Exploring Japan's food culture through its master artisans

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Matt Goulding, author of Rice, Noodle, Fish, spent three months exploring the food in different regions of Japan. "To find a person who's been cooking nothing but tempura for 80 years of their life, it's a pretty remarkable thing," he says.

He shared an excerpt from the book: The 8 Wonders of the Japanese Convenient Store.

Von Diaz: You've created a guidebook that's unlike anything I've ever seen. It made me crave sushi for a week straight. What's the guiding idea behind Rice, Noodle, Fish?

Matt Goulding
Matt Goulding

Matt Goulding: The basic principle here was that we don't want to be comprehensive -- that wasn't the goal here. It's not like a guidebook in that sense, that no matter where you are in Japan, we're going to tell you what to eat at this particular moment.

I spent three months traveling around on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, eating at every region I could possibly get to. At the end of all of that, I chose the seven areas I think are the most interesting culinary cultures to share with the Western reader.

Along the way, there are different types of stories that we want to tell. From very specific ones about single shokunin dedicating their life to this one task over and over, to much broader tales of a place like Hokkaido, which is the Japan beyond your imagination. There they're not making tofu and sake, they're making wine, cheese, charcuterie and beautiful artisanal bread. It feels like the wild west up there.

The idea was to give you a tapestry, to give you as many different textures of this culinary culture as possible. So that you feel like when you're done reading this book, you have a really complete, 360-degree view of what that culture is about.

VD: This book is dedicated to the shokunin. Can you explain who they are?

MG: Shokunin in Japan is a master artisan, a craftsperson, who dedicates his or her time to the perfection of a single task. It could be making knives; it could be woodworking; it could be sushi or tempura. It's this type of singular focus. It pervades the entire food culture of Japan.

VD: You spent a lot of time with the shokunin you profile. Did anyone stand out?

MG: Everywhere you turn, you find these incredible stories of people who have given their entire lives to a micro-discipline that we in the Western world would find incredible. To find a person who's been cooking nothing but tempura for 80 years of their life, it's a pretty remarkable thing.

A couple personal stories really, really reached out and touched me in a special way. In particular, in Kyoto, in the heart of what's called kaiseki culture -- kaiseki are these elaborate, multi-course feasts that are based on the traditions of the tea ceremony. It's a very rigid, very codified way of eating. It's also a very beautiful way of eating.

I found a father and a son cooking in Arashiyama outside of Kyoto, Shunichi and Toshio Matsuno, who ran a place called Tempura Matsu. Despite the name, it's actually a full kaiseki restaurant right on the banks of a beautiful river. What was remarkable about this place was not just that they were experimenting and breaking the rules of kaiseki and the Kyoto culture, where rules are not made to be broken, but also that the relationship that they had in the kitchen was like none I've ever seen before in Japan.

Normally it's a master-apprentice relationship that informs all of Japanese cooking. You study underneath your master, which in many cases is your father, for as long as it takes for him to retire. Then you take the reins. That could be 40 or 50 years of watching your father really lead the kitchen.

In the case of the Matsuno family, there was a mutual respect there. The father was rooted in traditions of Kyoto cuisine, and the son had a much broader, more experimental nature. The two of them work in tandem, creating some of the most extraordinary meals that you're going to find in Japan. They became a major part of the book.

They let me into their kitchen. They let me into their lives. They operate the restaurant out of their home, which is very common in Japan. They had never done this before. They made an exception for whatever reason. I spent a few days with them doing everything they did. I found out not long afterward that the father, who had been a little bit ill, actually had a stroke in the kitchen a few days later and has not returned to cook at Tempura Matsu since. It's been a very emotional relationship for both sides.

VD: How do you hope people use this book?

MG: The idea is that you'll read the book and whether or not you're planning on a trip to Japan, immediately you will close the book and go on and book two tickets to Tokyo. Hopefully build in enough time for you to move about the country.

When you do that, then we also have a second part of this equation. We built out an online digital guide that has all of the real detailed information that you need to travel around Japan. Rather than putting it all into a book -- which today with modern technology just feels like carrying around the Yellow Pages in your backpack, it just doesn't make sense -- we stripped out addresses, phone numbers, operating hours, maps, those types of pieces of information. We put them into a free online guide that's available in collaboration with Microsoft.

You'll find a list of hundreds and hundreds of restaurants where I ate researching this book, where Tony Bourdain ate researching his shows over the years, as well as a handful of our trusted advisers there on the ground, the smartest eaters in Japan basically, giving us this information. You'll have concrete guidance once you're there. The truth is in Japan that's invaluable because often you're going to be standing in front of a restaurant and you're not going to be able to read what they're even serving. But having information is really vital for the Western traveler.

From This Episode: 
Biodiversity
Published: 
February 5th, 2016

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