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June 21, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Seattle food-lover writes a “pretty good” Tokyo tour

File photo of Matthew and Iris Amster-Burton by Lara Ferroni/

File photo of Matthew and Iris Amster-Burton by Lara Ferroni/

Matthew Amster-Burton once wrote that he would be fine never leaving his home neighborhood of Capitol Hill. That’s where Amster-Burton, whose food-writing credits range from Pacific magazine’s Taste column to Gourmet, spent the bulk of his daughter Iris’s first years, along with his wife Laurie, taking them through eating experiences that he chronicled in the book “Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater.”

But he and his toddler used to play a game where they imagined they would visit Japan — until, at some point, it wasn’t a game. The pair spent a week in Tokyo when Iris was six, then returned last year with Laurie to spend a month exploring the city from their tiny apartment. They found Japanese leeks, mucilaginous junsai, savory okonomiyaki, restaurants specializing in barbecued eel or in nothing but tempura, melon-flavored Kit Kat bars, and octopus takoyaki balls cooked expertly by a toddler chef.

Amster-Burton wrote about it all in his latest book, “Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo,” which he published himself and funded through a Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure: I was one of the 381 backers.) It’s sort of a travel memoir, sort of a culinary guide, all-around funny — and a love letter that makes readers find the “misunderstood” city as entrancing as he does.

“Everyone knows you can fall in love with a place, but not everyone knows that Tokyo is one of those places,” he said.

He’ll read from the book at 4 p.m. June 23 at Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe (713 Broadway E.), before setting out on a national tour. Here’s a condensed, edited version of our recent conversation:

Q: I love eating Japanese food, but I never thought I’d want to visit Tokyo before reading the book. Now I really want to go. Was that your goal?

A: “That was absolutely my goal. Tokyo, despite being the world’s largest city, is an underappreciated — and, for people who don’t have a connection to it — largely unknown place. The images we get of it in the media are people responding to the latest natural disaster, people relaxing in a Japanese garden or temple context, or a Times Square-like neon lit ultra-urban landscape. I had been to Tokyo before taking this trip to write the book, and knew that my expereriences in Tokyo couldn’t be summed up by any of those things, even though they all have some truth to them. In the same way that Paris is a very comfortable, relaxing place to visit and a wonderful place to eat — Tokyo, to me, was like that, and yet more so, and nobody talked about it that way.”

Q: For Seattleites who can’t get to Tokyo but want to eat its food, where can they go?

A: I’ll give you a couple of places. It’s not about ‘this is the best Japanese food in Seattle,’ but ‘this is an experience very much like a food experience you would have in Japan. Two places that come to mind are U:Don in the University District, which is a cheap udon place catering to UW students. The creator of the place went to a week-long course on how to open your own udon restaurant in Japan, and has produced a perfect recreation of a Japanese udon chain restaurant…Another is Maekawa in the I.D., which is the most faithful (rendition of an) izakaya pub that I’ve been to in Seattle. It captures the varied menu and very informal food and drink and convivial atmosphere that you get at a good bar.”

Q: How about for home cooking?

A: “I love going to Uwajimaya even more now than I did before our trip. We had the Life supermarket down the street (in Tokyo) — in the book, I call it the world’s greatest supermarket, which is a joke, because it is the most ordinary possible Tokyo supermarket, but we loved the place so much. It was really like a miniature version of Uwajimaya. Japanese food just doesn’t require that many ingredients. It’s like five or six different basic flavorings, and once you have those things in your pantry you can use them to flavor all sorts of main ingredients, proteins, and vegetables. You are more likely to recreate the flavors of something you would eat in Japan in your own kitchen than by going to a Japanese restaurant.”

Q: As a food writer and eater, what got you interested in visiting Japan to start with?

A: “It depends how far back you want to go. As a kid, I thought Japanese food was a bad prank to torment kids. We did a Japan unit in our fourth grade class, and everyone had to taste sushi, and I thought it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever eaten. I concluded from there that I hated Japanese food, and didn’t really come around until I was in my twenties and went out with sushi-loving friends. And then when Iris was born, in 2003 — once she started on solid foods, it quickly became clear that Iris and I had a shared interest in Japanese food and both thought it was really great. When you have a kid, you need something to talk about, so we started planning this fantasy trip to Tokyo when she was 2. At some point it crossed the line from ‘This is something we talk about on the way to preschool’ to ‘Hey, we could save money, and actually do this.’ We got that trip, just me and Iris, for a week when she was 6. That’s when we fell in love with Tokyo and knew we wanted to go back.”

Q: And will you go back again?

A: “I had this mental list of places to visit. ‘I want to go to Tokyo, but I also want to go to Italy, I want to go to Spain.’ After going to Tokyo, I saw everything else on the list get crossed off and replaced with ‘go back to Tokyo.’ Nothing went quite the way we expected, but everything was great.”

Q: It really struck me when you said that your Tokyo neighborhood made your Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, look like a food desert. How is that possible?

A: “It’s really unimaginable until you see it. The density of restaurants in Tokyo makes New York look like a place without enough food. This is not an exaggeration. Tokyo is very densely populated, and people love to go out to eat, and the restaurants tend to be very small and very specialized…(and) eating out is relatively inexpensive. When people entertain, people don’t have people over to their homes very much in Tokyo because the homes are very small, so they’ll meet at a restaurant.”

Q: You had already published a successful book with a major publisher. Why move from that to self-publishing?

A: “(Hungry Monkey) did pretty well because of the luck of good timing, in part, and having a subject with broad appeal. If you like to eat and you have a kid, there’s probably something in Hungry Monkey that will resonate with you. This is more of a niche book… when I was writing it, I thought, this book is going to appeal powerfully to some smaller group of people. As a writer, I’m fine with that and I’m happy with that — if one person reads my book and loves, it, terrific — but I also knew it meant Houghton Mifflin was less likely to jump on it, and, indeed, they didn’t. My agent said, ‘Do you want me to shop it around to smaller publishers, maybe one that publishes books about Asia?’ I said ‘No, I think I want to try something different.’ That’s when Laurie and I started to talk about what would be involved in self-publishing…To publish a good book requires a professional copy editor and a professional designer, and those things cost money. The question became, do we want to use our savings to fund the production of this book, that could end up selling two copies, or is there another way to do this, to raise interest in the book before publication, to raise some money and gauge the market for it before going ahead with it? Kickstarter ended up being a really good way to do that.”

Q: Who supported you on Kickstarter?

A: “I don’t know exactly how it breaks down, but there were basically three groups of people who supported the Kickstarter. There were friends and family who just like me. There were people who know my food writing, or who have read Hungry Monkey and knew who I was. Then there were people who just stumbled across the project on Kickstarter or the blog of someone who linked to it. I believe no two of those groups put together could have put together enough money, it required all three of them.”

Q: Did I hear that someone visited Tokyo with nothing but “Pretty Good Number One” as his guide to eating?

A: “I have no way to verify that what he said was true, but I got a very plausible e-mail from a fan saying he had been thinking about going to Tokyo for a while and reading the book pushed him over…he re-read the book on the plane as his only guidebook, and ate fabulously.”

Comments | Topics: culinary memoir, food writer, Iris Amster-Burton


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