Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Food Sake Tokyo: A Fascinating Resource

With the growing interest in all matters food, numerous culinary tours and vacations have sprouted up all over the world. The publishing world has been a bit slower to catch up, and good culinary travel guides are not as common as they could be. Some food travel guides are merely a list of restaurants, but they lack explanatory information on cuisine, and also fail to provide the vocabulary that might be useful for a foreign traveler.  If the Tokyo edition is indicative of the quality of the rest of their books, then The Terroir Guides might be a model for other culinary travel guides.

While at the Kunikuniya book store in New York City, I purchased a copy of Food Sake Tokyo ($29.95) by Yukari Sakamoto (Little Bookroom, May 2010), a trade paperback of 304 pages. The book is divided into five chapters: Eating Out, Food, Beverages, Places to Eat and Shop, and Culinary Itineraries.  Yukari is a chef, sommelier, journalist, and restaurant consultant. She once worked in the depachika (epicurean food hall) at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo. Yukari has produced a comprehensive and fascinating insider's guide to the food and drink of Japan, and specifically Tokyo. If you are traveling to Tokyo, I strongly recommend that you buy this guide. Your stomach will thank you.

Chapter 1, Eating Out, provides some basic information on Japanese dining etiquette as well as a list of common Japanese words you would use in a restaurant.  You will learn how to say things like "I have allergies" and "Is this raw?"  The chapter then describes kaiseki, casual dining, hot pot restaurants, and department store food halls, providing some specific recommendations as well. Within those descriptions, there is additional Japanese terminology. This chapter is a good basic introduction to dining in Japan, and would be useful to you even if you are not travelling to Japan. for example, it will help you better navigate a menu at a Japanese restaurant.

Chapter 2, Food, is a description of Japanese foods and ingredients, with additional Japanese terminology, and some restaurant and shop suggestions.  There are also some brief essays on related topics such as umami and sushi etiquette. This is also an excellent reference section for anyone who wants to learn more about Japanese cuisine, and once again useful for deciphering a menu at any Japanese restaurant. In this chapter, you will learn about the heirloom vegetables of Kyoto, a famous restaurant which serves horse meat, a seasonal list of seafood, the poisonous fugu, and much more. Just note that the individual sections are brief, and are more a basic introduction than an indepth study of each topic.

Chapter 3, Beverages, includes basic information on tea, sake, shochu, umeshu and Japanese wine, with additional Japanese terminology. Did you know Japan's first commercial winery dates back to 1875?  The sake information is brief and simple, with a few recommendations for where you can purchase sake. The chapter also has a list of Casual Places to Drink in Tokyo, including some izakaya and beer gardens. 

Chapter 4, Places to Eat and Shop, is the heart of the travel guide, breaking down Tokyo into neighborhoods and providing numerous recommendation of restaurants and culinary-related shops. Each recommendation provides all of the necessary information for the place, from its address and phone number to its website, as well as a description of the best items to order or purchase.  The neighborhood maps are very easy to read, and show the location of everywhere that is recommended. You can easily use those maps to plot out your own culinary itinerary. Though it is said to be difficult to find specific addresses in Tokyo, I think these menus make it much easier to find their recommended destinations. 

Learn how to navigate the Tsukiji Market, find out where to buy Japanese knives, discover the Antenna shops (where you can regional goods from all over Japan), where to find plastic food samples, uncover a restaurant where you can make your own pancakes, and much much more. There must be hundreds of interesting recommendations within this chapter. This chapter would be extremely useful when I eventually travel to Tokyo.

Chapter 5, Culinary Itineraries, is a short section, beginning with some suggested one and two day culinary itineraries for Tokyo. There is then a list of some unique Japanese ingredients and tools that you might want to purchase so that you can prepare Japanese cuisine at home. In addition, there is some information on the Kyoto's Nishiki Market. This is the weakest of the five chapters, due to its lack of depth, and would have been better with additional information and suggestions.

Overall, I think this is a well written and informative culinary travel guide, as well as a good introductory reference work on Japanese cuisine. Even if you are not traveling to Japan, you will find this book fascinating and useful.

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