Calling Matt Goulding a committed traveller seems like a gross understatement. The former "Eat This, Not That!" columnist has branched out into gastrotourism with his Roads & Kingdoms website and now, more physically, with Rice, Noodle, Fish. The book, published on Anthony Bourdain's Ecco imprint, is a dive into Japan's culinary culture that would befit Bourdain himself. I found myself reading sections in Bourdain's voice, picturing him in my mind's eye as he would move through the Japan that Goulding evokes. But Rice, Noodle, Fish is more than that, and different in subtle ways. Goulding can embed with a family in Kyoto, learning about Japan's most elaborate and personal cuisine, or profile blogger Toshiyuki Kamimura, who eats around four hundred bowls of ramen every year. The book isn't just a travel document, although there is a companion app developed in partnership with Microsoft, it's a literary exploration of just what makes Japan the place that food lovers lay awake at night and dream of. And while there's plenty of sushi and street food throughout the pages of Rice, Noodle, Fish, we talked to Goulding about what makes it more than just a guidebook for the hungry.
The Importance of this Book as Object
We recognized that there was a really cool opportunity in the world of food and travel and its intersection, which is something that we specialize in. In the book world in particular, it feels like while people have taken advantage of this golden age of gastro tourism through television shows, through a new era of magazines, that space in the book world had not been filled. It felt like a great chance to reboot the idea of the guidebook. Guidebook sales have been declining for many years. It's not like they're gonna die overnight, but they have to be rethought and reconsidered. For us, that’s a two-pronged approach. One is about specialization, focusing in on more niche-style travel. In this case, nothing could be better than food. It's the fastest growing category in the travel space. The other part is disaggregation. To separate the deeper read from the vital information you would need when you're actually on the ground traveling. The book is the inspiration for literary deep travel through Japan's food culture, and then the digital companion we created with Microsoft gives you hundreds of restaurant, bar, and hotel conversations in the palm of your hand.
Japanese vs. American Culture
Without a doubt, they're polar opposites. American culture tends to be one that is dedicated to trying a lot of different things. We'd rather be interested in doing a number of things well rather than specializing in one thing, dedicating our lives to the perfection of that one pursuit. Japanese culture — in particular its food culture — is about that singular pursuit of perfection. At its best iteration, it's about that pursuit.
How Jiro Dreams of Sushi Explains Some of Japanese Culture
That was the revelation for me when I was travelling. Japan is the nation of Jiros. You found a Jiro working in the local convenience store, you found a Jiro working at the tempura shop, you found a Jiro selling sake. Everywhere you turn you find that level of dedication. The official word is called shokunin, an artisan or master craftsman, but that mentality is pervasive up and down the food chain and throughout Japanese culture.
Not only do you have chefs and artisans specializing in a narrow focus, you have the writers and the bloggers and the people on the other side of the counter doing an equally specialized focus. Kamimura-san, you’re talking about a guy who eats more than a bowl a ramen every single day. And not just any ramen but tonkotsu ramen, the most intense pork-bone-based ramen you could ever consume.
Life Before and After Japan
Without a doubt, there's a line in the sand. The particular moment that we realized that we were never going to be the same was at a coffee bar in Tokyo. An old school kissaten, a Japanese coffee joint where the guy behind the bar spent 45 minutes picking through the beans, hand-roasting them over a charcoal fire. Hand grinding and slow-dripping what is the most elaborate and expensive and inspiring cup of coffee I've ever drank. His name is Daibo. Our AD is "After Diabo-san," essentially. We were both bit by the Japan bug in a way that I've never been bit before traveling around. I’m a guy with a lot of wanderlust, but this is something different. There's something to really learn here in this culture. There’s something that's gonna fundamentally change the way that I view the world going forward. I think that we both feel that way, and we both long to be back there. Whenever we’re not there, there’s pretty intense pangs of Japan-lust from afar.
My favorite part was the Kyoto chapter, which was about me struggling to understand this idea of kaiseki cuisine. This sort of deep, sophisticated, refined historic cuisine of Kyoto. Many people say that it’s the ultimate expression of Japanese art and culture combined in one meal. It’s a thing of beauty and it's very moving. I had all these elaborate and very expensive meals and didn’t understand the full breadth of what was happening. That was until I sat down for a meal at a place called Tempura Matsu in Arashiyama in Kyoto and had one of the best meals of my life. It was a father-and-son team, and they were cooking a much more radical brand of kaiseki. Putting together more explosive flavors, really intimate presentation, connecting with the guests directly as they delivered the dishes. The father and the son let me into their home and into their life in a way that’s not normal in Japanese culture, especially with a foreign reporter walking around with a notebook. They did it in a really humbling way. I spent a few days with them peering into their kitchen and their lives — digging up baby bamboo in the spring season, going to the market to buy tuna, uni. Hanging in the kitchen with one of their chef jackets on. It was the kind of experience that you don’t get a lot of in Japan, and the fact that they were so open and willing to let me into that was really important. So that chapter was, for me, the most meaningful and the longest in the book.