Sometime last week, after finishing Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, I decided that my brain needed a palate cleansing pick-me-up, something to whisk me out of Vann’s emotively beautiful but harsh Sukkwan Island wilderness, wrap me in a warm blanket, and spoon feed me from a comforting bowl of soup, or in this case, a comforting bowl of soup with udon noodles topped with chopped negi and thinly sliced pieces of beef. For this, I needn’t look no farther than my Kindle.
Pretty Good Number One by food writer Matthew Amster-Burton is a fun memoir about living and eating in Tokyo, Japan. In the summer of 2012, Amster-Burton, his wife Laurie and their 8-year-old daughter Iris lived in a tiny apartment in Tokyo for a month. They eat their way through their local neighborhood restaurants and dives where Japanese dishes are served up in a variety of ways I’ve never heard of or sampled. As an armchair enthusiast of Japanese culture and some Japanese food (‘no’ to anything with tentacles unless they’re fried, or cut up into so many tiny pieces that I can’t tell that they were ever tentacles) I thought my knowledge of most things Japanese was more than adequate at best. But nothing beats actually having authentic Japanese food in Japan, and Amster-Burton’s book manages to provide an almost palpable experience that a Japanophile like me can enjoy over and over.
Most of the chapters are devoted to a type of Japanese food or dish (Yakitori, Tempura, Hot Pots, etc) while the others focus on a particular element of Japanese culture. My favorite, Bathtime, is devoted to the subject of bathing. Amster-Burton and his family visit an onsen (natural hot springs) theme park on Odaiba, an island in Tokyo Bay. I remember seeing this park featured on the Youtube channel, Life Where I’m From and it looks exactly the way Amster-Burton describes it in his book. Of the park’s huge food court, he writes,
I loved this food court, not because the food was especially good (although it was seventeen times better than the average food court) it was such a perfect microcosm of the Japanese dining landscape. There were three noodle stands (udon, soba, and ramen), a sushi stand, a dessert shop selling soft serve sundaes with fruit jelly and mochi dumplings and a Korean stand specializing in rice dishes.
A huge part of the book’s charm is Amster-Burton’s humor, which happily, is pretty much on par with my own. My favorite part, the one that made me snort out loud and unladylike is the one about the Garra rufa, or doctor fish, which nibble the dead skin from your feet. In this bit, Amster-Burton has some trepidation about dipping his feet into a shallow pool filled with hundreds of these tiny fish, but he soon finds himself relaxing into the experience. Afterwards, he states,
My feet are still baby soft, but when I need my next treatment, I’ll post to Craigslist. ‘Need feet nibbled. Will pay.’
I fell in love with Amster-Burton’s daughter and culinary partner-in-crime Iris, who was eight-years-old at the time and already an adventurous eater. Together, they devour tofu skins, dine at an izakaya, visit a museum on Odaiba devoted to takoyaki, and other fun, food-filled activities. In the chapter entitled Tempura, Iris and her father dine at Tenta, a neighborhood tempura restaurant, where Iris’s favorite item is anago, or sea eel. She’s also a big fan of the eel’s backbone, which the chef takes after filleting the eel, ties into a knot, then tosses into the hot oil to fry.
“Hone,” he says, presenting it to Iris, who considers it the ultimate in crispy snack food – and this is a kid who considers taco-flavored Doritos a work of genius (OK, so do I).
I’ve read a couple of books on international cuisine before, but I don’t think any of them have made me laugh out loud, or as dangerously hungry as Pretty Good Number One. It does a great job of showing that there’s way more to Japan’s dynamic cuisine than just teriyaki, cup ramen, and sushi. It’s also a love letter to Tokyo, warts and all.