Key ingredient in Japanese cuisine found in the mind

by Kris Kosaka

It started with a bowl of udon. Elizabeth Andoh, recognized expert on washoku and contributor to Gourmet magazine for over 30 years, cannot really discern a logical path to her success in the Japanese Epicurean kitchen.

Andoh was a university student, embarking on an intensive language training course in Tokyo when confronted with the fateful udon. After two months on the island of Shikoku — her first experience in Japan — she could hardly believe that the unappetizing mass served at the university shokudo (cafeteria) could be the same food. “After tasting that fabulous udon my future mother-in-law made and the garbage that went under the same name at the cafeteria, I thought, how could this be? What is there about preparing food that can do this?”

Andoh, with the eye of an artist and the hands of a surgeon — she comes from a family of doctors — found both her creative and intellectual sides engaged with this conundrum.

Today, she calls this idea a kaleidoscope. “We, as people, have much the same chips, yellow, blue, and red. But the patterns we create as humans are different, the way in which they are organized and reorganized to make something truly unique.”

Andoh had experienced this “point of diversion” in both art and writing; as a young student at the University of Michigan, she worked part-time for the Michigan Daily, which she describes as “very understaffed.” The same person, she remembers, “wrote under several bylines, so you learned to write the same story many different ways.”

Andoh realized, with the vastly dissimilar bowls of udon, that this point of diversion exists as well in the preparation and presentation of food. “It is not necessarily the materials or the experience, but it is the person and what they bring to it, that makes the difference how they put it all together.”

Of course, Andoh acknowledges, the experiences must come first. Coming to Japan was “a happy accident.” While a student, Andoh became aware there was an unclaimed scholarship to study in Japan and she was encouraged to apply.

“A number of events were happening in the early ’60s, including Kennedy’s assassination, that made me think, I could take a little vacation someplace else and give it a go.”

A series of coincidences, including an invitation to study at the language course in Tokyo, extended her stay. “The word that I use is serendipity,” Andoh says, but the contrast to her former life was marked.

“When I landed up in Shikoku in the early ’60s there were no flush toilets, only a well you had to pump water for, no running water, an icebox rather than a refrigerator, it was quaint until you had to use an outhouse.” Born and raised in New York City, Andoh’s shock was more from the rural world’s contrast to city life than cultural differences.

Andoh was no stranger to a variety of cultures. She grew up among immigrant families in 1940s’ New York, and was thus exposed to a lot of cultures and a lot of different foods. Although she was no cook herself when she landed by chance in the Andoh home in Shikoku for a two-month homestay, she immediately appreciated the diligent creativity that went into feeding a busy household. Observing the activity in the Andoh kitchen, not everything made sense. The language barrier, too, was significant, but her curiosity deepened, and Shikoku became her home away from home within Japan. Andoh’s future husband, the seventh child in this large family, was not in Shikoku during those early months. Recently graduated from university, he was working in Tokyo. Eventually, the two would meet, “but we both realized it is not accurate to say he was the reason I came or stayed.”

After her move to Tokyo for the language course, Andoh’s future mother-in-law recommended the program “Kyo no Ryori,” (“Today’s Cooking”) and introduced her to the work of Yanagihara sensei and his school of classical Japanese cooking in the Kinsaryu style. “I came to cooking out of necessity,” Andoh admits.

Married in 1969, her background in art landed her a job designing puppets and board games for children learning English through dialogue. With this busy career, she longed to create the same efficiency and delicious sustenance in her Tokyo kitchen that she had experienced while in Shikoku. She thus applied for night cooking classes offered by Yanagihara.

Open to anyone for the first year, students were only invited to stay under special circumstances for continued study. Yanagihara, a writer himself with a column in the Asahi Shinbum, recognized Andoh’s talent and ability to bring the message of washoku to the English-speaking world.

With Yanagihara’s encouragement, Andoh contacted Gourmet magazine in 1972. A series of articles was published, and somehow the disparate pieces of her experience as writer, artist, fledgling culinary instructor, realigned to form her future.

Realizing there was a steady stream of young foreign wives in the Tokyo area, Andoh opened her own school of culinary arts, Taste of Culture, with Yanagihara’s support and encouragement in 1973, as soon as she had completed three years of study and earned her menjo.

Life as a young family was evolving as well, and the Andohs celebrated their daughter’s birth in 1975. As a family, they decided to school her in America, and Andoh’s husband received an overseas posting from his company.

The ’80s were spent back in New York, a time Andoh admits was difficult due to re-entry shock. Still, the period allowed her to consider washoku from an outsider’s perspective; after 20 years cooking in Japan, Andoh was more familiar with the insider’s perspective.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, she continued writing for Gourmet and other publications, and released three cookbooks on Japanese cuisine.

In 2005, more than 10 years after returning to Japan, the bits and flecks of Andoh’s experiences, her early writings and cookbooks, recombined to form “Washoku,” published by Ten Speed Press.

Part cookbook, part anthropologist’s guide, part philosophical tome, Andoh combines over 40 years of experience in the Japanese kitchen. Her insights on culture and a people reach deeper than just a guide for cooking.

“As an anthropologist, there is nothing better than to look at dietary behavior to tell you about people. Everyone gets hungry every day. What they will eat, what they won’t it, who they’ll share it with, who they won’t, how they prepare it, the special meaning they imbue it with or not — I don’t think there is any other human endeavor more telling about culture than food.”

Her bicultural perspective on Japan’s food culture helped her in writing “Washoku,” and to test her recipes, she enlisted the help of home cooks, residing mostly in North America but scattered about the world.

As Andoh explains, “not your usual locations, like New York, or San Franciso, or L.A. I had people from Boise, Idaho, Billings, Mont., Albuquerque, N.M., Cleveland, Ohio; also Cairo, Egypt.” Her determination to test the recipes in “real kitchens” met with skepticism at first from her publishers, but the success of the book has proven it was a wise decision.

Now in her 60s, Andoh busily works on her next book, “Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegetarian Traditions,” due out in September 2010. The flecks and glimmers of her artistry have also been rearranged through the years in training with traditional Japanese woodblock print-making and pottery, her involvement in traditional Japanese storytelling, but the most valuable thing Andoh brings to the table is her passionate commitment to excellence, in whatever form.

Andoh proves, with her life and her work, that you don’t need to be ethnically Japanese to appreciate or practice washoku, provided you understand and incorporate the basic principles.

“Washoku is a state of mind, it is not a question of geography; it is a notion and wherever in the world you are you apply those notions to what you are doing and you’ve got truly Japanese food.”