First, the great urbanist writer and broadcaster Colin Marshall, who's based in Seoul and LA, is raising money to do a series of reports on Pacific Rim cities. If you've listened to Colin's podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture (which I highly recommend), you know how curious and insightful he is.
His campaign just has one day left, and he needs your help. Wherever he chooses to begin, I'm confident that Colin will talk to some of the most interesting people in the city and uncover great literature, art, film, and urban theories you've never heard of, even if you live there. I've pledged $100. What say we put him over the $2000 line?
Next, I came across this excellent-looking cookbook project, Shanghai Chefs. I don't know the author, but as soon as I saw the recipe for crispy soup dumplings (sheng jian bao)—as eaten in Pretty Good Number One!—I was in.
As for me, I have a couple of projects coming up in the next couple of months. I'll let you know. Thanks as always.
Is it sufficiently nondenominational if I wish a Berry Kristmush to everyone?
This is Burger King Japan's actual holiday ad campaign. I know because I was in Tokyo last week. I ate neither the mush burger nor the premium berry burger. Every time I'm on the flight to Tokyo, I think, maybe this isn't going to be as great as I remember it. And then I walk past seventeen appealing restaurants in one block, get lost in a throng of ten thousand Fuji University students, get treated like a visiting maharaja at 7-Eleven, discover a new flavor of Cheeza (gratin!), and fall in love with a kitten named Sora at a cat cafe.
New stuff by me
I've published three articles about Japan in the last couple of months. The first two are about Japanese tea; I wrote them for Serious Eats. I suspect you'll enjoy the first one whether or not you have any interest in tea.
Halfway Home is a delightful new graphic memoir by Christine Mari Inzer about a summer spent in her ancestral homeland of Japan. Inzer is smart, observant, and hilarious. Speaking as a 40ish writer, the fact that she's written a book this good while still a teenager is totally unacceptable. This book would make a great gift, and it's like $10. Trust me, you're going to love it.
The next selection would make a terrible gift, and you've probably already heard of it, but I've fallen under the charismatic sway of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If nothing else, it will teach you the right way to fold your clothes. (I've been doing it so wrong.)
Come see me
My friend and fellow author Molly Wizenberg and I are celebrating five years of our comedy podcast, Spilled Milk, with a live taping at Book Larder in Seattle on January 29, 6:30pm. Birthday cake will be served, and we'll be selling and signing books. Tickets will be on sale soon; keep an eye on the Spilled Milk Facebook page.
The English-language edition of Pretty Good Number One is available in all the usual places, but if you're looking for the Japanese-language edition to give as a gift, and you live in the US, the easiest way to get it is to order it online from Kinokuniya. Here's the link.
As always, thank you for reading and supporting my books, and happy new year! Or as Burger King puts it, happy stewed deer. (Not really.) (As far as I know.)
Earlier this month, the Amster-Burton family spent two weeks in Japan.
We spent a day in Osaka, eating kushikatsu (fried stuff on sticks) and takoyaki along the Dotombori canal, and visited Kuromon market arcade, one of the best food markets in Japan. The phrase “one of the best food markets in Japan” is like saying “one of the wettest places in the Pacific Ocean.” Kuromon is a great place to buy or browse fruit (I can’t stop talking about the melon smoothie), seaweed, tea, vegetables, and especially seafood.
We stayed with our friends Emi, Johnny, and Sakura in Fukuoka, a Seattle-size city on the southern island of Kyushu. Emi is a wonderful home cook who never uses recipes. (I asked her if she had any Japanese cookbooks I could browse. She didn’t.) Every night she casually turned out a feast: soup, fried shrimp, mackerel, Indonesian fried rice, Korean sushi.
Meanwhile, Iris and Sakura perfected their skills on a Wii game where you slice up assorted random objects with a samurai sword, until they were forced into service folding gyōza.
Then, Tokyo. We stayed with our friends Kate and Joe in Shinjuku. “Hey, Iris,” said Kate. “I ordered a takoyaki grill. Want to help me figure out how to use it?”
“Nah, forget it,” said Iris. Just kidding. For a first try, our takoyaki were pretty great, so we’re opening up shop along the canal in Osaka.
Burying the lead
“So Matthew,” you didn’t ask, “How’s the book doing in Japan?”
Do you want the Japanese-style modest answer or the American answer?
The answer is that it’s doing fine, thank you, all thanks to the hard work of my agents, Megumi Sakai and Cecilia Kashiwamura at Japan UNI Agency; my editor Chiaki Sekine and her production team at X-Knowledge; and translator Mitsuhiro Sekine (nope, not related to Chiaki), who did an incredible job of translating a bunch of American dad jokes into Japanese.
While I was in Tokyo, I was interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun, one of Tokyo’s daily newspapers, for a feature called “I Want To Meet the Author.” Now you, too, can meet the author:
The Japanese edition came out at the beginning of June. It’s now gone into its fourth printing, with 23,000 copies in print. That’s would be a bestseller by American standards, but the Japanese book market is one-fifth the size of the US market. You do the math.
Free public embarrassment
I’m doing an event at Kinokuniya bookstore in Seattle on August 23 at 2pm. I’ll be speaking mostly in English and talking about some of my favorite Japanese ingredients, but I’ve promised to talk for a few minutes in Japanese. Why did I promise this? I’m really not sure. If you speak Japanese, it’s going to be like watching the movie Big, but with a two-year-old Japanese kid who turns into bald Tom Hanks.
If you don’t speak Japanese, assume I sounded really erudite, like President Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day.
You’ve got to see this
In Tokyo, the book’s translator, Mitsu, gave me a copy of Kodoku no Gurume, a comic book classic to which several people have kindly compared my book. Kodoku no Gurume (The Solitary Gourmet) follows lonely businessman Gorō Inogashira as he eats, alone, at great inexpensive restaurants in Tokyo and occasionally elsewhere. It’s a strange, beautiful character study, and I highly recommend it; unfortunately it’s only available in Japanese, French, and German. (If you know of an unauthorized English translation, please let me know.)
A couple of years ago, Kodoku was made into a live-action TV series, and it’s incredibly great. Better yet, you can watch the whole thing online, with English subtitles:
Pretty Good Number One is now available in Japanese!
The Japanese title is 米国人一家、おいしい東京を食べ尽くす, which translates as “An American Family Eats Up Delicious Tokyo.” The cover is based on this famous 19th century woodcut print by Kuniyoshi:
In the immortal words of Ren & Stimpy, “IIIII’M THE CAT!” My publisher, X-Knowledge, has done a beautiful job with the book, and I want to thank my editor, Chiaki Sekine, for taking a chance on a quirky self-published book.
The Japanese edition is paperback only—no ebook. If you’re in Japan, you can buy the book from your favorite retailer, online or off. If you’re outside of Japan, it’s a little trickier. You can order from Amazon.co.jp for about $30 (US), including fast international shipping. I suspect Kinokuniya stores in major US cities will be carrying it soon, too.
And I will have a very small number of copies that I can sign (in romaji and katakana!) and send to you. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’re interested.
Child Octopus update
Thanks to everyone who bought my mini-ebook about Hong Kong. You made it the #1 bestseller in China travel for days—and that’s for ebooks and paper books combined.
Hello, Pretty Good Number One readers! I’m pleased to announce a new mini-ebook, Child Octopus: Edible Adventures in Hong Kong, and I wanted you to hear about it first.
This book was an experiment: take a quick trip to a new destination and turn it into a small book as quickly as possible. Iris and I went to Hong Kong last month, and you can buy the book today for 99 cents (or the equivalent in your local currency):
Buy the book (Amazon US, or search your country's Amazon store)
If you liked Pretty Good Number One, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too. Here’s the flap copy:
Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burton grew up on Chinese-American food. One day, he decided to take his ten-year-old daughter out for Chinese…in Hong Kong.
Join two adventurous eaters as they explore night markets, hawker centers, gigantic malls, and a fancy dim sum palace while living out their food fantasy: spending a week without having to eat anything other than Chinese food.
Along with Matthew and Iris, you’ll:
Ride the world’s most exhilarating form of public transportation
Eat crispy rice, egg tarts, Hong Kong French toast, and a spicy chicken dish with more chiles than chicken
Hang out with locals (human and feline)
Discover Iris’s supervillain lair, high above the city.
Featuring two dozen color photos, Child Octopus is the first installment in a new series of short ebooks about Asian food and travel.
We’re not experts. We just got here. And we’re hungry.
A few questions and answers
How long is Child Octopus?
About 15,000 words, which translates to 50 or 60 pages of a paper book.
Will it be available in paperback?
No. It’s too short to sell as a paperback without losing money on each copy. If I write a few more like this, as I hope to, I’ll consider bundling them together into a single paperback.
Is this a guidebook?
No. A guidebook is written by experts who tell you where to shop, sleep, and eat. This book is a first taste of Hong Kong by two hungry travelers who want to show you what it’s like to encounter the place for the first time. That said, I’ve included names and addresses of all the restaurants mentioned in the book, about eighteen in total.
Are there photos?
Yes! Two dozen of them, including a photo taken by Iris that makes all of my photos look like I forgot to take the lens cap off.
Where can I buy it?
Currently, only on Amazon. It will be available from other ebook stores later. You can read it on a Kindle or the Kindle app on iOS, Android, PC, or Mac. If this really doesn’t work for you, please get in touch with me and we’ll figure something out.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can also borrow the book for free.
Did you love Hong Kong as much as Tokyo?
No, and this gives the book a different feel from Pretty Good Number One. There were, however, a few things we liked better about Hong Kong than Tokyo (no smoking in restaurants!), and I try to be honest about what we loved and what we didn’t.
Does this book feature more Iris, like people kept asking for?
Why didn’t you do a Kickstarter for this book?
I wanted to get it to you as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—I promise to ask you for money again soon. :) And hey, I’m asking you for 99 cents today, right?
Does this mean you’re done writing about Japan?
Not a chance. I have two Japan-related projects in the works.
Outside of Japan, what cities would you like to breeze through next?
The top three on my list are Taipei, Seoul, and Vancouver.
Whatever happened to the Japanese-language edition of Pretty Good Number One?