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Guy de la Rupelle
- Publié sur Amazon.com
As a chef, gourmet and someone passionate about gastronomy, when I heard about this book I pre-ordered it and waited patiently for it, the real paper edition, to arrive at my house in Chiba, Japan which I've called home for the past 23 years. Because of his occupation, Mr. Booth was privy to meet some of the most well-known chefs in Japan, not to mention open doors not usually opened to insiders living here. Hence my impatience to dig into this book and learn more, and learn I did. Mr. Booth arrives in Tokyo but is soon off to northern Japan's Hokkaido, then to the Kansai region divided between Kyoto (tradition), Osaka (fun food) and Kobe, known for its international atmosphere and of course, its cows (he eventually gets to satisfy one of his fantasies, which is massaging one of those tasty cows).
His writing flows along and is witty enough that at times I laughed out loud, much to the surprise of the commuters on the train to Tokyo. He addresses the key features of what makes Japanese unique, and in particular what is called "umami", that fifth taste which is indefinable. Will it be the aged soy sauce or the barely cooked season vegetables? Will it be those drops of sake or that fresh-ground wasabi (nothing to do with that ubiquitous mint-green paste found in sushi shops the world over)? Or maybe the dashi made just before the dinner with the freshest flakes of dried bonito? Mr. will examine these and much more as he visits chefs, restaurants, soy-sauce makers, sake brewers, a village which makes dried bonito, Tsukiji, the planet's biggest fish market, and watches sumotori make their food.
At the end of the book he eats one of the best meals of his stay in Japan, making me one very envious gourmet, in a tiny restaurant which is not even listed anywhere on the Internet and there, during diner, has one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, what he describes as a mini-orgasm, writing, "Every hair on my body had stood on end. It was as if the chef had found a taste receptor that I never knew I had, some kind of palate g-spot, and performed a kind of culinarylingus. [...] ...This soup had a deep meatiness, an addictive savoury foundation above which danced teasingly tangy notes of the sea."
If I am so excited by this book why not 5 stars? Because there were too many factual and translation errors which I simply could not disregard. In fact when a book is so good, such errors are even more glaring and therefore annoying. Just a few examples, taken at random. Mr. Booth writes about a "dining room the pale walls...timbered with honoki wood, the most luxurious and costly panelling you can get in Japan, as used for the coffins of emperors." The wood is called hinoki and not "honoki", a misspelling and while luxurious, it is not so expensive as to be unaffordable. My former apartment had a hinoki bathtub, my wife's storage kimono chest is made of hinoki and when my father-in-law passed away, the funeral home's catalogue had hinoki coffins listed (not just emperors it seems). Hinoki translates as Japanese Cypress. On another page, Mr. Booth eats ayu, a seasonal river fish. He writes, "The fish, famously caught by fishermen using trained cormorans...". This used to be true and sounds folkloric but is not accurate. I have seen many times fishermen catching these fish which look like dwarf trouts, using normal fishing rods along the river banks in Tohoku, and in some places, people use nets stretched on rectangular frames to scoop them up in greater numbers. My local supermarket sells them often. Ok, so these are factual errors.
But equally disturbing are words wrongly translated. Towards the end of the book, Mr. Booth's friend, finishing a meal, teaches him: "Gochisoma deshita"; wrong! The correct Japanese is "Gochisosama deshita". And in the book, he explains that this means "a thanks to the cooks who gathered and made the food", but it really means "this meal was excellent". The glossary at the end of the book has many errors as well. He writes that "habu" means snake. No, the word for snake is "hebi". The "habu" is the name of the venomous snake found in Okinawa. "Jizo" is defined as "statues erected as memorials to babies and infants who have died". The online Japanese Buddhist dictionary define Jizo as the following: "One of the most beloved of all Japanese divinities, Jizō works to ease the suffering and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell, to deliver the faithful into Amida's western paradise (where inhabitants are no longer trapped in the six states of desire and karmic rebirth), and to answer the prayers of the living for health, success, children, and all manner of mundane petitions. In modern Japan, Jizō is a savior par excellence, a friend to all, never frightening even to children, and his/her many manifestations -- often cute and cartoon-like in contemporary times -- incorporate Taoist, Buddhist, and Shintō elements." Completely different from Mr Booth interpretation! "Kaiten" is defined as "conveyor belt sushi". Not quite. It's called "kaiten-zushi" in Japanese, the word kaiten simply meaning "conveyor belt", or rotating drum [回転]. For "mochi" he writes that it means "Japanese dessert made with rice four dough". Not quite accurate. Mochi is a rice ball made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice, which is pounded into paste and molded into the desired shape. No sugar is added. We make it every year for New Year's. One more (there are more though!). "Tamago" is defined as "Japanese rolled omelette". I laughed at that one because the word itself, tamago, simply means "egg". Nothing more. Do you have some eggs? translates as "tamogo arimasuka?". What Mr Booth should have written was "tamagoyaki", and that is a Japanese rolled omelette.
These points aside, the book is thoroughly enjoyable and anyone interested in Japanese cuisine should read it.