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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: We talk to Matthew Amster-Burton, author of Pretty Good Number One, about eating in Tokyo and letting 9-year-olds do the cooking.
Matthew Amster-Burton and his daughter, Iris, really love Japanese food. They love it so intensely that their family flew to Japan one summer to spend a month living -- and eating -- in Tokyo, one of the world's craziest and most food-centric cities. Matthew's new book, Pretty Good Number One, describes this experience in a way that will have you chuckling to yourself in public and googling flights to Tokyo. Inspired by a tendency for wanderlust and a love of good ramen, we chatted with Matthew about his travel recommendations, the best ramen you can find, and the way that parenting has changed how he cooks. Now who wants to plan a Food52 field trip to Japan?
In five words, explain what it’s like to be in Tokyo.
Noodles, trains, bustle, relaxation, baths.
Do you have any tips for making ramen at home? Or should we just suck it up and buy a flight to experience the real thing because there’s no way we’ll ever be able to replicate it?
That’s a tough one. The good news is, ramen places are the new taco trucks, and they seem to be opening everywhere. So in the time it would take to make ramen from scratch at home, you could probably just wait until a ramen joint opens up in your town.
That said, good frozen noodles are available at Japanese supermarkets; look for Sun Noodle and Myojo Chukazanmai brands. You can use the included flavor packet or toss it and make your own broth. For broth, eggs, and toppings, I trust Kenji Alt’s ramen series on Serious Eats.
More: Switch things up with Bacon & Egg Ramen.
You’ve written a whole book about cooking and eating with a child. What, do you think, is the most important advice on cooking or eating that you can pass on to your daughter?
Enjoy eating. If you have to do it every day anyway, why not have fun with it?
Your first book, Hungry Monkey, detailed your experiences of cooking for your first child. How has fatherhood changed the way you cook? What’s your favorite thing to cook with your daughter, Iris?
I cook much more simply than I used to. Cooking simply doesn’t mean only making California-style minimalist cuisine, however. Chinese home cooking, for example, is very simple once you amass the necessary pantry ingredients.
When Iris turned 9, I put her in charge of cooking dinner once a week. We never did a great job of cooking together; we mostly just got in each other’s way. Putting her in charge is much better. This week, she made Xi’an Style Potstickers, little rectangular pan-fried dumplings, from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice. Iris likes to eat the filling out of the dumplings and then stuff the empty skins with rice. It’s like watching a zombie movie.
If you were to take us to Tokyo for 48 hours, what would we eat, and where would we go?
You could spend the whole time on any random block in Tokyo and be a happy eater -- good food in Tokyo is inescapable. But let’s plan a whirlwind couple of days. I’m assuming you’ve picked museums, gardens, and temples from your guidebook. I’ll take care of the important stuff.
Stay at a ryokan (a Japanese-style inn) and have breakfast of miso soup, rice with nori, pickles, cooked vegetables, and broiled fish. Shop at a depachika, the basement food hall of a department store. A good depachika makes the great food halls of Europe look provincial. Take your haul up to the roof garden and eat alfresco while surveying the skyline. For dinner, let’s have tempura: we’ll sit at the counter and call out our order to the chef, piece by piece.
Blow off breakfast at the hotel—we’re going to Denny’s. Japanese Denny’s is a real head trip. It’s like a reincarnated American Denny’s from the 70s, right down to the cigarette machine, but the menu is mostly Japanese. For lunch, head (early!) to Tokyo Ramen Street in the basement of Tokyo Station. Finally, we’ll have dinner at an izakaya, a Japanese pub. An izakaya is the gastropub perfected: totally unpretentious drinking food in a convivial atmosphere, with free-flowing beer, sake, and shochu.
I left out about three dozen other places I’d like to take you. Maybe stay for a week?