Monday, April 22, 2013

Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo

Matthew Amster-Burton and I have a few things in common.  We share a passion for scary sharp knives, debunking culinary myths, and eating in Tokyo.  We also have kids who'll arm-wrestle us for the last piece of sushi or the last slurp of ramen.  What Matthew has that I don't is guts.  While I went to Tokyo alone, Matthew had the guts to bring his wife Laurie, and an 8 year old daughter Iris.  When Iris was 6, she and Matthew went to Tokyo alone.  They fell so madly in love with the city that they convinced Laurie (a Japanese food skeptic) to come along the second time.  Laurie challenged them to go for a whole month in the summer and so they did.  Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo is the memoir of their trip.

Tokyo in the summer feels like a C-VAP oven.*   The apartment Amster-Burtons rented was barely larger than a walk-in closet in a suburban home.  Sounds like a vacation from hell, doesn't it?  But it wasn't.  It was delicious, relaxing, and fun.  Before I went to Tokyo myself, I'd find this hard to believe, but Tokyo is a sweet and gentle giant.  As Laurie observed, it's not a beautiful city, but it's filled with beautiful things.

The beautiful things that interest Matthew the most are edible, and that's what his book is about.  But instead of focusing on high art of Japanese cuisines -- ceremonious kaiseki or glamorous sushi --Matthew focuses on the pop art -- fast food, chain restaurants, and convenience stores.  If you've never been to Japan, you might turn your nose up at Matthew's "plebeian" attitude to food.  But I wish I was armed with Matthew's book when I went to Tokyo instead of the Michelin Guide.  The 2 Michelin starred places were a disappointment and cost more than all my other meals combined.  Pretty Good Number One made me re-live the 7/11 culture shock (I'd challenge Thomas Keller to cook a better hard boiled egg than Tokyo 7/11); my favorite meal at an izakaya (it was a chain); melt in your mouth beef; a heart warming bowl of ramen; better French pastries than France herself could produce; and yes, the best toilets in the world.

When people set sails for far away places, they make a checklist of things they must see there. Eiffel tower: check. Trevi Fountain: check. The travel writers encourage that by giving you "Top 10 sites" and telling you what you must squeeze in if you are only in that city for 3 days. Matthew does just the opposite, and oh, what a breath of fresh air it is in travel writing. He invites you to experience Tokyo, not put another check mark in your travel itinerary. The only chapter missing was "How to entertain your kids on the plane and deal with jet lag."

* C-VAP ovens offer convection functionality with steam and are used in many upscale restaurants instead of the sous-vide method.  


Linda Harris said...

Hi- I've traveled using Frommers, but not Michelin. I figured it would be too expensive. Thanks for the info. If I travel to Tokyo some day, I'll re-read Matthew's book first and be sure to take it along. You and Matthew give me more reasons to want to go!

Nika said...

Reading your adventures in Tokyo, plus the photos of the food, and the descriptions of the cooking class was bad enough... Now I really want to go to Japan. I think I'll read the book to make myself want to go even worse. :/

By the way, I know I just lurk in the shadows of the internet and so we don't know each other, I have been reading and even trying your recipes for a few years now, and I love love love this food blog. There isn't going to be a "perfect" moment to tell you this, so here is just as well. I especially loved some of the semi-recent takes on "traditional" Russian food. I'll have to try that salad Olivier with the salmon one day - though perhaps not with my grandmother. She still likes to serve hers coated in an extra layer of mayo with a spring of parsley on top... Lol.

Anyway. Sorry for the lengthy rant. Thank you for the amazing food posts!


Helen Rennie said...

Hi Nika,

Thanks so much for coming out of hiding :) It's so good to know that there are actual humans on the other side when I sit in front of the keyboard. Tokyo trip was one of the most memorable of my life. It's far, it's expensive, and there are so many reasons why it's not practical to go, but it was worth every penny.