the slightest imperfections, roasting them slowly over a live fire in a metal canister he turned by hand, and executing the most mesmerising slow-drip pour overs I’ve ever seen. It took 45 minutes and cost US$10 for a thimble of coffee. It was one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted, but it was so much more than that. It was a full conversion for me, a line in the sand of my life that will forever mark a fundamental shift in my understanding of the world. I had never seen anyone dedicate so much time and attention to something as seemingly simple as a cup of coffee. The Japanese have a special gift for illuminating the complexities of the world’s simplest pleasures.

Why did you decide to write about the country through the prism of food?

Food is the language I understand best, and it’s the one I try to speak no matter where I find myself in the world. And in a country such as Japan, where the culinary traditions are so deep and so intrinsically tied to its history and culture, there is no better way to understand the country than through its food. You want to understand the complicated history of a place such as Hiroshima – one defined by equal measures of tragedy and resilience? Look no further than okonomiyaki, the savoury pancake that was born out of the ashes of the atomic bomb, when survivors used pieces of scrap metal as makeshift griddles to cook whatever food they could find – cabbage, bean sprouts, and, as the American presence increased in the country, flour. Food is nothing if not the convergence of history, culture, and environment. For me, it’s always been the most complete expression of time and place, and the key to understanding anywhere I travel. Of course, we begin to lose that the more the flavours of the world meld, but even that is an important story to tell.

You spent a night and ordered room service in a love hotel. What possessed you?

I loved the idea of a chef downstairs in the kitchen at a love hotel, carefully preparing meals that were fueling the night’s dalliances. We ordered roasted hamachi collar and karaage and making the most of the whole experience. Highly recommended. The food menu has nothing on the porn menu, which is sprawling and broken down into crazy subgenres, such as negi (leeks) porn and tako (octopus) porn. In the end, the porn was more interesting than the food.

I’ve pretty much given up eating sushi after Japan. In recent years, though, ramen has taken the place of sushi as Japan’s chief culinary export ... it represents a different Japan, a louder, brasher, younger, more colourful Japan – Japan of the 21st century

What foods most represent the Japanese psyche and why?

Tough question, but I’ll use two well-known staples. Sushi best represents the Japanese dedication to exceptional ingredients, flawless technique, and a lifetime of dedication to a single pursuit. It also represents the Japan most of the world first came into contact with: refined, beautiful, expensive, and somewhat rigid. I had a sushi revelation at the altar of Sushi Sawada in Ginza, the heart of Japan’s sushi culture. Sawada-san is a dedicated shokunin who takes his craft very seriously, putting a lifetime of thought into the tiny details: the perfect temperature for serving rice (just above body temperature), the special refrigeration system he developed using blocks of ice instead of electricity, the meticulous scrubbing of the hinoki bar he does with his wife every night. Right now, his restaurant seats six people, but his ultimate goal is to feed just four. With a few rare exceptions, sushi elsewhere doesn’t really measure up. I’ve pretty much given up eating sushi after Japan. In recent years, though, ramen has taken the place of sushi as Japan’s chief culinary export. (Of course, ramen hails from China, but the Japanese added a level of dedication and obsession to ramen culture that long ago made it their own.) From the bandana-wearing cooks to the hip hop on the speakers, to the big flavours in the bowl, ramen represents a different Japan, a louder, brasher, younger, more colourful Japan – Japan of the 21st century. In Fukuoka, the spiritual home of Japanese ramen, cooks treat tonkotsu, a pork-bone based broth, like bakers treat sourdough starters: always feeding the original base. More bones, more water, but always some small part of that mother broth remains. At Maruboshi Ramen in Kurume, I tasted a bowl of tonkotsu where the same broth has been simmering for 60 years.

What is the most unusual dish you came across and what is its history and raison d’être?

A famous sake baron once fed me konowata, fermented sea cucumber intestines, in his family’s ancient teahouse. Food that accompanies sake is traditionally assertive: salty, briny, dense with umami. The intestines were long and slimy like viscous strands of sea spaghetti. I nearly vomited all over the beautiful tatami mat floor, but when I looked up, the sake baron was quietly chuckling to himself. He knew what he was doing. I kept myself from vomiting by washing it down immediately with a flood of the baron’s incredible sake. I also ate a lot of shirako, cod sperm, which is served everywhere in Japan in the spring. Truth is, it’s unusual in name only, since the flavour is mild and very approachable.

How do you get the low-down on where to eat in any given city? What piques your interest about a restaurant?

I always start by reaching out to my network of contacts in the journalism world, which opens doors in even the most far-flung places. To that I add a lot of my own personal research – reading books, skimming blogs, weeding through food-focused forums to try to find some sort of consensus on where to find the good stuff. It’s easy enough to do that in Barcelona or New York or Hong Kong, but there’s a scarcity of information in English on Japan – especially once you go beyond Tokyo and Kyoto. That means you need to make friends on the ground, cultivate relationships early and often that will help you open doors that would otherwise remain closed. In Japan, where personal introductions are so important, this becomes essential for anyone trying to do deep reporting. I had a lunch at an Italian restaurant in a tiny town in Hokkaido where I met Ioanna Morelli, a Canadian married to a Japanese man. We ended up at Gyu Bar, their incredible cocktail bar in Niseko, drinking rare whisky and dancing to the early hours. From that point on, Ioanna was a fundamental part of the book’s formation, making contacts, translating, travelling with me to all corners of the country. I could not have done this book without her guidance and expertise – and constant supply of premium whisky.

The scarcity of information is what motivated us to publish this book in the first place. It’s the kind of book I always wanted to read when I first started travelling to Japan. On top of the book, we built a deep digital companion with Microsoft that shares hundreds of the best restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels in the seven regions we cover in the book.

In your experience as the editor of a travel website, what are potent ways – other than food – to connect to a culture?

Get lost, early and often. In the process of finding your way back, you’ll make the most meaningful discoveries. Another important point for me personally: I’ve always felt there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of money you spend and the connection you form with a country. Stay in five-star international hotels and eat at Michelin star restaurants and you could be in any country in the world.

What advice do you have for readers who want to write about travel and food?

To paraphrase Martin Amis, avoid clichés, not just in what you write, but in how you think and feel about your subject matter. Nowhere is this more important than in the world of food and travel writing, disciplines dense with tired formulas and lazy thinking. The way that I do that personally is to build narrative around individual characters, telling their stories in the most honest and inquisitive way possible – always asking how and why. Whether it’s a story about ramen or a story about ragu, it’s always best to let the experts do most of the storytelling.

You approached Anthony Bourdain, who runs an imprint with HarperCollins, about publishing your book. What do you like most about him?

Bourdain and I have a handful of important things in common: we were both professional cooks who turned out to be better at writing. We both have found wandering the world as the best antidote to our sordid personal histories. We both married women from southern Europe. Most importantly, we both have huge appetites – for food, culture, foreign places and faces, for worlds beyond the ones we normally occupy. What I admire most about Tony is that he’s someone who built his professional life around being an honest, genuine guy. He is exactly who he says he is, and he shows us the world exactly as he experiences it. Long before I knew him personally, I took no small measure of hope and solace in knowing that a guy like Tony made it. Anybody who writes about food and travel today owes something to him – me above all.

Visit www.roadsandkingdoms.com/japan for Matt Goulding’s online guides to eating in Japan.