When Nancy Singleton Hachisu was growing up in California, vegetables came from a can and organic meant “grungy” produce in scattered, dusty shops, part of a tofu and tie-dyed universe.
Now a food-education leader for Slow Food Japan, a supporter of “more than organic,” natural farming and the author of new cookbook “Japanese Farm Food,” Hachisu admits, “Food has always been a part of my life, a part of my every day and my identity.
“I remember sitting on a stool in the kitchen as a child, watching my mother cook. It was incredibly formative for me, sharing that kitchen.”
Hachisu shared her own kitchen on Sept. 4, with the publication of “Japanese Farm Food.” The recipes range from tsumami (small bites) to dessert, gorgeously photographed and seasoned with essays and information not only about Japanese country food — drawn from her 20 years’ experience — but about everything from sufficiency to spiritual nourishment.
Although the cookbook celebrates her Kamikawa community in Saitama Prefecture, neither the recipes nor the essays romanticize farm life.
“The thing about living in the country is that every day you must do things from your own energy source,” she says. “People call it simplicity, but that’s not exactly right. Life in the country is so elemental. We do our work; we make food; we contribute to the growth or storage or care of food, and try to keep life buoyant.”
Falling in love with a Japanese organic-egg farmer, Tadaaki Hachisu, while initially in Japan for just one year to “learn the language and indulge in sushi,” Hachisu found herself transplanted to a countryside world where she obviously thrives. She and her husband have concocted a new realm for their bicultural, countryside family, and deliberately connected it to a larger gastronomical universe.
When their three children were old enough, Hachisu whisked them abroad. “I wanted to travel,” she says. “I wanted to explore food and eat in other countries.”
Taking her children to Italy and France and making it part of their home-schooled education, she searched for like-minded lovers of food. Hachisu joined the Italian organization Slow Food and started a local Saitama chapter when she returned to Japan. She also connected with American organic-food pioneer Alice Waters, owner-chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Patricia Wells, a noted food journalist based in France.
“All of a sudden it was like a spiderweb, connecting with people all over the world, developing relationships over years — just like we do in Japan, when you go to the same market or tofu shop over time.”
Hachisu hopes her book bridges the distances everywhere between city dwellers and the country. “Farmers markets in Japan are still not hugely successful,” Hachisu believes, “because, even after Fukushima, ultimately people are still looking for the best price. I am afraid every day about Japan’s lack of self-sufficiency, but it goes much deeper than food. It’s the crafts, the making and producing of things in country life, from baskets to pottery to the local blacksmith crafting everyday knives. People don’t buy from the small artisans anymore because it’s more expensive. But I believe deeply that agricultural values are the heart of Japan, so keeping the agricultural world alive and viable gives the whole nation a strength of courage and confidence.”
Hachisu offers two morsels of practical advice for city dwellers seeking to emulate country life. First, “Find the source of what you want to buy, and then only buy from that source. You will cook more easily and naturally if you buy a lot of one thing from the source.”
She also recommends against shopping to suit a recipe: “You don’t go to the fishmonger looking for salmon; buy what is in season, what your fishmonger recommends — then find a recipe to match what is freshest today.”
“Japanese Farm Food” showcases this fresh world, with handmade baskets, pottery and traditional fabrics alongside recipes for dishes such as Egg Custard With Flowering Mustard in Sour Orange Halves, and Bitter Melon Stir-Fried With Egg and Red Pepper; such recipes are more elegant than you would expect from a hearty farmer’s table, and they highlight her many international food connections.
There’s also a no-frills touch to the cookbook. Hachisu admits the original title was “Japanese Men Cook,” because, “I had never found a Japanese cookbook that showed the same kind of cooking as my husband’s; the no-sugar, nonfussy element of it.” Such recipes include Raw Egg on Hot Rice, and Miso-Broiled Cod.
As a resource, the cookbook offers much in the way of the practical, with a detailed introduction to the Japanese pantry. An especially useful appendix tables different methods of cooking and preparation by ingredient. The heavy 386-page hardback is beautifully presented and designed, with large color pictures and a cloth spine.
Ultimately, “Japanese Farm Foods” is more than a cookbook: It is a thoughtful manual for more elemental living.
Hachisu remembers when she first “got” the reason behind organic, when she first saw past the grungy produce. “I was still in high school, and I visited a small market in San Francisco, selling produce from a ranch I had visited outside of Stanford University,” she says. “The vegetables were bright, colorful; they were still alive with energy. I realized they had been grown with thoughtfulness and respect, and that made the difference.”
“Japanese Farm Foods” is out now, published by Andrews McMeel. www.japanesefarmfood.com.