Serious Eats

Read This Now: "Pretty Good Number One," A Fish-Out-of-Water Tokyo Tale

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Matthew Amster-Burton's is one of the funniest writers I know. He comes up with the kind of one liners and clever descriptions that makes me stop and say to myself damn, I wish I'd thought of that. He makes me want to be a better writer.

I first became aware of his writing when a good friend of mine who works with children suggested I read his first book Hungry Monkey, a chronicle of his attempts to teach his young daughter to eat all of the foods he loves most. It was charming, easy to read, insightful, and downright hilarious, and it made me start following him on his blog Roots and Grubs.

His new book Pretty Good Number One is even better. Part guide book, part diary, it's about his month-long stint living in a Tokyo apartment with his wife and young daughter, a city that despite its reputation, is a difficult one for Westerners to crack. I've been to Tokyo several times and have read all the guidebooks, and I was delighted to find that there's almost no overlap between what the typical book says to do and what Amster-Burton finds amusing, surprising, or delicious. It's given me a whole new set of things to look forward to next time I head to Tokyo.

I chatted briefly with him about his writing process, what it's like to raise an adventurous eater, and how to eat your way through Tokyo. Check out the interview, followed by the complete ramen chapter excerpted from his book below!

The book is available as a paperback for just over $10 and as an ebook for under $4 through Amazon.

As a fellow writer who draws from personal experience, I know that my wife and family have certain privacy issues and boundaries. You write an awful lot about your wife and child. Is this something you discussed before taking on your last two projects, and have issues of private vs. public life ever come up in the course of your writing? I don't recall ever discussing it in detail. From the earliest days of our marriage, Laurie and I read food and travel writers like Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten, so I think it was just assumed that I would use my family in the same way in my own writing. The key to using your family without making them feel used, I think, is to make sure to always poke fun at yourself first. This comes easily to me, because I do lots of things worth making fun of.

I can learn from that advice! I'm always fascinated to hear how people come up with jokes. I know some humorists who painstakingly craft one liners that come out on paper as off-the-cuff remarks. What's the process for your writing, and are you as quick-witted in real life? Thanks! I've honestly never been asked this before.

I think describing oneself as "quick-witted" is a great way not to get a date. But I do host a couple of comedy podcasts and briefly did stand-up in the 90s, and I do enjoy lofting one-liners whether the situation calls for them or not.

Most of the best jokes in my writing happen during revision. I try to put myself in funny situations; the okonomiyaki chapter in Pretty Good is a perfect example. I figured if we went out to a restaurant where we'd have to cook our own food, with no experience and limited language skills, that would be pretty funny. I didn't know the waiter was going to be a grinning Japanese Patrick Swayze lookalike.

Taking those raw materials and turning it into a funny true story takes a few revisions. From talking to a lot of writers, I've learned that most writing that has an informal, natural flow is the result of painstaking grunt work.

Oh, and finally: I send my manuscript to my friend Dan, who is funnier than I am, and he writes some last-minute jokes. For this service, he gets a spot in the acknowledgements and a 0 percent cut of the profits. But I'm thinking about doubling his pay.

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Going back to your first book Hungry Monkey, it's about your daughter Iris, who at the time was very young but still seemed to enjoy eating almost everything. She also seems pretty adventurous in Pretty Good Number One. Did she ever go through a picky phase? Oh, Iris was very picky from about age three to seven. She's still not really into green vegetables unless they're inside a gyōza or other dumplings. But she's open-minded about trying new foods that fit into categories that she already identifies as good eating. So eel isn't a slimy snakelike monster, it's just fish, which she already likes. Plus, it's usually prepared in a way that involves soy sauce, and Iris is a soy sauce fiend.

I know that you're currently in research phases for a new book on Japan, specifically on ramen which is going to go more in-depth into the subject. Pretty Good Number One was pretty much a "here's an American's first take on Tokyo and Tokyo culture" in which you go in with basically no experience or advance research. Your first book was similar in tone. Do you find the process of writing an actual researched subject-based book to be different in terms of writing process? Is it equally enjoyable? Well, I don't think my approach for the ramen book is that different. By the time I finish the book, you, Kenji, will still know a lot more about ramen than I do.

My goal for Pretty Good Number One was to introduce readers to my Tokyo, a place I'd never seen described in print quite the way my family and I experienced it. So with the ramen book, I'm not writing a history book or a cookbook; I just want to bring readers along to eat Hakata ramen in Kyushu, miso ramen in Sapporo, and so on. To meet this wonderful dish on its home turf.

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At the same time, I know ramen lovers are devoted and detail-oriented, by which I mean they will eat me alive if I repeat canards about ramen in my book. So I've been slogging through books like Economics of Ramen in Japan, but also slavering over books like Tokyo Nostalgic Ramen, a guide to Tokyo's oldest continuously-operating ramen shops.

In Pretty Good Number One you hit a lot of places in Tokyo over the course of a month, many of them not on the typical tourist itinerary, even for food-loving tourists. Do you have any advice for travelers to Tokyo who want to go more off the beaten path? Resources that they can use to find places like you did? This advice isn't unique to Tokyo, but you have to be willing to risk embarrassment. Walk into a restaurant in Tokyo that looks good, and it will probably be good. It's amazing how much can be communicated by exchanging smiles and nervous laughter. Most of the places I wrote about in the book weren't ones I picked out of a guidebook but places in our neighborhood that we wandered into.

That said, here are a couple of online sources I found useful:

Some other good tips: Eat at chain restaurants. They're much better in Japan than in any other country I've visited, and they tend to have picture menus or other easy ways to order. Ramen, tempura, curry, udon, sushi, and other chains are everywhere.

Finally, if you want to be That Guy: learn Katakana. It's one of the easier of the Japanese language's four writing systems. You can learn it in two weeks and use it to read tons of menu items and signs. The first time you successfully order off a Japanese-language menu, you will feel like the a superhero, even though the person next to you has been doing it since they were five.

Here's an easy closer: top five food experience in Tokyo. Go. Only five? That's brutal, man.