Japanese food is my favorite. Growing up, our family would go to our local Japanese restaurant almost every Thursday. My dad even spilled miso soup on me there as a baby. No hard feelings Dad!
As an adult, I’ve been attending a Japanese Christian church where I’ve been able to learn about certain traditions, like our annual mochitsuki festival, and how to make Japanese food, like tsukemono, tamagoyaki, okara balls, and miso.
What makes Japanese food special is not just the delicious flavors, but also the simplicity, healthfulness and beauty of the food. In Cook Japanese at Home: From Soba and Ramen to Teriyaki and Hot Pots, 200 Everyday Recipes Using Simple Techniques, Kimiko Barber makes this delightful cuisine accessible to all of us who love Japanese food!
This is the cookbook I’ve always wanted. Kimiko has included recipes for everything I’ve wanted to learn how to make. The processes are simple and the ingredient lists short. And best of all, these are dishes that I can make for a weeknight meal. Nothing too fancy schmancy here. This is real Japanese cooking.
Japanese meal whether served in restaurants or at home is based on the basic format called ichi-j?-san-sai, one-soup-three-side dishes. A typical menu consists of cooked rice, soup, fish or meat dish, one or two vegetable dishes cooked in different methods including some pickles. Up until the beginning of the 20th century Japanese family did not sit around a table but sat on tatami floor and ate their meal served on individual tray tables, called zen, which were big enough to hold a rice bowl, soup usually but not always miso soup, and one or two, at most three side dishes, plus a small saucer of pickles. The size of the tray table meant that the soup and three side dishes to accompany the main which was and still is rice, were the maximum served in ordinary home cooking. Today, zen disappeared and Japanese family sit around a table to eat their meal but the reminder of old tray tables can still be seen in fine Japanese restaurants where food are often served on trays, one set at each place to hold chopsticks, sake cup, and the courses of the meal as they are served. The main difference between restaurant and home cooking is that the number of different side dishes and soups. In quality restaurants soups often appear more than once, clear soup at the beginning of a meal, which is considered as the test of chefs’ skills, and sophisticated red miso soup at the end. In contrast at everyday family meal only one soup is served along with all other side dishes and rice and it is almost always miso soup that is also known as ‘mother’s taste’ no restaurant chefs can match. At a restaurant diners are treated with multiple courses of side dishes starting with a small starter dish, clear soup, sashimi, grilled seasonal fish, simmered seasonal vegetables, deep-fry, steamed, vinegar-seasoned (rather like salad), and finally cooked rice, miso soup and pickles. They are all served one dish at a time except rice, miso soup and pickles.
So in short, Japanese family food is relatively modest affair based on one-soup-three-side-dish format and all the food is served at once on the table.
This is a perfectly understandable question but actually cooking is universally the same – according to Oxford English dictionary, it is the practice or skill of preparing food by combining, mixing or heating ingredients. However, without going into complicated philosophical discussion, what sets washoku, Japanese food and cooking apart is that our respect for nature because we believe nature knows best. Putting this in a practical term, if an ingredient is best eaten raw or as close as to its natural state, we eat it raw and cooks get praised for her/his skills in drawing out natural taste of each ingredient rather than over-loading it with seasonings. This means shopping the best, freshest seasonal ingredients whenever possible is an important part of cooks’ skills. Japanese cooking puts more emphasis on preparation and actual cooking is often quite brief. There is nothing different in Japanese cooking techniques from that of the western cooking except we don’t roast or bake in the oven but cook on surface heat. This means you can’t put things in the oven and expect to cook itself but needs standing over a pan to attend. However, I have included many recipes in my book that are adapted to suit western home cooks. Nowadays getting essential Japanese ingredients has become much easier and what I suggest you have in your kitchen cupboard are soy sauce, miso, rice vinegar, sake and mirin and perhaps wasabi either in a tube or powder and sesame seeds. All of these ingredients can be stored relatively long periods.
I have already mentioned that a Japanese meal is based on the basic format of ichi-j?-san-sai, one-soup-three-side dishes to accompany cooked rice. The menu depends on the season. For example, in spring, pea rice (p94) instead of usual plain boiled rice, clam miso soup, pan-fried pork with ginger (p180) with dashi-soaked spinach (p19) or/and fine bean in black sesame dressing (p59). Japanese summer is relentlessly hot and humid and people tend to lose their appetite so weekday dinner may be replaced by a big salad like grilled summer vegetables with spicy soy dressing (p64) and noodle dishes such as chilled soba in basket (p78), chilled Chinese-style noodle salad (p88), and for protein source, chilled tofu with lots of different toppings (p12). Japanese people love mushrooms and autumn is the best season for them – mushroom rice (p94), three mushroom and spinach miso soup, Japanese family favorite of beef and potato (p191) or tofu steaks with mushrooms (p160), grilled sanma, Pacific saury with grated daikon, giant white radish is another autumn favorite. (unfortunately this great fish is not available fresh outside Japan, so it isn’t included in my book). One season I still miss after living in Britain is Japanese winter because it is crisp dry and sky is crystal blue plus many warm comforting foods. Yellowtail with giant white radish is undisputed winter family favorite and we make a big pot of this to last a few meal. For warm comfort, we make a lot of rice porridge like egg and chive porridge (p104). Hotpot which is the Japanese equivalent of stew is popular winter dish but perhaps not for Tuesday dinner but for Friday and weekends.
My advice is simple – start cooking something you like to eat and don’t feel you need to cook a whole meal consisting all Japanese dishes but just one. Why not begin with miso soup as a starter (page 36~) or making one of the basic dressings (page 51) as summer season is fast approaching. My book is intended towards non-Japanese home cooks, so all the recipes are easy to follow and ingredients are also readily available plus alternatives are given whenever possible. Furthermore the book is designed in western cookbook format of starters, main course, side dishes and desserts while key ingredients such as noodles, tofu or miso are explained in detail, so that readers can get full comprehensive information including how to store and health benefits.
Kimiko was kind to share a recipe with us!
From Cook Japanese at Home by Kimiko Barber
4 waxy potatoes such as Fingerling,
Yukon Gold or red, scrubbed
14 ounces pointed spring cabbage (sweetheart lettage), or Savoy
4 baby leeks, trimmed
3½ ounces broccolini
For the sesame miso dressing
4 tablespoons white toasted sesame seeds
4 tablespoons medium-colored miso such as sendai or shinshu ? miso paste
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
1. Cut the potatoes into 2/3-inch thick slices and soak in a bowl of water for 10 minutes. This will wash off the starch, and stop discoloration while you prepare the other vegetables.
2. Cut the carrots into 2/3-inch thick slices on the diagonal. Cut the cabbage into large bite-size chunks.
3. Drain the potatoes, and put them at the bottom of a large steaming basket with all the other vegetables on top. Sprinkle over some salt, then steam over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, or until they are cooked through. Turn off the heat, and transfer to a large platter.
4. While the vegetables are being steamed, prepare the dressing. Put the sesame seeds in a suribachi, Japanese mortar, and grind until most of the seeds are crushed. Add the remaining dressing ingredients except the vinegar, and grind to mix. Gradually add the vinegar while continuing to mix — you may need to add more or less — until the mixture becomes like light cream in consistency.
5. Drizzle the sesame miso dressing over the warm vegetables, and serve immediately.
What Japanese food do you want to cook at home?