British celeb baker Paul Hollywood goes gaga over Japan

British celebrity baker Paul Hollywood said he had no preconceptions about the food in Japan. PHOTO: BBC LIFESTYLE

SINGAPORE - In the eyes of British celebrity baker Paul Hollywood, Japan is "all about rice and noodles".

Cue the criticism when his three-part series Paul Hollywood Eats Japan debuted in Britain in April, where the media largely panned it as "racist" for his lack of knowledge of Japanese food and culture. The show airs on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub Channel 432), and BBC Player (on demand).

In a 15-minute Zoom interview with The Straits Times, Hollywood, 54, says: "I had no preconceptions about the food in Japan.

"Japan and China are rice-based cultures, not wheat. So I was fascinated to see how far the bread culture - technically from the West - has come to the East."

It is clear in the show that Hollywood, a judge on the Great British Bake Off, is not familiar with Japan's obsession with perfect bakes - he is "gobsmacked" by the quality of bread at Ginza establishment Kimuraya 1869 - famously known as the home of anpan (red bean bun).

The show - filmed last year (2019) - marks Hollywood's first time in Japan, where he spent three weeks eating his way through the foodie destination.

He goes from touristy spots such as the popular Ichiran ramen chain - where he calls the chain's solo dining arrangement an "alien concept for a sociable Brit" like himself - to feasting on a decadent 11-course kaiseki meal at Kyoto's three-Michelin-starred restaurant Kikunoi.

So take it as a beginner's view of Japan, from someone who has not really visited this part of the world - including Australia, China, Thailand, and Singapore.

Hollywood says: "Japan has just been slightly too far for me, as we were doing a lot of filming around Europe. Russia is the 'most East' I've been so far and it was a matter of time before I went to Japan. I still have a lot of places to go."

He counts the eel tempura at Tokyo's Tsunahachi restaurant as the best thing he ate during the trip, and the worst being tofu - which he describes to have the "texture of a slug".

When asked how tofu ranks in terms of worst foods he has eaten, Hollywood laughs and says: "It is not as far down as you think."

"It's not that bad and I'm just playing it up a bit. But it's not something I'll go for as there's no real flavour unless you marinate it. I like big, strong flavours."

Aside from food, Hollywood's Japan experience included meeting samurais and sumo wrestlers, as well as gamely dressing up as a Ninja Turtle for go-karting.

Further editions of the show could see Hollywood head to countries such as Australia and Russia - subject to the Covid-19 pandemic situation.

He hopes to return to Japan by next year (2021). "I found out that everything they do is to the best of their ability. My experience was the best of the best, and I fell in love with the people, culture, and food."

- Paul Hollywood Eats Japan airs on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub Channel 432), and BBC Player (on demand).

- Follow The Straits Times Food on Facebook and Instagram @straitstimesfood

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