Old, Used Food Books

Back in the US, I was obsessd with old cook books. I’d troll eBay and the used book stores in NYC hunting dingy yellowing paged vintage cook books, usually spiral bound. I specifically looked for the ones written by a random person or community collections of recipes put together for church or local organization fundraisers and most likely end up on eBay or used bookstores because generally, people feel bad discarding something that has meaning and stories behind them.

The recipes were never used for cooking – most retro foods are terrifying. Like this gem found on Bon Appetit:


Uhhhh holy horrifying – it’s apparently a glazed potato ring with floating carrots in Jell-O. Wow. source 



In case you’re wondering, old cookbooks are appealing because of the stories accompanying the recipes. They are the blogs before the Internet and readers get a glimpse of what a kitchen was like in those years and in different parts of the country. I’ve gained quite a lot of insight of how America was back in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

When I moved to Tokyo of course I carried on the tradition.

Japan is a gold mine for recycled books. There are colossal used book store chains sprinkled around Tokyo. There is even an area where used bookstores are clustered called Jimbocho (where the famed Jimbocho Den is located). I pop into used bookstores once every two weeks or so and spend hours scouring the shelves. In the States, I’d look for cookbooks but here, I look for essays and memoirs.

Notorious food critics, researchers, historians and scientists almost always publish books. Along with famous authors, actors and actresses from various time periods have written essays published. There is no such thing as ‘foodies’ in Japan, as paying mind to, and appreciation for food is ingrained in the Japanese DNA.

Reading others’ words teaches me a lot about the history, roots, cooking tips and tricks of Japanese cuisine. Learning everything has been a bit overwhelming, as Japanese foods rely on seasonal, regional and periodic ingredients; it feels like one lifetime is not enough to learn everything about food in Japan. The way I see it, is, at least I will die trying… which sounds somber but really not. It’s simply the reality I’ve come to terms with and grateful I am physically in Japan, to learn as much as I can in my short lifetime.


The weird contraption that looks almost like a Blackberry is my English ⇔ Japanese electronic dictionary. Older books use complex characters I can’t read…


My most recent read is “Tabemono Zatsu gaku Ji ten” (たべもの雑学事典) which roughly translates to “Book of Food Facts”. It was put together and finished in September of 1975, then printed and distributed in Oct. of 1975 by one of the three major newspapers in Japan.

Written by 16 different food experts from food scientists, nutritionists, researchers, professors of universities, food critics and even board members of large food and health corporations (Kikkoman – the soy sauce company and Lion – which makes household products), the book has short little paragraphs of trivia.

The binding is falling apart, pages sun stained yellow as though it had been forgotten and hibernating in a book case for far too long. I can even smell the must from the pages. Can’t get enough of it.

See? It’s really, falling apart.


The bit that prompted this post, though, were statistics. They are from the 70’s and outdated but it’s relevant to my last post so I thought I would share.

As of 1975, there were:
110,000 soba, ramen, sushi restaurants
40,000 bakeries
10,000 produce (fruit and vegetable) stores
4,200 fish markets
5,500 butcher shops

…just in Central Tokyo (meaning they didn’t count everything in the 23 wards).


Though further googling I have found out Tokyo (including the surrounding areas) is more populated than all of Canada and Iraq. That is a lot of people crammed in a small area (Tokyo and the surrounding area is smaller than Los Angeles).

So when I say it would take a lifetime just to eat through my neighborhood, I am really, not lying.

As for the books I read, I will for sure be sharing my learnings here as I see fit. Stay tuned 🙂


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