Ever since I saw Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan by Tim Anderson listed as an upcoming Japanese cookbook from one of my favourite publishers, I’ve been hyper-excited to get a copy. When it arrived in the post I immediately binge-read it cover to cover in rapt concentration and delight! It took me a good few hours but I couldn’t put it down and by the end of that first read-through, I’d already marked at least half the recipes with sticky neon bookmarks of intent.
One of our favourite cookbook authors on Kavey Eats, Tim’s previous titles include JapanEasy, Vegan JapanEasy, Tokyo Stories, and Nanban: Japanese Soul Food. Each one is a showcase of Tim’s very composed approach to cooking and recipes. His books are each a bonanza of tidbits on Japanese culture and helpful instruction on Japanese cooking. Recipes are hugely appealing, they work exactly as written, and are always utterly delicious. And best of all, Tim’s personality and humour shines off the page throughout.
So what is an izakaya, when it’s at home? As the subtitle says, an izakaya is a Japanese ‘drinking and dining den‘, often compared to a British pub – the kind that are still primarily places to drink, but serve snacky, booze-sopping food alongside. A more accurate comparison that Tim makes is to the tapas bars of Spain, not because izakaya are in any sense a Japanese interpretation of Spanish-style bars, but because they share the primary focus on drinking over eating that tapas bars provide. Yes, there’s food, but it’s secondary to the drinking!
Izakaya originated as sake shops that allowed their customers to drink on the premises, and evolved over time to serve little snacks that encouraged the patrons to stay longer and drink more. These days the range of dishes (and drinks) tends to be much wider. Innovation and playfulness is popular, with fusion food – ‘Japanese dishes remixed with global flavourings or vice-versa‘ – common.
As Tim explains in the Prologue, writing this book during lock-down gave him what he describes as ‘unconditional joy‘, relishing as he did ‘the simplicity of home cooking and the freedom of it: the permission to cook creatively and earnestly without having to worry about paying customers‘ [as he would usually be at his restaurant Nanban]. He was free to cook things he’d always loved cooking, and things he loved eating but hadn’t before had the time to cook. Cooking is, he reminds us, a form of escapism, and his own lockdown cooking helped him to travel in spirit to Japan, Thailand, the USA, Malta and China, to name just a few.
He acknowledges that, in spite of food’s transportative powers, ‘you can’t recreate the effect of eating certain things in the settings where they’re meant to be eaten‘ and reminisces fondly about his favourite type of eating places, an izakaya.
‘They are about the service, the atmosphere and, crucially, the ability to have an effortless time because somebody else is putting in the effort. You do not have to worry about dirty dishes in an izakaya. That’s not part of the deal. There are no toddlers to look after in an izakaya. There are no worries at all: the izakaya is a stress-free zone.’
Here, Tim talks about the Japanese concept of omotenashi, a desire to anticipate and fulfill the needs of guests before they are even expressed. The essence, he says, is to ‘make you feel genuinely cared for in a holistic way; it’s not just slavish formality, it’s a sense of being looked after.‘ Of course, some find the ‘customer is god’ focus of omotenashi oppressive, but what Tim celebrates (by way of a quote from Masaru Urano) is an altogether purer, more genuine omotenashi – an extension of the gut-felt irasshaimase (welcome) that is centred on forging real relationships rather than a strict business owner-customer dynamic. This sense of generosity of spirit and hospitality is something that is often found in the best izakaya, and can be replicated at home when hosting family and friends.
Back to the food of izakaya then. As is common around the world, food intended to accompany drinking tends to be ‘strongly flavoured and addictive‘, and many izakaya stalwarts follow the same pattern, offering big bold flavours – spicy, salty, savoury. But of course there are dishes that don’t fit this mould – simple dishes that are soothing and comforting. Balance is a key component of Japanese cuisine, and that applies to izakaya menus as much as any others.
There are a few more topics before we reach the recipes. A tongue-in-cheek How-To Guide gives 8 steps to creating a home izakaya, one of which is to ‘ask a neighbour to stand outside your window and smoke cigarettes so you get a bit of second-hand smoke wafting in‘. Don’t write in – he’s kidding! Key Terms shares more izakaya vocabulary from B-kyu gurume to chuka ryori, shime and yoshoku. Essential Ingredients and More Ingredients provide handy pantry guides to key and useful ingredients for your store cupboard. Finally a short set of recipe notes to better understand how to measure ingredients, and which oils, rices, soy sauces and the like should be used when a specific isn’t given.
Recipes are divided into Light and Fresh; Bold and Burly; DIY Dining, Shime: Carbs, Carbs, Carbs; Sweets; Drinks; and Fundamentals.
The book is colourful, bold, and modern with unmistakably Japanese design motifs in the vivid illustrations that mark each new chapter. The majority of recipes have attractive photographs with similarly bold styling – rich backgrounds, bold colours, beautiful crockery, and very simple plating. You’ll find no extraneous props or raw ingredients strewn around the cooked dishes here – just the food itself, the occasional condiment, and the odd bottle of beer or glass of sake.
Light and Fresh is all about salads, cold vegetables and other light dishes. This is where you’ll find dishes like Edamame (green soy beans in their pods), the aptly named Addictive Cabbage (it really is!), Glass Noodle and Cucumber Salad, Simple Sashimi, Squid and Spring Onions with Citrus Miso, Stir-Fried Beansprouts with Dried Chilli (the perfect combo of crunch and chilli heat), Sake Steamed Clams, Tomatoes Marinated in Ginger Tsuyu, Chilled Tofu with Egg Yolk, Chilli Oil and Spring Onion (a perfect summer dish), Braised Daikon with Miso Sauce (winter warming comfort food), Miso-Marinated Tofu ‘Cheese’, Potato Salad with Ramen Eggs (creamy, crunchy, rich and satisfying), and ‘Japaniçoise’ Salad.
Bold and Burly, as you’d imagine, is full of punchy flavours: ‘meatier, fattier, cheesier and generally more weighty‘ than the previous chapter. These dishes often pair well with one or more of those in Light and Fresh. I’m drawn towards Cheese Crackers with Sesame and Nori (which strikes me as an epic beer snack), Stir-Fried Cabbage and Bacon in Curry Butter Sauce, Okonomi Fries (featuring the quintet of toppings enjoyed on okonomoyaki, takoyaki and yakisoba – brown sauce, mayo, aonori, red pickled ginger and katsuoboshi), Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter (a dish that is more than it’s rather simple constituent parts – a real flavour bomb), Aubergine-Wrapped Gyoza of Pork and Prawn (in which thin slicea of aubergine replace traditional gyoza wrappers), Korean-Style Beef Tartare (which puts me in mind of the dish I had in Stockholm’s Urban Deli), Braised Pig’s Trotter with a Crispy Crust, Baked Potatoes with Butter and Salmon Roe (which I tweaked to use new potatoes and salmon trout roe), Steamed Egg ‘Tofu’ with Mapo Sauce, Cheese and Onion Gyoza, Nasu Dengaku with Moussake Flavours, Karaage 6.0 (the latest iteration of Tim’s ever-evolving fried chicken recipe), Ham and Cheese Mille-Feuille Katsu, and Sea Bream Nanban-Zuke – the term nanban (barbarian) nowadays usually refers to dishes with their roots in Portuguese and Dutch recipes which arrived in Japan with early European explorers, traders and missionaries.
Although izakaya meals rarely follow a particular order Tim’s DIY Dining chapter includes the dishes that might be considered Mains nonetheless: ‘show-stopping hotpots, sizzling griddles and similar dishes that are heated or cooked at the table‘. They are often served family-style to share with one’s drinking companions. I don’t know if I have the patience to make a couple of these dishes, though I know I’d love to eat them! Oden (a classic winter stew – sold not only in restaurants and izakaya but also in convenience stores and at festival food stalls) requires the creation of a good stock before preparing and cooking all the stew items. Yakitori is a favourite but to really do it justice, I’d want to make at least four or five of the individual skewers Tim shares not to mention create a make-shift konro grill! But others, such as Wafu Fondue (Swiss-style cheese fondue), Dashi Buttered Mussels Flambeed with Whisky, Cheese Dakgalbi (Korean barbeque meets cheese fondue), Spicy Gyoza Hotpot (for which you can use ready-made frozen gyoza), and Okinawan Taco Rice Bibimbap-Style (a fusion of Americanised Mexican with Japanese), look far quicker and simpler to make.
Shime is a term used to describe dishes that ‘tie up’ (conclude) a meal, and in Japan, that very often means rice. In an izakaya, the carb-heavy last dish is somewhat more varied in form, and often satisfying enough to eat as a meal on its own. In Shime: Carbs, Carbs, Carbs you will find a range of carby comfort food cooking such as Crispy Noodle Modanyaki (a noodle-heavy style of okonomiyaki), Spicy Sesame Ramen Salad (a cold noodle dish based on tantanmen ramen), Chicken Katsu Curry Spaghetti, Fried Rice with Crispy Bits, Keema Curry Rice Gratin (taking elements from Japanese curry – itself based on Anglicised Indian curries – and French riz au gratin), Fish Finger Hand Rolls (which puts a British classic to use in a wholly Japanese way), Udon Carbonara with Bacon Tempura (yes, tempura-battered bacon!), and Fluffy-Creamy Omurice (a technique, Tim warns, that takes serious practise).
From these savoury chapters, we have made and loved Addictive Cabbage, Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter, Baked Potatoes with Butter and Salmon Roe (adapted by using new potatoes and salmon trout roe), and Keema Curry Rice Gratin. We’ve not just enjoyed each of these, we’ve utterly loved them and are now torn between making these same dishes again (and again), and trying all the other recipes that are calling so loudly!
We’ve not yet ventured into the Sweets chapter, though it contains temptations such as No-Churn Banana, Brown Sugar and Miso Sorbet, Yuzu and Shochu Ice with Candied Satsumas, Sweet Potato Mont Blanc (many of the best French patisseries I’ve had have been in Japan), Mochi with Toasted Soy Flour and Brown Sugar Syrup (a personal favourite), and Sake Glass Jelly with Seasonal Fruit.
The Drinks chapter starts with a helpful introduction to sake, shochu, umeshu and other Japanese drinks including beer, whisky and tea. This is followed by five cocktails including Cassis Oolong and Umeshu Kir.
To finish, Fundamentals gives guidance on how to cook rice followed by a collection of recipes for key stocks, sauces, dressings, pickles and ramen eggs.
The joy of this recipe collection (compared to the several other Japanese cookbooks I own) is the wide-ranging nature of the dishes Tim has shared, and how thoroughly they represent the fun, open-minded, and innovative side of Japanese cooking that is one of the wonders of eating out in Japan, especially in izakaya. As Tim says of izakaya food, the joy of ‘an “anything-goes approach” is that, as long as it’s fun and tastes good with beer or sake, it’s fair game‘.
Acknowledging that Your Home Izakaya will be released in many different international markets, instead of recommended shops and online retailers from which to source ingredients, Tim’s Resources page recommends instead a carefully curated reading list covering izakaya cooking, wider Japanese cooking, and Japanese culture. I’ve added several to my wish list!
Interspersed between all of the delicious content I’ve described is one more source of pleasure for the reader, a series of personal essays. In two of these, Tim tells us about two favourite izakaya memories in London, the first at what he affectionately calls Bar Yuki (his friend’s flat and proof of concept of the premise of Tim’s book that you can create a great izakaya experience in your home) and the second at Fumio Tanga’s Sho Foo Doh okonomiyaki market stall, pop-ups and residencies. In another essay we read of the time Tim’s family hosted Japanese exchange student Yumiko and how, many years later, Tim and his parents reconnected with her in Japan, and were so warmly looked after. Another story tells us about Sakagura Sakuragi (the tale of a sake bar that is also a moving memoir about Tim’s mother-in-law’s family). Of course, there are shorter anecdotes throughout the book by way of recipe introductions; these often share a tale of a dish Tim ate in Japan, or an izakaya he visited and loved. Many are full of gentle humour or laugh-out-loud funny.
A book that makes you alternatively raise your eyebrows, giggle and salivate as you read is a joy indeed.
Recipes From Your Home Izakaya
We are delighted to share these three recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Hardie Grant [coming soon – one per day from tomorrow].
- Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter
- Baked Potatoes with Butter and Salmon Roe
- Cheese and Onion Gyoza
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan by Tim Anderson from publisher Hardie Grant.