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Sunday, June 16, 2002


Book bites

Staff writer
WORLD FOOD JAPAN, by John Ashburne and Yoshi Abe. Lonely Planet Publications, 2002, 288 pp., $13.99 (paper)

Primarily written as a culinary guide for tourists, "World Food Japan" is quite capable of adding spice to the lives of foreign residents of Japan -- and perhaps a few Japanese as well.

Organization is essential when tackling a subject this broad in a pocket-size book. Thankfully, the authors are more than up to the task, covering Japanese cuisine from all angles, including history, food staples, drinks, home cooking, foreign influences and regional specialties.

Glossy color photos bring nearly every page to life, and a comprehensive language section -- complete with a pronunciation guide, list of useful phrases, English-Japanese glossary and a Japanese culinary dictionary -- ensures that even the most linguistically challenged person will be able to order at a restaurant or buy food at a market without earning looks of bewilderment.

"The Culture of Japanese Cuisine" section highlights the history of Japanese food (Japanese were already enjoying sashimi in 7,500 B.C.; they must have been overjoyed when soy sauce finally arrived from China in 239 B.C.), food geography (did you know that Mito is the nation's fermented-bean capital?), and table manners (never point your chopsticks at someone -- doing so is akin to asking them to step outside!).

"Staples and Specialties" provides a primer on the basics of Japanese cuisine, removing the mystery from a trip to the supermarket. Here the secrets of miso, mirin, "men" (noodles), "mame" (beans) and countless other Japanese foods, fruits and vegetables are revealed.

Noting that alcohol is "the 'social lubricant' that dissolves the strictures of rule-bound Japanese society," the "Drinks of Japan" chapter provides you with enough sake knowledge to impress the locals in your neighborhood pub. And if that doesn't do the trick, you can recite words of rice-wine wisdom by writer Giichi Fujimoto:

Sake by daylight is cruel Sake by twilight is mellow Sake by midnight intoxicates Sake at dawn entrances

Visitors to Japan soon learn that every region -- and seemingly every village -- is known for a product or dish. Tracking down and testing these culinary claims to fame -- or "meibutsu" -- is a challenge, but the job is made easier by the "Regional Variations" section. Filled with "not to be missed" local specialties ranging from Hokkaido frozen "ruibe" salmon to succulent Okinawan "rafute," this chapter can turn a trip to any part of the archipelago into an alimentary adventure.

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