Soon after Asian Tofu was released last year, Matthew Amster-Burton tweeted that he’d used the book to make fresh yuba tofu skin. He went a couple of rounds with it and then told me that the DIY yuba experience was good preparation for his trip to Japan. I was both flattered and surprised because there are so many wonderful things to eat in Japan and Matthew, a talented writer based in Seattle, was extra keen on tofu.
As it turned out, Matthew had a purpose. He and his wife, Laurie, and eight-year-old daughter, Iris, spent a month in Tokyo last summer. They rented a one-room apartment about the size of a single-car garage and ventured out on daily eating adventures.
Matthew recounted their experiences in his new book, Pretty Good Number One, a fast-paced, rollicking work that’s chock full of delicious humor and insights. Reading the ebook at bedtime was my way of reliving and deepening my understanding of Tokyo. I’d gone there in 2010 to research tofu and a number of the places I visited and food people I know are part of Matthew’s book. I was honored to be the lead on his tofu chapter.
Matthew’s vivid and spot-on description of Tokyo led me to spend a few hours reviewing photos from my Tokyo trip. They’re part of the collages on this post. The book was such a terrific read that I had to ask Matthew a few questions about his work and of course, what to do and where to eat in Tokyo.
Whet your appetite below and then enter the giveaway. There are three (3) copies of the book available!
One of the charming aspects of your books is the relationship that you and Iris have built around food adventures. Parents bond with their kids over many shared interests but is there something different when food is involved? Or am I just biased?
I think there is something different, but having written two books on the topic, I’m also biased. It’s nice to bond with your kids over food because adults and children can enjoy it in the same way, and because food isn’t optional. If you’re going to be eating with your kid two or three times a day anyway, why not try to find a way to make it fun?
You were in Tokyo for a month but the balanced insights you provide about the city, its culture, and food make it seem like you were there for years. Each chapter is jammed packed. What was a typical day like for you while you were in Tokyo?
Thanks for the compliment. I’d start most days writing at the Starbucks in our western Tokyo neighborhood, Nakano. I felt a little silly going to Starbucks in Tokyo, since we have one or two locations in Seattle, but most sit-down cafes in Tokyo don’t open before 10 a.m. Then I’d often meet up with Iris and Laurie at Mister Donut, an amazing doughnut chain whose signature Pon de Ring doughnut is made with mochi. We’d head out into Tokyo by train for an adventure (a museum, shopping, the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree tower) and lunch, and then come back to Nakano for dinner at home or a restaurant.
But there were plenty of atypical days. One day we got up early to have breakfast at Tsukiji fish market; another day we took the Shinkansen out of town to a small city that boasts hundreds of gyōza (fried dumpling) restaurants, including one that serves 74 different fillings.
We tried hard not to overdo it, and most days we succeeded. One thing I want readers to understand about Tokyo is that there’s much more to the city than the popular images of neon-lit nightlife and tranquil temple gardens. Walking around in the streets of Tokyo is delightful. The city is exuberantly modern and celebrates street life, yes, but at the same time you’re never far from a place to pause and relax. Because of this, Tokyo was less likely to give me that wrung-out traveler’s malaise than most other places I’ve been.
There are people who say that Vietnamese food in the U.S. is better or just as good as the food in Vietnam. People don’t say that about Japanese food. Why is Japanese food so incredibly superior in Japan than it is elsewhere?
Japan has the most fully developed restaurant culture I’ve ever seen. Have you ever been to a food truck pod in Portland, OR, where a dozen or more food trucks congregate, each focusing on a specific dish? Japan doesn’t have food trucks, but it was doing tiny specialized restaurants long before Portland got hip.
One night, for example, we had dinner at a restaurant famous for nose-to-tail eating. It only serves freshwater eel, mostly grilled on a stick. So we ate eel fillets wrapped around burdock root, eel liver, smoked eel, and (Iris’s favorite) crispy fried eel backbones. Japanese diners expect and appreciate this level of focus: literally everyone in the eel restaurant was ordering and enjoying the all-parts-of-the-eel set meal.
In the U.S., this level of specialization tends to be reserved for American food (e.g., steakhouses) and food trucks. Ethnic restaurants (for lack of a better term), even very good ones, tend to get stuck serving a greatest hits collection from a national cuisine too big to fit on a single menu. And Japanese cuisine is really big. There’s no such thing as a “Japanese restaurant” in Tokyo, but there are a hundred different kinds of Japanese restaurants.
There are so many wonderful things to eat in Tokyo. How did you settle on the ones for the book? For example, I was flattered to be included in the tofu chapter but at the same time I also wondered, why tofu?
Tokyo is always topping “World’s Most Expensive City” lists, but having spent a month living and eating there, I can’t figure out why. You can get any number of amazing meals for under $10—especially noodles, but also takoyaki (octopus balls), bento, yakitori, rice balls, and so on. Once I realized how well I could eat for $10, it was hard to get too excited about one of those $300 sushi meals food writers are always gushing about.
So I decided the book would focus on the everyday food of Tokyo, and tofu is an important part of that. Even so, one of the most expensive meals I ate was at Ukai Tofu-ya, the same fancy tofu restaurant you visited in Asian Tofu, and I describe in the book how they served me one of the best things I’ve ever tasted (fresh tofu made from plump, Hokkaido-grown soybeans) and one of the most challenging (a mucilaginous green called junsai). These were served together in the same bowl. I love the idea of a high-end tofu restaurant, and the meal was delicious, beautifully presented, and sometimes way outside my comfort zone. That’s a good thing, right?
There were a few dishes I wanted to cover in the book and just ran out of time, like Japanese curry and sōmen noodles, and others that I need to revisit in more detail, like soba, sushi, and ramen. And, of course, there are some great winter dishes, like tofu hot pot (yūdofu) and fish cake stew (oden) that we didn’t try because we were in Tokyo during the sticky furnace of July. Is it too early to hint that this oversight will be remedied?
If a first-time visitor to Tokyo wanted a true experience with a minimum of “vacation head”, what do you advise them to do in say, 2 or 3 days?Vacation Head is a disease introduced to me by my friend Becky Selengut, author of the cookbook Good Fish. You come down with it when you go on vacation to a new place and, because your brain is addled by jetlag and the sudden lifting of all your usual responsibilities, you decide that you’ve landed in paradise. The food! The people! The scenery! It’s all perfect! Japan is notorious for causing bad cases of Vacation Head, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s only bad when someone else gets it and you have to sit through their holiday slideshow.
Tokyo is the world’s biggest city, and you can’t see all of it in a few days, a month, a year, or a lifetime. So you’ll have to prioritize. Here’s what I think no food-loving visitor should miss:
- A visit to a depachika. Every department store in Tokyo has a food hall in the basement, and they offer the most outrageous high-end food shopping you can possibly imagine. A typical depachika has dozens of stalls staffed by vendors selling sashimi, bento boxes, pickles, tea, rice dishes, Japanese sweets, salumi, French pastry (including big names like Pierre Hermé). If you’ve been to Harrods or Fauchon, you’ve experienced just the barest hint of a depachika. The best I visited were at Isetan in Shinjuku and Takashimaya in Nihonbashi.
- Shibuya Crossing. This is the famously busy pedestrian crossing seen in countless photos and movies set in Tokyo. Seeing a photo is nothing compared to getting caught up in the crush yourself, especially on a rainy day when you’ll be lost in a sea of umbrellas. And Shibuya is a bustling neighborhood home to plenty of great restaurants and shopping once you get tired of crossing the street.
- An izakaya meal. An izakaya is a Japanese pub, the kind of lively drinking and eating place where people hang out with coworkers and friends after work, often for hours. Izakaya food is simple, diverse, and usually salty and tangy to go well with beer, sake, or shochu. Think sashimi, salt-broiled fish, stir-fried beef with tofu, mountain vegetable salad with miso, and, in summer, a simple sliced ripe tomato. Nothing about the izakaya experience travels well outside of Japan, so enjoy it while you’re there. If you can go with a local, do so, but if not, go anyway and order by pointing and shrugging. (Some chain izakayas have picture menus, and chain restaurants in Japan are often great.)
- Tempura cooked to order. One of the Tokyo dining experiences I miss most is sitting at the counter in a neighborhood restaurant while a chef cooks us pieces of perfectly fried tempura. We’d order onion, kabocha squash, and lotus root, watch him cook, and pause to drink and enjoy the vegetables. Then we’d order again: shrimp, whitebait, and a whole freshwater eel, slaughtered and filleted before our eyes. We’d banter with the chef and fellow customers as much as our limited common language allowed, and keep ordering food until we couldn’t manage any more. Why aren’t American cities full of tempura bars?
How do you categorize your book? Is it a travel memoir or a
guidebook or both? How should a reader employ Pretty Good Number One for exploring Tokyo?
It’s definitely a travel memoir, but I’ve been delighted to hear from some readers that they’re using the book to help plan their own Tokyo trip. The fact that it’s an ebook and can easily live on your phone or e-reader probably encourages that.
I love reading guidebooks, but they’re often out of date even before they go on sale. The approach I tried to take in Pretty Good Number One is to focus on the kind of food experiences you can have in Tokyo even if all the specific restaurants and shops I mention in the book go out of business. This is an absurdly egotistical thing to hope for, but if someone were to read my book 25 years from now, they could say, “Now I want to go to a cat cafe, and cook my own okonomiyaki pancakes at a tabletop grill, and shop at a depachika, and eat a bento box while riding the train at 186 mph.” And of course they’ll be able to. This being the future, however, possibly the tempura chefs will be replaced by robots.
The Giveaway Lowdown:
- Prize: 3 copies of Pretty Good Number One by Matthew Amster-Burton
- Who is eligible to enter: Anyone with an email address and willingness to read a digital book
- How to enter: Simply leave a comment on this post. What’s your favorite Japanese food? Include your email address so that I can contact you directly if you win.
- Can you enter more than once? Yes, if you’re a fan of the VWK Facebook page, follow me on Twitter or have joined me on Pinterest, you can enter an extra time for each of those social media networks. If we’re buddies on all three, then shoot, you can enter 4 times. If you’re doing multiple entries, let me know who you are by including something like [FB], [Twitter], or [Pinterest] in your comment.
- Deadline to enter: Friday, May 3, 2013, noon (PST)
- Selection, notification, and claiming the tickets: The three winners will be randomly selected via Random.org and notified by email. The winners will be announced on Tuesday, May 7. Because the book is available in different ebook formats, the winners will individually coordinate with Matthew on how to receive the book. If you’d like more details, read the official giveaway rules.
Related posts -- Matthew mentions certain dishes in his book that got me thinking about these recipes on VWK: