Super Sushi Ramen Express isn’t going to change the American perception of Japanese food alone.
Japanese food is a staple of the American diet, but for a lot of people their feelings on the cuisine are synonymous with how much they enjoy soy sauce. In Super Sushi Ramen Express, veteran food writer Michael Booth seeks to expose a Western audience to the nuances of the cuisine in its natural environment and he has his family in toe when he embarks on a three month trip to the ancestral home of sushi.
Booth certainly sets himself on a tough task, describing a vast array of food items that aren’t commonly understood as a part of the American palette, from bonito flakes (dried, fermented tuna) to whale meat. He set himself a similar goal with his previous book, the sprawling The Almost Nearly Perfect People, which set its sights on the myriad of stereotypes about the Scandinavian people, but it is clear that food is Booth’s greatest muse as a writer.
He dives deep into the minute details of how to properly make dashi (Japan’s staple soup stock) or the differences between types of seaweed with aplomb, and every sentence of his writing is rich with the joy of discovery. One section where Booth gorges himself on sumptuous ramen in Sapporo is both humorous and a touch stomach churning. Despite the frequent reoccurrence of certain ingredients, Booth manages to keep things fresh and varied, even when extolling the virtue of one region’s tofu versus another’s. His writing on the whole is sophisticated enough to stimulate intellectually, especially when he broaches topics like MSG and the origins of umami, but you’ll still catch your stomach gurgling lustily as he describes his meal at the ultra-exclusive Tokyo eatery Mibu.
Still, at a certain point, Booth’s culinary exploits do start to blur together, and there are diminishing returns with each exotic cuisine. But the book also works fairly well as a more traditional travelogue. The stories with his children, including their brush with sumo wrestling, are endearing, and Booth does a nice job highlighting the differences between places like Tokyo, Sapporo and Osaka. The decision to split the book’s chapters largely by the type of food covered makes sense, but it does make things a bit formulaic; the location setup is usually followed by an introduction to a prominent local food figure, which is then followed by an expectation-defying meal.
Ultimately, Super Sushi Ramen Express isn’t going to change the American perception of Japanese food alone. It won’t have the same legacy as Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, the Shizuo Tsuji cookbook Booth mentions in the beginning either. But it is a breezy exploration of an oft-misunderstood culinary culture by a smart writer with eyes almost as big as his stomach.