Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books)

Whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, the country that lies below India, adjoins China, and borders Thailand, is a huge collection of highly diverse ethnic groups, each with their own customs and cuisine. “A cultural crossroads,” says Naomi Duguid, in her latest compendium of recipes, photographs, and stories, Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

Duguid has spent decades traveling through Asia with her family, steeping herself in daily life and learning different forms of home cooking. She first went to Burma over thirty years ago and has spent time roaming around the country, leaving the cities to learn the flavors of the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine. Her photographs are generous in showing who she met and what she saw; her stories are enticing glimpses of a place that remains largely untraveled. From monasteries to market towns, from the serenity of 15th century temples to the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, Duguid goes there and takes us with her.

But the glory of her books lies in the food she shares through recipes—and her latest is perhaps the most accessible to the Western cook. In common with their Southeast Asian neighbors, cooks in Burma use fish sauce and chilies and a multiplicity of fresh herbs. But the preparation involved is much easier, with fewer steps involved than in many Southeast Asian dishes—and the flavors encompass the Subcontinent and China too, with a distinctive local flair.

“Classic Sour Soup” is made with a fish stock, tamarind pulp, and bok choi—but “in Mandalay,” Duguid tells us, “…when the tall kapok trees are in bloom, cooks add their velvety, faded-red flowers.” Not a flavor the average cook will employ but will yearn to taste—this is Naomi Duguid’s trademark, to make home cooks long to leave their kitchens and eat in other places.

Bland potatoes become incendiary when a Rakhine cook is finished with them—first she boils them and then tosses them in a fiery shallot oil that’s been pumped up with lots of chilies. It’s a potato salad that will spice up potluck picnics in an unforgettable fashion.

And she tells how to make the country’s most famous dish—mohinga, a fish soup that is far more complicated than most of the other recipes but so very much worth the time and effort that it requires. With her customary generosity, Duguid gives both the Rakhine and the Rangoon versions of this –and tells a story attesting to the regional loyalty toward this “classic breakfast food.” Apparently no region can stomach another’s mohinga, which makes at least one prospective eater want to embark on a mohinga tour of Burma.

Duguid’s new book is a smaller size than her earlier ones, which makes it easier to use in the kitchen—and it is certain to be used. Perhaps more than any other cuisine she has explored, Burma’s is the most user-friendly to the Western cook, with hearty cold-weather dishes of stews and chutneys as well as salads, crepes, and desserts for lighter meals.

But when her book is first opened, it will keep readers going from picture to story to recipe, exploring Burma for hours in the company of a woman who is eager to share it. Burma: Rivers of Flavor may be the cheapest ticket to another country that you will ever buy.~Janet Brown

A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (Lyons Press)

The trouble with a cookbook, any cookbook, is that it arranges food according to a theme—one of the four seasons, one of the three meals, one of the world’s countries or regions, one of the multitudes of weight-loss regimens—and that isn’t the way people think about food. Memory is the province of food. Just ask Proust as he brandishes his madeleine.

The most satisfying way to think about food is during a conversation with a good friend. And when you pick up A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (or Susie as she introduces herself to readers at the book’s beginning) that’s exactly what’s offered—if your good friend happens to be the granddaughter of a Chinese financier, millionaire, and “mobster (probably),” the daughter of the man who practically invented the coffee –table book in all of its sumptuous glory, and an adventurous eater whose tastes embrace the cuisine of every country on the planet.

Approach this book with the advice Susie Chang gives her children—“Try One Bite.” Whether it’s paella or phad thai, scallion pancakes or stroopwafels, you’re going to find something that you’ve never tasted before and certainly never dreamed of cooking, or drinking either. No matter if it’s a Basil Mojito, a Lavender Vodka tonic, or the non-alcoholic Longest Day Tea, this lady is going to convince you to make and sip a “Garden in a Glass.” After all, she’s the kind of friend who confesses to “standing clueless in the pantry at 4:30, thinking wistful thoughts about beer, and walk to the table with a meal for six an hour and a half later.” Sound familiar to you? Oh no,not me either…

At times Susie Chang seems formidable. She’s the kind of mother who has been known to spend half an hour making steamed eggs or a soufflé omelet for a very young son who would eat eggs in no other form until she introduced him to egg crepes with truffle oil. But she becomes less terrifying when she provides no-hassle recipes for apple sauce, pumpkin bread, or a cold mixed-berry soup for those days when cooking is the last thing on anybody’s mind. She admits to almost committing arson with a funnel cake and to succumbing to a mint ice cream addiction—yes, she will tell you how to make both of these indulgences—as well as how to cook pilfered chanterelles with roasted monkfish and garlic chives. “It was good enough to be a last meal on Death Row…amorallydelectable.”

She’s the kind of friend who assumes nothing and tells all—how to clean a monkfish, how to use a knife, how to cook rice, how to make a simple syrup, how to roll jiao zie, the traditional New Year’s dumpling, in three easy steps, with photographs. And she doesn’t ignore her single friends—there are six glorious recipes that will make a number of meals for one solitary eater, including an enticing chocolate mousse that “serves one on a bad day.” I tell you, you have to love this woman.

Hungry for Braised Chinese-Restaurant-Style Spareribs? Daunted by the thought of tracking down ‘the Elusive Red Bean Curd?” Look for it in “the Scary Inscrutable Jars section” of an Asian grocery, and if you “just can’t find it, make the recipe anyway.” Want Thai food without leaving the house? Yam Neua is worth the “tearful complications” of slicing those lethal little bird chiles and the four or five shallots. “Mere flickers of agitation,” Susie Chang warns the unwary cook, “could prove incendiary.”

A Spoonful of Promises offers more than recipes. It is studded with wit—“There’s nothing wrong with canned pumpkin puree, other than it lacks poetry.” An essay about saffron leads to an insightful examination of living with an aging father, and the unfading presence of a mother who died young pervades the page of this book, evoked in tender stories and the fragrance of baked apples. “We are dreamed of by our parents and remembered by our children,” is a sentence that is a gift. There are many gifts in Susie Chang's collection of stories and recipes. Read her words and savor them all.—Janet Brown

This review originally appeared in The International Examiner.

Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White (University of California Press)

Starbucks has given Seattle a reputation for coffee worldwide, providing standardized espresso drinks and clean restrooms all across the globe. In much of Asia, especially in China, the Pacific Northwest chain has become a chic place to sit and sip—but not in Japan.

Merry White begins her examination of coffeehouses in Japan with memories of “the Vienna, a four-story velvet extravaganza, where kaffe Wien was served with Mozart, amid gilt chairs and filigreed balconies,” of “a neighborhood café, redolent of male friendship, old cigarettes, and smelly feet,” and a “a half-underground, cavelike café” where customers removed all of their clothes, were daubed with blue paint and then were urged to press their bodies against sheets of white paper hanging from the walls. This was in Tokyo in the 1960s, when Howard Schultz was still drinking milk in elementary school and most coffee-drinkers in Seattle still used a percolator.

Japan enthusiastically took to coffee in 1888, when the first coffeehouse emerged in Tokyo, established by a cosmopolite Japanese who had been adopted by a man from Taiwan, was raised to speak four languages, and was sent to Yale University when he was sixteen. Although this initial foray into coffee culture went bankrupt (its founder died seven years later in Seattle), Meiji-era Japan perceived coffee drinking as a modern virtue and the café as an intriguing personal space in a country where this came at a premium. “Coffee,” White explains, “became Japanese quickly…From the early 1900s, coffee, a drink for everyday, became a commonplace and Japanese beverage.”

And the beverage was powered by the places where it was enjoyed. With its ‘dry inebriation,” coffee “was seen also as the drink of thoughtfulness,” providing a way to be “private in public.” While in the West, coffeehouses were gathering places of extroverted sociability, in Japan they became an essential “third place,” spots where pressures of home and work were escaped for a time, where private space could be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee.

As places where people are free to interact or not as they choose, Japanese coffeehouses became “shape- shifters.”  There are cafés for every facet of a personality—places to be anonymous and quiet, places to see art, places to hear jazz, places that serve as classical music venues where patrons request that certain record albums be played as they sit silently sipping their coffee, places where tiny fish nibble the submerged bare feet of coffee drinkers, and of course the neighborhood spots where “everybody knows your name.”

The Japanese café is not a matter of style over substance. The drinking of coffee is a paramount consideration and each cup is often hand-crafted--kodawari., or the art of dedication, is essential. The beans are often roasted in the coffeehouse, with a particular bean often ordered ahead of time by a customer, and are ground for that serving alone, as soon as the order has been placed. The water is poured over the ground beans in a slow and meticulous stream of carefully-placed drips, only after it has been cooled from its boiling point to the proper temperature. The freshly-ground coffee is moistened without the water ever touching the sides of the filter. “Coffee masters” often disdain espresso machines, preferring the time-honored drip from a narrow-spouted kettle over a filter made of flannel. One master is known for evicting from his shop customers who ask for cream and sugar to put in the coffee he makes—“he would have made it stronger or hotter, or with a different bean, if sugar or milk were needed.”

Small wonder that the Japanese art of coffee is spreading throughout the world. Suzuki beans and cafés are found throughout Southeast Asia and Japanese coffee-making methods are being taught in the U.S. from New York City to San Francisco. Perhaps Seattle, with its resurging Nihonmachi, will eventually lead the way for coffee drinkers to experience the full spectrum of public caffeination as it’s described in Coffee Life in Japan.~Janet Brown

Seven Reasons to Go Travelling Solo by Chris Mitchell

If there is one quibble I have with this book (and there is only one), it is with its title.

Please be warned: this book is limited neither to solo travelers nor to first-time passport-users. Anyone and everyone is going to find useful information in here, no matter how many visa stamps they may have accumulated over the years or how many companions they have traveled with. This is one of the most useful travel tools that has come down the pike since the compass was invented, trust me.

I was skeptical at first. I always travel alone and have for decades—what could this book tell me? Quite a bit, as it turns out, and I’m willing to bet that every reader is going to come away with more information than they had when they began to read the first of the seven tips. And this is information that’s fun to read, like a chat with the author over an ice-cold Asahi draft (and yes, I am fully qualified to make that comparison.)

“Travel is a jolt to the soul”—this quote from Kevin Kelly sets the tone for this book, with Mitchell later observing that travel can, as the cliché says, broaden your mind but it can also change your mind. He’s living proof of that himself; his travel lust has endowed him with a new home in the world, a new livelihood, and a delightful enthusiasm for seeing new places that permeates every page of his book.

From how to maintain a long-distance relationship while on a trip of some duration to how to travel with a laptop without suffering unforeseen disasters, how to travel in a country without knowing the language and still make friends with the residents, how to budget for a trip without living on ramen for a year, how to survive an airport (keep that ticket stub!), how to make money while you travel without violating the terms of a tourist visa, how to avoid unpleasant last-minute carry-on restrictions—it’s all here. Mitchell provides links to sites that will “monetize” a travel blog, sites that offer “microjobs,” sites that find cheap airfares, and of course a link to TravelHappy at the end of each chapter, along with the site’s cheery and distinctive logo.

Although his title targets the solo traveler, Mitchell assures his readers “you won’t be alone for long.” “Become comfortable with the unfamiliar,” he advises, “Step up and speak to the locals….90% of communication is body language.” An advocate of learning key phrases, most notably “please, thank you and excuse me,” and not being afraid to make a fool of yourself through pantomime when there’s no other way to get the point across, Mitchell makes it clear that lack of language should be no barrier to having a good time.

For all that he knows how to use the internet for fun and profit, Chris Mitchell is in some ways a traditionalist. “Always carry a pen and paper,” he urges—taxi instructions written in the local language can make the difference between enjoyment and disaster. (It’s also true that in some countries, different accents in English can impede communication, while the written word can prove to be completely comprehensible.) And when packing, he reminds readers, “Good old paperback books have no battery problems and are still lightweight.”

Readers are given links to TravelHappy pages where all of the book’s travel resources are listed for easy reference and a place where free updated information will be posted. These alone are worth the price of the book, as are Mitchell’s final words of advice to prospective travelers, “Don’t wait.”

(For how to purchase this book, go to http://travelhappy.info/ )~Janet Brown

Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent (Harper)

This is a title for all those kids who were adoptees and may have faced having an identity crisis at one time or another from not knowing their biological parents.  Although I’m not an adoptee, I couldn’t pass up this book with its interesting title.  However, on a personal note, I met a friend of my sister’s who was going on her own around-the-world solo tour; one of her destinations was a small town in Korea.  Like the protagonist of this book, she also was an adoptee from Korea and decided to go in search of her roots.

Drummer Joseph Calderaro is one mixed-up kid!  Why is that you ask?  Because he has one serious problem.  Joseph is fourteen and is in the 8th grade and his social studies teacher has just handed out an assignment to the class – to write an essay about your ancestors.

Since Joseph has an Italian-American family, this wouldn’t seem to be too much of a problem.  But he was adopted.  The only thing he knows about his biological parents is that “they shipped his diapered butt on a plane from Korea and he landed in New Jersey.”  How is an adopted Korean boy going to write about his family or ancestors he’s never met?

At home, for Joseph’s fourteenth birthday, his father has given him a Corno, a goat horn that Italian men wear for good luck.  His father explains that it’s to protect against malocchio, the “Evil Eye”.  However, Joseph shows no excitement and refuses to wear it.  He makes up some excuse for his father but really he feels that the guys in his class would think it’s weird. If they knew what a cornois, it probably meant that they’re Italian and would wonder why some Korean kid would be wearing this around his neck.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Joseph’s friend Nash has a great idea.  He suggests to Joseph to look up his ancestors on the internet.  Joseph thought that might be easier than asking his parents for help.  His dad is not pleased with Joseph’s reaction to the corno and when he tries to talk with this mother about his adoption, she always breaks down in tears.  His parents had told him about the day he became part of the Calderaro family.  But what they never told him, was his “MBA – Me Before America”.  His mother had only told him, back when he was in the third grade, that his biological mother had named him Duk-kee and Park was added by the adoption agency.

While Joseph is still worried about writing his essay, the only thing his friend Nash discovers is that Pusan had a record rain fall on the day that Joseph was born.  Thinking of ways to expand his report to 1500 words, Joseph decides to head to his local library.  At the same time, he runs an errand for his mother, taking towels from his mother’s business, a hair salon called Shear Impressions, to the Jiffy Wash Laundry.  Joseph is surprised to find out the owners of Jiffy Wash have sold their business and will be moving to Florida.  He gets another surprise when the current owner mentions that the new owners are Korean!

There is also a new student at school who is in Joseph’s band class.  One look at the new boy and Joseph just knows that he is Korean too.  The following day Joseph is once again the “towel boy” for his mother and heads to Jiffy Wash.  As he opens the door there he runs into the new kid.  Joseph introduces himself and says that they’re in the same band class.  New Kid says his name is Yongsu Han.

When Yongsu calls his “Uhmma” and a Korean lady comes into the room, Joseph figures that “Uhmma” must mean Mom.  When Yongsu’s mother greets Joseph with “Ahn nyong has seh yoh?”, not only does it make Joseph feel a little insecure, he suddenly feels totally out of place.  It doesn’t help matters any when he’s asked if his mother is Korean.  Once he explains that he was adopted he feels like Yongsu’s mother sees him in a different light – a fake Korean who doesn’t speak or understand the language.  The only thing Joseph wants is to get the heck out of Jiffy Wash as fast as he can, but it also makes him want to know more about his Korean heritage.

Back home, Joseph looks through a book on Korean history that he borrowed from the library.  Although he becomes familiar with Korean history from the Yi Dynasty up until the Korean War, he can’t figure a way to making the history a part of his heritage.  Then he comes upon a picture of a man wearing a Gold Medal.  The caption says his name was Sohn Kee Chung who represented Japan during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

A light bulb goes off in Joseph’s head.  He now knows who and how he is  going to write that essay.  Joseph titles his essay “A Medal for Speed and a Life of Honor: My Grandpa Sohn”.  Little does he know, this little white lie will lead to an even bigger problem.  His teacher announces to the class that his essay was chosen to be entered in a National Essay contest!  What is Joseph going to do now?

But I wouldn’t want to spoil the entire story for those who may have had a similar experience.  I think this would be a great story for anyone who was adopted and suffers from having an identity crisis at one point in their life.  Joseph was lucky enough to become part of a loving family and yet, not knowing his heritage seems to have left a little hole in his life.  Although I am not an adoptee, I am the product of a mixed marriage and was brought up bi-culturally, so I can understand wanting to know my own family’s heritage.  Even if you are not an adoptee, it’s a very heartwarming story and you can’t help but feel for Joseph and his growing pains.

Sushi & Beyond : What the Japanese know about Cooking by Michael Booth (Vintage Books)

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you’re asked about Japanese cuisine?  The most obvious answer is found in the title above; I imagine most people would say “sushi”.  But Booth hasn’t written a guide book to sushi and the best places to eat it.  Look at the “& Beyond” and know that there is going to be more than sushi involved in Booth’s exploration of Japanese cookery.

The book starts out with a conversation Booth has with a friend at a restaurant in Normandy called Sa.Qua.Na—but to call this a conversation is a bit tame, Booth trades insults with Toshi, a half-Japanese, half-Korean man who is his fellow-student at the Paris Cordon Bleu.  Booth lightly compares the food of Sa.Qua.Na’s chef to that of Japan’s, knowing that the chef had worked in Japan for a few years.  This sets Toshi off, saying, “What you know about Japan food?  You think you know anything about Japan food?  Only in Japan!  You can not taste it here in Europe.  This man is nothing like Japan food.  Where is tradition?  Where is season?  Where is meaning?...”

Booth’s retort was just as impassioned, if not a bit juvenile – “I know enough about it to know how dull it is…What have you got?  Raw fish, noodles, deep-fried vegetables – and you stole all that from that from Thailand, the Chinese, the Portuguese.  Doesn’t matter though, does it?  You just dunk it in soy sauce and it all tastes the same, right?  Ooh, don’t tell me, cod sperm and whale meat.  Mmm, gotta get me some of those.”

I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be an interesting book after all but my worries were put to rest.  After these two adversaries graduate, Toshi gives Booth a book entitled “Japanese Cooking : A Simple Art” by Shizuo Tsuji.  After reading this, Booth decides to head over to the Land of the Rising Sun to see what all the fuss is about.

His plan is to try a bit of everything there is to eat, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, taking his wife and two young kids with him. Their first stop of course is Tokyo where they rent a small apartment and venture into the culinary heart of Japan in Shinjuku’s famous “Shoben Yokocho.” This translates to “Piss Alley” and it is full of small yakitori shops. Here Booth finds more than just chicken breast on skewers—there’s nankotsu (cartilage), bonjiri (chicken butt), hatsu (chicken hearts).  They go to Ryogoku, Tokyo’s home to sumo wrestlers and also home to an array ofchanko nabe (one- pot stews) shops run and owned by former sumo wrestlers.  Booth interviews Japan’s top chefs and checks out a few restaurants that many Japanese cannot get a reservation to enter. But this isn’t what he really wants. He yearns to make some Japanese dishes for himself and then eat them.

In order to reach this goal, Booth signs up for a couple of cooking classes and also takes a tour of Japan’s two top cooking schools.  The Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori, run by Dr Yukio Hattori in the Kanto area which encompasses Tokyo, and the Tsuji Culinary Institute which was founded by the author of “Japanese Cooking” – Shizuo Tsuji— and is currently run by his son in the Kansai area.

But Booth can’t mention sushi without taking a tour of Japan’s busiest fish market – Tsukiji.  He fills us in on the seafood of Hokkaido, the fugu (puffer fish) of Shimonoseki, Kobe beef, wagyu, and how miso is made. He takes a tour of one of Kikkoman’s factories that makes soy sauce, discusses the controversy surrounding MSG, checks out the food- stall culture of Fukuoka in Kyushu, dines on a kaiseki meal in Kyoto and even manages to dine at the extra- exclusive, members- only restaurant called Mibu, “the place that made Joel Robuchon weep and humbled Ferran Adria.”

Anyone who claims to be a “foodie” or a gourmand and sees those two names in the same sentence is definitely going to want to read this book…and will enjoy it.  I know I did!  by Ernie Hoyt

チーズケーキの旅 by 山本ゆりこ (女子栄養大学出版部)  [Cheesecake no Tabi] by Yuriko Yamamoto (Joshi Eiyo Daigaku Shuppan-bu)

This book is available only in Japanese.

WARNING!  This book may cause extreme hunger if read on an empty stomach!

In my opinion, one of the joys of life is eating dessert!  And because my favorite dessert just happens to be cheesecake, I had to read this book, with its title easily translated into English as “A Cheesecake Journey”.  Yuriko Yamamoto is a graduate of the Kagawa Nutrition University who moves to Paris and continues her studies at the prestigious Ritz Escoffier School and Le Cordon Bleu. There she receives Le Grand Diplome, and continues to hone her skills at Michelin three- star restaurants and hotels.  Having spent many years living in France, Yuriko has the opportunity to travel throughout Europe.  Although she always assumed that cheesecake was an American dessert, as she journeys to different countries, she finds that almost every country has their own style of cheesecake and cheese-filled desserts.

First she takes us to the country where cheesecake originated – Greece.  It may come as a shock to us Americans, but the first mention of cheesecake in history was served to the athletes in the first- ever Olympic games, long before our nation was even considered a country. There elderly Greek women tell Yuriko that if she wants cheesecake in Greece, she should come three weeks before Apokries (Carnival) in which the third week is called “Cheese Week”.  Before leaving Greece, Yamamoto purchases a book and reads that in Crete, they make a cheese similar to the ricotta cheese of Italy and that they also make cheesecake there as well.  Perhaps Crete should be her next destination, she decides.

However, instead she finds herself traveling through the Russian Federation and Central and Eastern Europe.  This is where the heart of the book truly shines as she features full color pictures of the cheesecakes and cheese- related desserts she comes across.

This book reads more like an illustrated guide to the cheesecakes of Europe.  We are introduced to the Polish sernik polski, the Bulgarian banitsa, Russian blinisand paskha, Austrian topfenrouladen, just to name a few—including dishes made with the dessert cheese,mascarpone.  And of course, since Yuriko lived in France, much of her book is filled with recipes from that country.

Once you’ve had your fill of this book, you may want to treat yourself to a nice big slice of New York- style cheesecake, perhaps with a raspberry or blueberry sauce topping.  As for me, well, there is the “Cheesecake Factory” in my neighborhood that features an all-you-can-eat buffet…of cheesecakes!  I kid you not. There goes my diet.  Ernie Hoyt

孤独の中華そば「江ぐち」by 久住昌之 (牧野出版) Kodoku no Chuka Soba [Eguchi] by Masayuki Kusumi (Makino Publishing)

If I were to translate the title of this book into English, it would be “The Lonely Noodle Shop [Eguchi]”.  If I were to directly translate the title into English, it would be “The Lonely Chinese Noodle Shop [Eguchi]”.  However, the shop is neither lonely, nor does it feature Chinese noodles.  It’s a small neighborhood ramen shop.  Of course there will be those who would argue that ramen is a Chinese noodle but we will leave that debate for another time.

This book is the culmination of a previously out of print book that featured the ramen shop [Eguchi] which was originally published in 1984 and had the extremely long title of 「近くへ行きたい。秘境としての近所―舞台は“江ぐち”とゆうラーメン屋」which translates to something like “I want to go near (or “I don’t want to go far”), an unexplored region of my neighborhood, the stage is a ramen shop called “Eguchi.”  With a title as long as that, it’s no wonder the book went out of print.

If you live in Japan, you will discover there seems to be an infinite number of ramen shops to choose from.  There may be thousands in Tokyo alone.  Unlike the versions found in the States, a lot of the ramen shops have only a counter space with a maximum capacity for maybe ten people.  Some are located in residential areas, or as the original title suggests, in an unexplored region of a neighborhood.  This is the story of just one of them – a ramen shop called Eguchi,the people who work there, the regular customers, including Kusumi himself and his friends who gather there for drinks and snacks.  And of course it’s about the ramen as well.

So why has this book just been reprinted twenty-six years after its first incarnation?  When Kusumi was 26, he was not yet into his third year as a manga artist working for a magazine called “Garo” in which he also had a regular column.  He wrote about his neighborhood ramen shop in three consecutive issues of Garo, one of his editors really enjoyed the pieces, and suggested he write a book about that particular ramen shop, Eguchi.  So he did, without the consent of the ramen shop or staff, giving them pseudonyms that he came up with--Onigawara (Ogre), Akuma (Satan), and Takuya (because Takuya looked like his younger brother, also named Takuya).  He imagined their lives and their personalities, but what he was most detailed about was the layout of the ramen shop, the ramen itself, as well as the three employees who seemed to work on a rotating basis there.

He also wrote about his friends who would join him for a bowl of ramen or a beer at Eguchi--his college senpai (older classmate) who was two years older than he was, his childhood buddy, his high school classmate,  and an older high school friend. He fills us in on other regulars whom he and his friends give nicknames to, such as “the man with the big hair” or the part-time worker they called Okami-san (Matron), and the man they thought might be the owner Tadanao Eguchi, (they were not sure how to read the kanji of his name and if he was the owner or not), who didn’t work at the shop but always brought the freshly made noodles.  Kusumi writes in detail about the way Onigawara, Akuma, and Takuya prepare their ramen, saying sometimes the flavor could be hit or miss, that one bowl was never quite the same as the next.  The book includes rough sketches of the shop as well as caricatures of all the people involved.

But the book didn’t keep Kusumi from remaining a regular customer there.  With a bit of fear and trepidation, he returned to his favorite neighborhood ramen shop time and time again.  Not once did any of the three staff members  ever mention anything about what he had written.

And now for the reason why the book has been reprinted.  Kusumi, now in his forties and no longer living in the neighborhood, still treated himself to a bowl of ramen at Eguchi whenever his work or time allowed him to visit his old neighborhood.  The final half of the book was compiled from blog pieces that he wrote between the ages of 42 and 51, relating to his favorite place to eat ramen. The biggest news was in the final piece-- after having been open for business for twenty-six years, Eguchi was closing its doors for good at the end of January, 2010.  It seems the owner had passed away in his bathtub and there was no one to renew the contract for the shop.

This is as much fun to read as any piece of fiction, (well, admittedly the stories in the beginning of the book behind the main characters who ran the ramen shop were a product of Kusumi’s imagination), filled with the undeniable love Kusumi had for this shop and its ramen, and the people who made it.

After moving to Tokyo, I too had my favorite haunts where I was also welcomed as a regular customer.  Even if I ventured out on my own, I would always find a friend or acquaintance either eating or drinking at one of the places I frequented.  However, unlike Kusumi, I usually became friends with the manager or owner of the establishments I went to.  Americans might have a hard time understanding the intricacies of becoming a regular at a small joint but it does give you a peek into a lesser known part of the Japanese culture.  マスター、付けといて!(Master, put it on my bill!)  by Ernie Hoyt

This book has been published in Japanese text only.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood (HarperCollins)

What does a former executive of a multi-national corporation like Microsoft have to do with Asia?  Everything!  After spending nearly nine years in the fast lane, with almost all of that time heading up the ladder at Microsoft by working long hours and foregoing extended holidays, John Wood thought it was about time to slow down just a little and take an extended break from the rat race.  His vacation led him to the mountains of Nepal where there were no phones, no internet service providers, no meetings, no commutes and absolutely no connection to the rest of the business world.

On the first day of his three- week trek in the Himalayas, at a small lodge, an eight- year- old boy offers Wood a drink.  Wood asks if they have beer. The boy replies yes, and rushes off to get him a bottle of Tuborg, as if he ran the lodge himself, then apologizes for the beer being warm— but he has an idea!  He asks Wood to wait for ten minutes as he takes the bottle to the nearby river and submerges it into the cold water spawned from glaciers.

Wood says to a local man who watched this exchange in amusement, “Who needs a refrigerator?” This quip begins a conversation that will change Wood’s life.

Pasupathi, the man whom Wood meets at the lodge, is the “district resource person for Lamjung Province,” whose job is to find resources for seventeen isolated schools. The children are eager to learn but there is no money to invest in schools or school supplies.  Some villages have a primary school which teaches only up to Grade 5; if students want to continue their education, they have to walk two hours to the nearest secondary school.  However, families are so poor that children are needed to help with farm work which helps to account for Nepal’s nearly 70% illiteracy rate. Pasupathi says to Wood, “I am the education resource person, yet I have hardly any sources”.

Wood asks to see the school that Pasupathi is on his way to visit and the next day the two men set off on a three-hour trek. At the school Wood is shown a first-grade class with nearly 70 students in a room that can hold barely half that number.  He is taken to eight more classrooms all crowded with eager students who stand in greeting and yell “Good morning, sir” in unison, using perfect English.  The final room Wood sees has a sign on the door that says SCHOOL LIBRARY.  However, the room is empty except for an outdated world map on the wall that still shows countries like the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Yugoslavia.  In his most polite manner, Wood says, “This is a beautiful library.  Thank you for showing it to me.  I have only one question.  Where, exactly, are your books?”

The few books the school has are locked in a cabinet so the students won’t damage them. The library features “The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia”, “Finnegan’s Wake”, an Umberto Eco novel in the original Italian, and other books forgotten or abandoned by backpackers.  Wood asks the headmaster how many students are enrolled in the school and is informed there are 450!  The headmaster notices Wood’s surprise and says, “Yes, I can see that you also realize this is a very big problem.  We wish to inculcate in our students the habit of reading.  But that is impossible when this is all we have. Perhaps, sir, you will one day come with books” And this is where the story begins.

Back in his room after his long trek, the thought of those 450 kids without books will not leave Wood’s mind and he sends an e-mail to all his friends on Hotmail. The message is short and simple. He has found a school that needs books and desks. He will donate the desks.  Please send books, he asks—and he gives his parents’ address for his friends to send what they can.

Wood tells his parents to expect the arrival of several hundred books—he soon receives a message from his father that says 3000 books have arrived with more coming every day—come home and help us with this. Wood obeys.

Such is the beginning of “Books for Nepal”.  Wood gives up his position at Microsoft and begins to build a nonprofit organization from the ground up, learning how to sell himself and his  ideas to gain sponsors and how to run fundraising events. His business background is an asset; “Books for Nepal” is so successful that Wood expands into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Laos. He changes the name of his nonprofit as it grows beyond Nepal, and so sprouts “Room to Read.”

Anybody who loves books as much as I do will find this book inspirational and thoroughly absorbing. Those who want to support “Room to Read” can find more information here.  by Ernie Hoyt

世界のどこかで居候 by 中山茂and 坂口克 (人力社)「Sekai no Dokokade Isourou」by Shigeo Nakayama and Katsumi Sakaguchi (Jinrikisha)

“Isourou” – a difficult word to translate in English.  I went through a number of dictionaries searching for a word that would closely describe the form of travel that that author Shigeo Nakayama and cameraman Katsumi Sakaguchi created.  I also checked with a few online dictionaries and most of them gave the same answer – “to lodge” or “lodging” which is close to what the two were doing but not exactly.  A closer approximation would be “home stay”, but “home stay” usually applies to students and these two are far beyond their university years.  One online dictionary gave the exact definition of what they were doing – “lodger who pays nothing for room and board”, but the other definitions that followed were “freeloader” and “sponger”. So the closest translation of the book title would be Lodging for Free Somewhere Around the World.

Four years!  Eight countries!  Nakayama and Sakaguchi traveled around the world between the years 2004 and 2008.  They set a standard rule for lodging with strangers.  They would stay for no more than a week.  They would not schedule their trip to coincide with any events or festivals, and they would not ask for anything in return, only for the families to live their everyday lives as if they weren’t there.  They would sleep in the same rooms, eat the same foods, and work in the fields with their hosts.  And there would be no guide or interpreters during their stay.

Choosing how long they would stay with each family was another factor they had to decide before leaving.  In Nakayama’s own words, “if the stay is too short, it wouldn’t be considered lodging.  If the stay is too long, we would be wearing out our welcome.”  One week seemed perfect.  As Nakayama also says, “the first day you would be considered honored guests.  The second day, the children would start to get used to you, by the third day, it would make no difference if you were there or not”.  It was Nakayama and Sakaguchi’s goal to reach this point, at which time they believed that the families would start telling them their true thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Nakayama says every country seems to have a distinct smell.  For example, Korea has the smell of kimchee.  France has the smell of cheese.  Thailand has the smell of fish sauce.  Egypt has the smell of antique books.  For Mongolia, Nakayama says that the country’s odor is of feet!  And this is the first country where their “lodging for free” experiment would start.  The first family they lodged with were nomads living in a yurt on the great plains two hours away by jeep from the capitol of Ulan Bator.  A few years before, the Mongolian government had given this family the ownership and responsibility for watching over one hundred head of livestock. The family was well-known in the area for being one of the few that included a yak in their herd.  As to the reference of “smelling like feet”, Nakayama says it came from the various homes airing out their socks that most families wear for a week or more.  In Mongolia, it is the custom to build a new yurt for newlyweds, and during their weeklong stay, Nakayama and Sakaguchi would help build one for the son of their host family who had recently gotten married.

The next country where they “lodged without paying for room or board” was on the Saudi peninsula of Yemen.  The first thing they learned about this country is that there is no true government.  Of course there is a central government based in the capital of Sana’a, but its main purpose seems to be dealing with foreign affairs.  Yemen is a tribal country and an Islamic society.  It took Nakayama and Sakaguchi a little while to get used to the qat- chewing(similar to the coca leaf of South America but the qat is legal in Yemen), Kalishnikov- carrying men, who also were equipped with a jambiya (dagger with a short curved blade).

Following Yemen, the pair lodged with tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, stayed with a family in Ladakh, in the state of Kashmir in India, spent a week in the Atlas Mountains and another week lodging with a family living in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.  They also lived with a family whose home was in one of the floating villages of the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia.  The final country where they became lodgers was in Nepal, at Galegaon, a community known for its village tourism and adventure trekking.

Sakaguchi’s full color pictures, along with Nakayama’s illustrations of the various homes around the world that sheltered these travelers make this one entertaining book.  They  give us a peek at what ordinary life is like in some of the most unlikely places.  Overcoming language barriers, eating unfamiliar foods, they give us a small glimpse into how diverse the cultures of our world really are.  The pair discovered that people are alike everywhere. All whom they stayed with welcomed their guests as family once they became accustomed to the novelty of having strangers lodge in their homes, which I think says a great thing about humanity.  by Ernie Hoyt

(This book is only available in Japanese.)

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa (Riverhead Books)

In a world where few corners contain a road less traveled, Bhutan is still not a key destination  on the backpacker trail. It is famous for its beauty and its spot on the happiness index, which is just another way of evoking Shangri-La.

When Jamie Zeppa went there as a volunteer English teacher, she detested the place. A chicken effortlessly demolished her high-tech flashlight, the gas stove terrified her, and the children she taught all seemed to have the same name. She lived on cookies and counted the days before she could escape back home to Canada, but her small students had other ideas. Taking her in hand, they brought her fresh food, taught her to use a pressure cooker, and helped her learn to love the village life. Then she was transferred.

In a university setting, Jamie has all the comforts she has learned to live without, from a garden apartment to sliced bread. Her students are all fluent in English and fall into her own age-group. As she helps them discover the intricacies of Macbeth, they give her inklings into the political disruptions that lurk beneath the idyllic surface of the country she has learned to love.

People from the north of Bhutan mistrust the southern Bhutanese, many of whom have roots in Nepal and carry that culture with them. Differences in dress become deadly divisions for some, with Bhutan's "national dress" becoming a symbol of the country's culture and traditions. In Bhutan, Jamie learns, there is "not a dress code but a dress law." And speaking the Nepali language is considered a act of sedition.

Terrified of having its culture and language over-run by people from another country, Bhutan tightens its restrictions and what was a rift becomes a Situation. There is talk of separatism and some of Jamie's students leave the university to fight the "anti-nationals." There are rumors of torture and students who were imprisoned for treasonous acts return to class, "looking years older."

"This is not about democracy or human rights, I think...I have not heard one person speak of mediation or negotiation or even the listening that is necessary for understanding. There is no recognition of any overlap, any common ground...it is a case of two solitudes."

"I love the view," Jamie observes, "but I would not want the life." And then she falls in love, with a man who speaks Nepali when he talks in his sleep, and the life she is reluctant to take becomes in some way hers forever.

This is a love story, but not one between two people. It is a common theme of how a Western woman falls in love with an Eastern country--yet there is nothing common about the thoughts and perceptions and images that Jamie Zeppa brings to this. Her book is one that illuminates on many levels--spiritual, political, cross-cultural.

When she takes the refuge vows that show her commitment to following the path of Buddhism, Jamie realizes, "The practice is the practice...For the rest of my life." Her book plainly reveals how that practice has enhanced her life in Bhutan, in Canada, with the man she loves or without. Reading her words will burnish the perspective of any woman who has fallen in love with an Asian country--or yearns for the chance to do this.

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language by Deborah Fallows (WalkerBooks)

"One spring day in Beijng, I was trudging home from the local market with bags of bright vegetables and fresh, soft tofu. Few people were out, and my eyes were on the ground to watch my step around the minor rubble and broken bits of pavement. It was not a pretty walk. Then I heard it, sotto voce but clearly distinguishable above the whine of nearby traffic, "Hello, I love you. Buy my jade. I love you!"

This paragraph makes me see and feel and breathe Beijing every time I read it--and I feel a mixture of envy and gratitude surging toward the woman who wrote it.  A linguist who has a Ph.D in linguistics, Deborah Fallows decided to study Mandarin during the three years that she spent in China--and lived to tell the tale in a collection of perceptive and sparkling essays about a country that can be puzzlingly opaque to those without a knowledge of its language.

She is a woman whose descriptive talents are as sharp as her powers of observation and sense of humor. Whether she's prowling through a Beijing weekend "dirt market," watching people bargain for jade, agate, lapis and"petrified-looking walnuts," or shopping at a Wal-Mart "with touches like duck carcasses hanging from hooks," she discovers unexpected dimensions through the language she has painfully and painstakingly learned. The abrupt and brusque delivery of requests in Mandarin troubles her until she learns how to soften this impact with a double verb, and when finding out the reason why 4 is shunned and 8 sought after in China, she also understands why clocks are never given as wedding gifts.

Using a faulty tone when satisfying her craving for cheese in a Beijing Taco Bell leads her to a thoughtful exploration of why Chinese people hear tones while Westerners don't, and her explanation of the word renao (hot and noisy) is a brief and brilliant dissertation on life in China.

Chinese, Deborah Fallows says, is one of the most difficult languages to learn; it took, she says, " a good eighteen months before I pummeled enough in my head to accumulate a critical, usable mass of vocabulary." Once this is acquired, she is able to use language to help her in a traditional Chinese custom, breaking the rules, as she assures a security guard at the Beijing Olympics that a forbidden Toblerone bar is actually her much-needed medicine.

Looking at China through its language allows Fall0ws to look at a certain amount of the country's psychology: why "please" and "thank you" are infrequently used among close friends and are actually considered impolite; why "I love you" is seldom voiced; why pronouns are often omitted in speech. And she learns at a Beijing conference from "one exasperated Chinese participant," what the ordinary Chinese person really wants--"a flush toilet, a refrigerator, and a colour TV."

It'a possible to spend time in China--or at least Beijing--without knowing any Mandarin, but Deborah Fallows makes it clear that the more language we acquire, the more at home we will feel, "if just for a little bit, in this extraordinary country."  by Janet Brown

Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam by Kim Fay (ThingsAsian Press)


Sometimes I think American women travel to discover the taste of good food and to rediscover "The Art of Eating," as M.F.K. Fisher termed it in her classic volume of travel, cookery, and enjoyment. When I first discovered that book, I carried it with me and read it every chance I got--waiting at doctors' offices, at soccer practices, at traffic lights. A friend saw me with it and asked, "Doesn't that title frighten you?"

She was a woman who was substantially overweight; I was a woman who was constantly on a diet, but M.F.K. gave me an inkling of what food and eating could be.  I didn't discover that art until I went to Thailand where eating was an act of pleasure, not one of guilt, shame,and fear.

Although I am sure that Kim Fay's relationship with food was much less troubled than mine, it is quite clear from her book that she discovered how much immense pleasure comes from good food that is freshly prepared and eaten in the company of friends during her four years of living in Vietnam.

Missing this dimension to her daily life when she went back home to the states, Kim returns to Vietnam with her photographer-sister to explore that country's food--its history, its preparation, its flavors, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The result is a wonderful mixture of travel memoir,  food literature, and cultural history, served up with a generous helping of humor and a number of tantalizing recipes.

Kim and her sister Julie are joined by Kim's friend Huong, a fashionable and opinionated woman with a stunningly healthy appetite and a talent for finding the best places to fulfill her ravenous desire for good food. The three of them roam through cooking classes and restaurants, from Vietnam's finest hotels to roadside stands, learning to cook regional classics  while enjoying other dishes that they soon want to learn to cook.

Talking to chefs and organic farmers, connoisseurs of fish sauce and women who learned the importance of food through experiencing past famine, Kim Fay is adept at illuminating a country through the food that it prepares. Her love for Vietnam is obvious and her skill at describing who she meets, what she sees, and what she tastes as she travels from one end of the country to another makes her readers love it as well.

Through her eyes, Vietnam is revealed in all of its colors and flavors and textures. from "the opal blue" of its tropical twilight to "the sweet seep of sugar cane' that infuses the taste of ground pork, from the colonial splendor of the hillside retreat of Dalat to a cozy household kitchen with its "dented pots, daggerlike knives, and faded plastic spice containers",  from world-famous chef  Didier Corlou to the "Julia Child of Vietnam."

Although she generously provides clear instructions on how to prepare claypot fish, banana flower salad and fresh spring rolls, along with lesser-known dishes,  Kim Fay has written far more than the usual food memoir. She has infused the art of eating in Vietnam with its history, its culture, and more than a few damned good stories.  Read her book, laugh, and then book your own culinary odyssey to Vietnam, with your copy of Communion tucked securely into your suitcase. Bon appetit! ~by Janet Brown

マイ・アイズ・トウキョウ [My Eyes Tokyo] by 徳橋 功 (Isao Tokuhashi) 「幻冬舎 ルネッサンス」 (Gentosha Renaissance)

My Eyes Tokyo As an expat who has lived in my adopted city of Tokyo for the past fifteen years, I am always fascinated by other people's perception of Japan-- Tokyo in particular.  Apparently, Tokuhashi shares my interest and decided to explore this topic through the stories of the people who were willing to talk to him.

In the prologue, Tokuhashi mentions that he had lived in a small town in California for a short time and realized how much of Japanese culture had already penetrated America - Hondas and Toyotas running along the freeway, Panasonic or Sony stereos in people's homes, kids playing video games on Nintendo, the popularity of anime such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Dragonball.

But then his roommate would ask him questions like, "Do you speak Chinese?", "What color are the signal lights in Japan", "Are there really more bicycles than there are cars?"  Tokuhashi thought if these questions cropped up in a state like California with a large second generation Japanese population and a lot of Asian exchange students, then probably this indicated that  the majority of Americans really know nothing about his home country.

With his experience in America, Tokuhashi decided it would be a great idea to let Americans and other foreigners know what the "Now" of Japan is like.  But introducing Japan from a Japanese perspective would probably not attract anybody's notice.  This is where Tokuhashi had his epiphany.  Why not have foreigners living in Tokyo tell their own stories?  Why did they choose to live in Tokyo and how do they perceive the city?

Tokuhashi then set up a website called "My Eyes Tokyo" in which he interviewed foreigners living in Tokyo and then spread the stories around the world in English.  This book is a small compilation of some of those interviews.  The book shares the stories of people from countries such as Senegal, Turkey, Bolivia, Israel, France, Algeria, as well as the United States.

Their stories are vast and varied.  There is the Algerian who owns and runs a Japanese soba shop.  A Frenchman who owns and runs a Japanese specialty tea shop.  A Turkish man who performs rakugo. A Brit who sets up an International Theatre Troupe.  An American who launches the first Food Bank in Japan.  Also featured are musicians and singer-songwriters.

Tokuhashi's idea is to show the "now" of Tokyo as seen by the expat community, believing that they probably see things that the normal Japanese either takes for granted or has just plain forgotten about.  The interviewees all seem to share the opinion that the younger generation of Japanese don't know how great their country is.

As  one of the many who have  decided to live here, I can tell you there is more to Tokyo than just karaoke, anime, or electronics!  Trust me, and if you ever make it to Tokyo, I will gladly be your unofficial guide.~by Ernie Hoyt

Four Pairs of Boots : A 3,200 Kilometer Hike the Length of Japan by Craig McLachlan (Japan Publications Trading Co.)

Four Paris of Boots Being an expat living in Tokyo, I love exploring my adopted city.  If I had more free time, I wouldn’t mind exploring the countryside as well. I have even had fantasies of walking the entire length of Japan, although I do not think I have the stamina or strength to indulge in such an endeavor.  However, there are some people who have.

New Zealander Craig McLachlan is one such person.  Inspired by Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" in which Booth walks the length of Japan from the northernmost point of Cape Soya in Hokkaido to the southernmost point of Cape Sata in Kyushu, in 1993 when McLachlan is 31 years old, he walks the entire length of Japan in 99 days from the opposite direction, starting south in Kyushu, then keeping towards the coast of the Sea of Japan as he makes his way to Hokkaido.  The reason he gives in undertaking such a task is simple, "To go in search of the real Japan". On his nearly three- month hike, McLachlan goes through four pairs of boots, giving the name to the title of his book.  The kanji on the cover of the book, 靴四足 (kutsu yon soku) also translates to “four pairs of shoes” or “boots” in this case.  As to his finding the “real Japan”, that’s for you, the reader to decide.

Fortunately for McLachlan, he can speak Japanese and has no trouble communicating with the local population, even though he suffers his share of animosity and outright prejudice. But he says the kindness he’s shown outweighs the negative experiences. He’s offered rides on many occasions but politely refuses, explaining that he wants to complete his entire journey on foot and accepting a ride would be cheating.  Some of the people whose rides he turns down come back and bring him food or drinks and tell him to “ganbatte!” – to do his best.  Others offer him a place to spend the night and some even walk with him for a short distance.  However, there are times when the weather is so bad that McLachlan does accept a few rides but he always returns to the spot where he had stopped walking.

I imagine it’s no easy feat, (pun intended), to walk an entire length of a country--even a country as small as Japan or New Zealand.  I doubt that my feet would think either country were small if I even attempted to walk either one.  But at least I don’t rely on driving to the neighborhood market anymore as I did when I lived in the States.  However, on my days off I try to walk around a different neighborhood a week in my adopted home of Tokyo.  It may not be the length of the country, but it will have to suffice for my pair of legs.~by Ernie Hoyt

Tigers in Red Weather: A Quest for the Last Wild Tigers by Ruth Padel (Walker)

TigersinRedWeather When the man she has loved for five years inexplicably bows out of her life, Ruth Padel takes her badly bruised heart on a long journey. Traveling from the Indian subcontinent to Siberia to Southeast Asia, she immerses herself in the world of tigers, exploring their habitat, their habits, and their tenuous grip on survival.

Padel begins her quest with a literary love of tigers, a few facts, and a longing to learn more about an animal that is often seen through a veil of mythology and misconception. In her first journey to a tiger forest in Kerala, she sees no trace of the creatures that she seeks, but she leaves with the understanding that tigers are an essential part of Asia's environment. Tigers survive only in healthy forests, and these forests, Padel says, "hold Asia together." It says in the Mahabharata (5th century BCE), "The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers." This truth resonates with Padel in the twenty-first century and is the underlying theme of her travel through countries that are the homes of wild tigers.

Wherever she goes, Padel finds forests that are for sale, that become diminished as the worldwide hunger for logs increases. The animals and people living among the trees become adversaries, competitors for shrinking territory: tigers kill livestock when natural prey dwindles and people safeguard their property by killing tigers. The argument of how to balance the needs of both groups divides people within nations and within families, including Padel and her own brother.

Tigers also fall prey to the myths and legends that surround them. Their bones, flesh, blood and skin are all valuable commodities in the global marketplace, sold to people who hope to gain a portion of the tiger's strength or beauty. Tiger balm, Padel points out, is a substance based on camphor and eucalyptus that can be safely used by the most fervent environmentalist, but its universal appeal is based "on what people want." In Nepal she is told, "Real tiger balm... cures arthritis, joints, knees, rheumatism. It is here, for those who know."

People are not always the enemies of tigers, and Padel's narrative is filled with stories of men and women who respect (and work to preserve) the natural world. Debby, a British environmental adviser in Indonesia who is "kept sane through black humour and a taste for lunacy"; Yevgeny, a Siberian tiger biologist who writes poetry but has "never dared write one about a tiger"; Ullas in Bangalore, a writer and tiger conservationist whose work "is a beacon" to some and has led others to set fire to his office; and the dukun, the Sumatran shaman, who gives Padel a "guardian spirit-tiger" as a protector—these are only a few who illuminate and give hope in this book.

A poet and a scholar, this descendant of Charles Darwin employs both of these disciplines to enchant and inform her readers. She places facts and images side by side as skillfully as she blends her personal memories with her observations of the tigers' world, a world that, she convincingly argues, must be saved in order to preserve our own. The book ends with a generous collection of poems that Padel has quoted throughout her travels, the names of people who helped her along her way, and the addresses of organizations that accept financial contributions to support the protection of wild tigers.~by Janet Brown (published originally by Waterbridge Review)

Ivan's Ramen by Ivan Orkin (Little More)

Ivan Ramen

If you’re an expat living in Tokyo like me, one of the first things you will probably fall in love with is ramen.  It’s the fast-food of Japan.  There are over 5000 ramen shops to choose from in Tokyo alone.  But Ivan Ramen has something that no other ramen shop has in Tokyo, or perhaps even in Japan.  Ivan Ramen is the only ramen shop in Tokyo that’s own and run by an American – Ivan Orkin.  What makes this story so amazing is that Ivan did not even know how to make ramen before he started his restaurant.

This is his story of how he followed his dream.  Ivan takes us back to his roots in New York City where he was born in a small Jewish neighborhood.  His father was a lawyer, while his mother enjoyed hobbies such as painting and photography.  They had a house-maid who did all the domestic chores and left his mother with free time to pursue her favorite activities.  As the family was pretty well off, one of Ivan’s earliest memories was of his parents taking him to different restaurants.  Even at a young age, it was these trips to various restaurants that would mold Ivan into what he is today.

Ivan’s first introduction to Japanese cuisine is at 15 when he works part-time as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant called “Tsubo”.  It’s here where he gets his first taste of Japanese cuisine starting with tamagokake gohan. This is plain white rice that’s topped with a raw egg and perhaps a dash of soy sauce, and is not on a regular menu.  Ivan has such fond memories of working here and with the Japanese staff that he decides to study Japanese in college.

In college, he becomes fascinated with ramen after going to the movies and watching Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”, and if you get a chance to watch the movie, you may become a ramen convert yourself.  After graduating, Ivan makes his first trip to Japan as a teacher of English, a job where he found no satisfaction.  Realizing that he enjoys cooking,  he returns to the States and enrolls in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.  Back in the States, Ivan longs to eat the ramen he tasted while in Japan but the only place to get good noodles in New York at this time is in Chinatown.  Eating the noodles there, he has an epiphany--to move back to Japan and start his own ramen shop.

With the help and support of his Japanese wife, he heads back with  her to the Land of the Rising Sun.  But Ivan as yet does not know the first thing about making ramen.  Fortune shineds upon him as he finds someone to teach him the skill he needs.  Soon, Ivan decides to open his own ramen shop.  This is much easier said than done.  First off, a lot of people say he is crazy to even attempt such an adventure.  Others say there was no way that an American could run a successful ramen shop.  Even with all the pressure and negative responses, Ivan follows his dream with determination.  With his wife and two friends, Ivan finally opens his shop in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward near Rokka Koen Station.  News of an American owning and running his own ramen shop in Tokyo brings in curious customers.  His shop gains popularity from word of mouth and becomes a big hit in the ramen community.

Being a ramen fan myself, I most definitely had to go to Ivan Ramen.  I can assure you that the pictures in the book are as eye-pleasing and appetizing as the real thing.  This is probably the only ramen shop in Tokyo where you can also order hand-made ice cream from their menu.  Ivan’s concept is to have a family-friendly atmosphere where you can dine on delicious ramen, using only uses fresh ingredients which he buys locally.  He also makes his own noodles at the shop.  In fact, his kitchen space is twice as large as the dining space where he continues to experiment with new menu ideas.  If you get a chance to visit Tokyo and crave ramen for lunch, Ivan Ramen is a must-stop on your itinerary.

An Indian Attachment by Sarah Lloyd (Eland Books)

22This title has that crisp, acerbic ring that characterizes the novels of Anita Brookner, and at first seems an odd choice of name for a book about a young Englishwoman who spends two years with the Punjabi villager with whom she falls in lust, if not love. The title's restraint particularly resonates when readers consider that this adventure took place at the end of that emotionally extravagant decade, the '70s. Sarah Lloyd is easily seduced by beauty and the glory of a Sikh warrior's unleashed mane  of hair is too much for her. She cuts her Indian pilgrimage short, finds the village of the man who intrigues her, and moves into his family's home. It's an unlikely venue for a woman who loves the "chaos and electric energy" of the Calcutta streets but then there is "that hair," plus the opportunity to enter "rural life, the real India, the one I had come to find."

This woman knows how to travel hard and that skill serves her well in her new home. Sarah Lloyd is the kind of traveler who is happiest when staying in a gurdwara, "a large communal hall with windows all around" that is open to anyone, feeding and sheltering all who enter it without charge. If this is your idea of hell on earth, keep reading--this state of overcrowded, public bliss is where Sarah Lloyd lives for the next two years.

She is an artist and the one image of Jungli, the man whom she lives with, is a drawing she has done of his profile. This is perhaps the only clue the reader is given about the feelings Lloyd has for Jungli--he is gorgeous and her drawing of him is very reminiscent of the drawings of desert nomads  done by T.E. Lawrence to embellish his Arabian classic. Like Lawrence of  Arabia, Sarah Lloyd is enchanted with her idea of the country that has taken her in, and by extension with the man who has made it possible for her to live there in the way she feels is most authentic.

The beauty that nourishes Sarah is hard to pinpoint in the surroundings she has chosen but she is quite lyrical when she finds it. Delighted by a profusion of "English wildflowers" she discovers in Amritsar, she catalogs them in a tumble of poetry that evokes Midsummer Night's Dream. "Everything was so perfect," she writes of Jungli's village, "the clear early morning, the smell of damp wheat, the flowers in the verges, and the sky flecked with birds."

But Eden does not come without flaws and Lloyd is smart enough--and observant enough--to notice them and chronicle them with the same exactitude that she uses for the unexpected splashes of beauty. The lack of privacy, the dearth of sympathy, the realization that village life has no place for individuality is all noted and explained without whining or sentimentality. Understanding that she is "a guest" who during her visit  "remained an outsider," Lloyd watches without judgment and--even more impressively--without self-consciousness. Never in her chronicle of her two years in rural India does she indulge in the wild paranoia that frequently strikes expats in Asia. What people think of her, she seems to have sensibly concluded, is none of her business. Instead, she decides, when it comes to this new life, she has "a lot to unlearn."

As she unlearns, she describes it all on paper. She acquires language so she can have her questions answered, and when she and Jungli leave his family's village to enter a religious community presided over by an enigmatic saint, her questions proliferate. She has a household to run, provisions to buy, dung to collect. Even though she shares a hut with another couple, she is forced to become house-proud. And she is given a new identity. Without the buffer of foster-parents and their defined place in their community, Sarah Lloyd is known by Jungli's name--when her new neighbors talk about her,  they call her "Pritam Singh's."

But truly this is who she never becomes--if anything or anyone possesses this woman, it is India,  not the man who gave her a life there. At the end of their time together, it is Jungli who receives the reader's sympathy as Lloyd  dismisses him in the book's final sentence, "I knew with absolute certainty that Jungli would love me until his death."

カレーになりたい!by 水野仁輔 [I Want to be Curry!] by Jinsuke Mizuno (理論社(Rironsha)

I Want to be Curry (1) This is not a curry cookbook, although there is one curry recipe at the very beginning of the book. It is also not a guide book to the curry shops of Tokyo.  It's a book about Mizuno’s love for all things curry-- his early curry memories, his first overseas trip to the home of curry--India, and his descriptions of visits to all the curry shops and curry he's tried in Japan. He has become a member of Tokyo Curry Bancho, has sponsored curry events, has collected boxes of retro curries and miscellaneous items related to curry, and, he informs us, has accumulated enough curry items to open his own curry museum.

The book opens with Mizuno asking his readers, “When was your first kiss?”  He imagines the responses given, but says, “No, no, no.  Not your first kiss with a person but your first kiss with curry”.  He writes as if he is talking to us, persuading us to share with him our own curry memories.

He tells us the first thing that comes to his mind is a large elephant, as he describes his parents taking him to a place where a woman was singing in a language he had never heard before.  The place was Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture and the name of the restaurant was  “Bombay,” specializing in Indian curry.  The elephant that he recalls was part of the store’s sign.

All this at the tender age of five--but from this beginning, he was hooked.  He tells us when he was in Junior High, that he would save some of his allowance so he could treat himself to curry at “Bombay” which became his favorite curry shop.

As Mizuno grows older, he leaves his home town to go to university in Tokyo and is no longer able to get his weekly fix of “Bombay” curry. Mizuno then buys a guide book to curry shops around Tokyo, goes in search of a curry that has the same flavor as “Bombay,” and starts to work part-time at an Indian restaurant.

After trying nearly 1000 curry shops (and there really are quite a few in Tokyo), he comes across a place called “Delhi” which serves the curry of his memory.  He learns that the owner of “Bombay” got his start here and is amazed that he could pick this one restaurant out of the thousands to find the same flavor as that of his first love.  This sets him on a serious path to becoming Tokyo’s Curry Bancho (loosely translates to “Curry Boss”).

Realizing that being serious about curry means checking out the roots of the food, Mizuno travels to India where he learns that not all Indian curries are the same.  Traveling to all the major cities of India, he experiences the various curries throughout the country.  With the knowledge he gains from this, he continues to experiment with his own style of curry.

Mizuno doesn’t just sample the curries made in restaurants, he tries the vacuum-packed brands as well.  Japan has an incredible amount of ready-made curry packages, some only available in the prefectures that make them.  If you’re as much a  curry lover as I am, then Mizuno’s memories makes for some non-stop reading fun – and will make you hungry for curry as well.--By Ernie Hoyt

This is the first of Asia By the Book's reviews of books that have not yet been translated into English--but that we hope will soon be available to readers of English, as well as (in this case) Japanese!

Exploring Hong Kong: A Visitor’s Guide to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories by Steven K. Bailey with photographs by Jill C. Witt (ThingsAsian Press)

My favorite guidebooks are the ones that give me the background and the little tips that make me feel like a resident when I am visiting, so naturally I look for guidebooks written by people who have lived in the place they write about. While in Hong Kong recently, I was given a copy of Exploring Hong Kong, began reading it at night in my hotel room and gobbled it in one sitting—it is that sort of book—informative, conversational and absolutely gorgeous. From the clarity of its maps to the beauty of its photographs to the satisfying weight when held in the hands, it is a lovely object as well as a very good book indeed.

9781934159163-AMZN (2)

What Exploring Hong Kong is not is a laundry list of hotels and restaurants and shops; what this book gives you are neighborhoods--ways to explore them, how to reach them and what to enjoy when you get there. It offers the conventional sightseeing destinations and then gives pointers that only a resident would know—the exact details of how to ride the Travelator, the most challenging way of hiking down Victoria Peak, where to find a tiny piece of Thailand in the shadow of Kowloon Walled City Park, the best vantage point for viewing the nightly Symphony of Lights,  which of Kowloon’s street markets is the place to buy “hell money,” where to find pink dolphins off the coast of Lantau Island and where to go surfing on the island of Hong Kong

The natural world is still alive and well in Hong Kong and its environs, Bailey tells his readers, and a large portion of his book tells how to enjoy this little-known facet of one of the world’s great cities. Wild boars, feral cattle, macaques, packs of dogs that resemble Australia’s dingoes are some of the wildlife that visitors may encounter when they leave the sidewalks behind, and mountain climbing, kite flying, and tent camping are offered as alternatives to Hong Kong’s more urban pleasures. Ancient walled villages and “a windswept island of ghosts” are  easy  to reach and explore when readers are provided with Bailey’s careful and lucid instructions.

Perhaps the most invaluable information provided by Exploring Hong Kong is found in its first chapter, Traveling Around Hong Kong: An Instruction Manual, which explains why Hong Kong’s biggest bargain is its Octopus card. But as a devoted eater, I am most fond of the hints on where to find the best egg tarts, where to drink the highest form of available caffeine, tea mixed with coffee, where to find Five Flowers Tea, and where migrant Filipinas find their favorite comfort food.

Whether you will be in Hong Kong tomorrow or are planning to visit “someday,” Exploring Hong Kong is essential reading. Bailey and Witt, who launched their series with Strolling Macau, say their latest wanderings have been in Hanoi, with a guidebook to that city coming soon. I’m ready to go…--by Janet Brown