MADRID – “There are no weird foods, you’re just lacking the context,” says Emmy-winning journalist Matt Goulding in his guidelines to understanding Japanese culture through its cuisine in his guide “Sushi, ramen, sake.”
Considered a disciple of the late chef Anthony Bourdain for his way of reading the world through cooking, Goulding has worked on documentaries and is the author of more than 20 books, one of which was dedicated to Spain.
He lives in Barcelona and already feels “almost more Spanish than American,” he says. But if there is a country that seduces a person it has to be Japan, according to Goulding.
He first visited the Asian nation back in 2013 and has been back for long stays up to 15 times. It is easy to feel “out of place” there, because “you always have the feeling of doing something wrong in a complex and sophisticated culture.”
That should not discourage the traveler: “If you offer a smile they always forgive you.”
There is no shortage of advice in “Sushi, ramen, sake,” which he wrote to “convey the sensation of discovery that you always have in this magical country, not only with multi-course ‘kaiseki’ dinners, based on lots of small bites, but also with a bowl of ramen, some skewers at street stalls or a ‘tamago’ (egg) sandwich from a supermarket at three in the morning.”
“In Kyoto people spend their money on shoes, in Tokyo on clothes and in Osaka on food, it’s a Japanese saying that speaks a lot about their culture,” he explains.
He recommends buying the Japan Rail Pass to travel by train in a country that becomes “like a free buffet” for the traveler, since at stations you can buy bento boxes with local specialties and a drink, like a cold beer or sake, to make the journey more enjoyable.
A trip can start in Tokyo at its sushi temples and the chef recommends looking for “small places in the largest city in the world,” bars for less than a dozen diners to enjoy the work of experts who have spent their entire careers specializing in these creations with raw fish and rice.
Osaka is “more open and fun” and an essential destination for gourmands, who will find their paradise in the “izakayas” (taverns). There are some that do not allow Westerners to enter, but “it is not because of discourtesy or racism, it is that they cannot treat them like a Japanese person, because of the language barrier, or explain the meaning of each elaboration.”
“Kaiseki,” the food that prides tradition in one of the most traditional countries and far from trends elsewhere is found in Kyoto, while in Fukuoka you will discover the roots of ramen, now so popular in Spain.
In Hiroshima, the best thing is to taste the “okonomiyaki,” and to the north on the island of Hokkaido the traveler will discover a “barely Japanese” destination, open to foreign influences.
“Bakers, pizzerias, cheese makers, butchers, they import cultures from other countries and they become masters,” says Goulding.
The journalist wanted to reflect in this book, which is now published in Spanish, that Japan is “detail at its finest,” which requires knowing the subject you’re working with perfectly.
“I went to a restaurant in the mountains of Matsumoto where they only serve fried chicken with rice and cabbage, and they work with an 80-year-old father and his 60-year-old son. After 40 years working together, the son still did not touch the chicken because the teacher is still alive.”
When he proposed this book to him, Bourdain, whose died one year ago, said Japan was a place that “challenges you constantly” because it confronts a person with a lot of unfamiliarities. With “Sushi, ramen, sake,” Goulding has tried to soften this feeling.