Interview with blogger Oliver Thring

With Japanese food becoming ever more popular in the UK, many bloggers are starting to write more about this Far Eastern cuisine. We caught-up with blogger Oliver Thring who recently returned from a food-orientated trip to Japan to ask about his experiences.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be a full-time blogger?

I went to Oxford and read English, and then for two years worked in the City. While I was there I started writing a food blog because I was eating at a lot of restaurants and that developed quite a good following - this was in the days when there were only a few food blogs! When I knew that it was being read by more than other bloggers and my Mum, I thought I actually far preferred writing and so quit my job at the bank. Now it's been over two years and I've been writing for The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent magazine, amongst others and I'm hugely enjoying it. Food has always been an enormous passion of mine - Ive never got bored by it - which I can't say for every other topic!

Oliver in Tsukiji market
What were your early impressions of Japanese food?

I grew up in Scotland and as a kid very much immersed in my own culture I think I was horrified at the thought of eating raw fish - but what did I know then?! We certainly didn't have any Japanese food at school or at home but as soon as I had any disposable income I spent it on food and travel so I was always fascinated by it. When I came to London my fascination blossomed as there are now so many Japanese restaurants.

Was your recent visit your first time to go to Japan? What were your expectations?

Yes it was. As a child I had an idea of one side of Japan - through things like Nintendo and Pokemon! I was fascinated by what I appreciated as a mixture of wonderful, lively, anarchic creativity, and also - through the experience that I had working in the bank - the perception that Japanese people could be very serious and buttoned-up. I was looking forward to seeing the intersection of that and simultaneously the intersection of the traditional style of Japanese life - the tatami mats, the religion, mixed with the modern, lively aspects.

Your visit to Japan was focused very much around food. Without giving too much away as we are looking forward to reading your blog entries, can you tell us about some of your experiences?

My visit to Japan was over six days and I visited many wonderful places. The journey started at Tsukiji market - very early at 4 o'clock in the morning - which actually worked out as a very convenient time for my jet-lag! What can you say about Tsukiji?! Its lively, its full of people shouting and picking at the frozen carcasses of the fish to test the quality of the flesh. I took lots of photos. It was a hugely beneficial experience.

I visited a small town in the region of Japan that was affected by the tsunami. It was harrowing. There were houses which were just shells with things scattered everywhere, lampposts bent over - it was desolate. But what was extraordinary was how close it was to things that were completely untouched and perfectly normal.

My visit to an oyster farm was very interesting. I had the freshest oysters I've ever had! I was taken out in a boat and given oysters straight from the sea - very fat, juicy and delicious. I went through and also saw the factory where they shelled the oysters. I loved that part of Japan and visited some temples there too. I loved the stillness and peacefulness of those places.

I also visited a sake brewery. The big shock for a westerner is the realisation that sake is much closer to beer than wine - because its fermented like beer. It was wonderful to see how the sake is made and I really enjoyed that. I tried three different types of sake - including a non-pasteurised one which was particularly good. I bought a few bottles to take home.

During your trip you had a home-stay with a Japanese family. How was that?

The family were absolutely delightful. They were very welcoming and not reserved or shy at all! We had a home-cooked meal on tatami-mats with three generations of a family, and I think they had gone all out! What I couldn't believe was how quickly it came out. It seemed like I'd just turn my back for three minutes and all of a sudden there were 30 dishes on the table! There was wonderful sashimi, prawns, yakitori with chicken hearts and various other dishes. I was asked what I had most enjoyed so far and when I replied that I particularly enjoyed the soups, although I dont think one was planned, it was immediately prepared for that dinner! A lovely chicken soup.
Toward the end of my visit I took part in a cooking course. It was just me and five Japanese housewives. They were very suspicious of me at first but I managed to chop the onion ok! They were very nice to me. We made a noodle dish with prawns that were beautifully layered over it, a soup and several other wonderful dishes. It helped me to understand the food and techniques much better - the intricacy and balance - which is important in a lot of aspects of Japanese culture - as one looks for harmony of colour, flavour and design. I felt it was very illustrative of Japanese character.

You can find Olivers personal blog here: http://www.oliverthring.com/

Please do check for his updates on Japan in the near future!