Phaidon is well known for their hefty country-specific cookery tomes which aim to showcase the breadth of recipes cooked in each country, a snapshot in time of the cuisine. Phaidon’s The Cookbook series includes America, China, France, Greece, Italy, India, Lebanon, Mexico, the Nordic region, Peru, Spain and Thailand, plus the most recent one on Japan. No doubt there are more in the pipeline.
For the Japan edition, Phaidon turned to Nancy Singleton Hachisu, a writer I originally followed via the blog she used to chronicle her experiences cooking in a rural Japanese kitchen in Saitama, where she lived after marrying her Japanese farmer husband. Her first books, Japanese Farm Food and Preserving the Japanese Way drew from those experiences.
In her latest book, Japan: The Cookbook, Hachisu shares over 400 recipes for traditional, authentic Japanese cooking – the kind made in homes across the country. Many recent titles about Japanese cuisine have focused on a particular dish or type of food, such as ramen, ‘soul food‘ or sushi. Japan: The Cookbook is far broader, covering dishes that are the staple of domestic cooking, but also found in family-run cafes, restaurants and izakayas across Japan.
It took Hachisu three years to pull the book together, an intensive effort to gather, test, and document recipes contributed by all manner of cooks. Indeed in her Introduction, she says she ‘feels less the author and more the conduit’ for sharing a moment in time of Japanese cooking. As well as researching through classic Japanese cookery books from the preceding decades, Hachisu approached chefs from each region of Japan, and sought out local grandmothers to learn the traditional, long-cherished recipes of the home cook. In the end, she concentrated on contributions from two such ladies, Harumi Kawaguchi and Taeko Watanabe, and it’s probably fair to say that these women might almost be considered secondary authors, so essential was their contribution, though of course, it was Hachisu who took their demonstrated dishes and turned them into accurate, written recipes.
Recipes are divided into fifteen chapters by type of dish – zensai (before the meal), aemono (dressed), namamono (raw), sunomono (vinegared), nimono (simmered), shirumono (soups), mushimono (steamed), itamemono (stir-fries), agemono (fried), yakimono (grilled), menrui (noodles), gohan (rice), tsukemono (pickles), nabemono (one-pots) and kanmi (sweets). There’s also a final chapter called shefu which shares recipes provided by specific chefs.
Also in her Introduction, Hachisu also talks about the main flavouring ingredients of Japanese cuisine, remembered via a handy mnemonic sa-shi-su-se-so that refers to sato (sugar or mirin), shio (salt), su (vinegar), se (the old form of the word shoyu for soy sauce), and so (miso). As well as these five, another core flavour ingredient is sesame, used in seed, oil and paste form.
After the Introduction is a History of Japanese food, giving fascinating background and context to the recipes that follow.
As I’ve found in many of the books in the series, there are recipes that can seem quite similar at first glance – for example, ‘greens and crysanthemum petals with sesame‘, ‘crispy green beans in sesame‘, ‘sesame-dressed greens and carrots‘, ‘green beans with smashed tofu and sesame‘ – but they are distinct recipes and showcase the versatility of a few core ingredients used in different ways.
I really appreciate that Hachisu has written the recipes to be true to their origins, even where that means including ingredients that are difficult to come by in other parts of the world. That said, I wish there were recommendations for acceptable substitutes for some of the hard-to-find items, either within individual recipes or in the ingredients glossary at the back.
Not all recipes have photographs, which makes sense in a book of so many recipes, but those that do are simply styled, just as they’d be served for a home-cooked meal.
What I particularly love is the way of eating that this book personifies – the use of plenty of vegetables, with fish and meat used to accent, rather than in the much higher volumes per meal we tend to use in European cuisines.
So far, we’ve enjoyed making a handful of recipes from the book, and look forward to making many more. I’ll be sharing extracted recipes with you soon for asparagus with sesame vinegar dressing, stir-fried Japanese leeks with miso, and Okinawan-style sesame donuts.