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New book gets to the soul of Japanese home cooking

by Steve Trautlein

Like the Denver Broncos, the Nikkei stock index and “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón, Japanese food is on a hot streak. Here at home, the revival of interest in classic regional fare known as B-kyū gourmet (B-level cuisine) has spread to supermarket shelves and fast-food menus around the country. Overseas, everyone from the casual restaurant-goer to the head of the U.N.’s cultural agency has been lavishing unprecedented levels of attention and praise on washoku.

And yet, there is a disconnect between the everyday cuisine that’s enjoyed in Japan and the food that’s singled out for acclaim by most foreigners. Sure, ramen has become a mainstay dish of trendsters across the globe, but the cuisine that generates the greatest interest abroad — sushi, sushi rolls, kaiseki and the like — is not a typical part of the Japanese daily routine. It’s safe to say that even the most dedicated foodies living outside the country lack familiarity with down-home dishes such as yakisoba fried noodles, soup curry or tekka don (marinated tuna over rice).

That’s what makes “Japanese Soul Cooking,” published in November by California-based Ten Speed Press, such a welcome addition to the B-kyū bookshelf. Subtitled “Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More From the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond,” the book celebrates the kind of food that’s prepared and eaten in homes and restaurants across the nation. It features engaging anecdotes, lush location photography and more than 100 recipes, eschewing the likes of sashimi and sukiyaki in favor of fry-ups, rice bowls and noodles.

“Japanese Soul Cooking” is the third collaboration between New York-based food enthusiasts Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Ono, a Tokyo native, is a veteran chef and restaurateur who has been based in the U.S. since the 1980s; Brooklyn-born Salat is a former journalist whose passion for Japanese pottery led to an interest in cooking that drove him to seek out kitchen work in Fukuoka, Tokyo and New York. The pair had previously co-authored “Japanese Hot Pots” (2009) and “The Japanese Grill” (2011), and their partnership extends beyond the realm of publishing: Ono served as a culinary mentor to Salat, who opened his own well-regarded Japanese eatery, Ganso, in Brooklyn in 2012.

“We wanted the book to show the living, breathing aspect of Japanese food,” Salat told me by Skype earlier this month. “We wanted to get into some of the old-school stuff. There’s still such a growing awareness of Japanese food (overseas).”

“Japanese Soul Cooking” does double duty as a cookbook and a cultural guide. Each of the 13 chapters, which range from “Kara-age” and “Donburi” to “Gyoza” and “Okonomiyaki,” is prefaced with an account of the dish’s origins and some thoughts on its place in the local culinary tradition. For instance, the tempura variation known as tendon is well-loved comfort food, but who knew it was created all the way back in 1837 by a Tokyo restaurant called Misada? Or that the gratin-like doria was devised by a Swiss chef at Yokohama’s Hotel New Grand to soothe the stomach of a dyspeptic guest? The chapter on curry begins with a lovely account of the dish’s arrival from Britain and how it’s been endlessly modified by local cooks. “If you visit a hundred homes in Japan,” the authors write, “you’ll find a hundred styles of curry.”

According to Salat, this focus on the sociological aspects of cuisine was an unplanned, but natural, outgrowth of his and Ono’s research. “Every time we began looking into these dishes,” he says, “we started to discover how they fit into the overarching transformation of Japanese culture since the Meiji (Era). That surprised us.”

Even readers who come to the book with a grounding in Japanese food will find much of interest. Many of us can tell the difference between shoyu ramen and miso ramen; leave it to Salat and Ono to instruct the home cook to marinate the pork topping for the former but not the latter “so as not to overpower the miso-based soup.” Peppering the book are special “master recipes” that cover essential building blocks of Japanese cuisine, including dashi, tempura batter and tsuyu broth.

In contrast to most Japanese cookbooks, seafood plays a largely supporting role in Salat and Ono’s work. Yet one of the most entertaining sections recounts the authors’ adventures on the open water. During a weeklong photo shoot and research trip to Tokyo, the team managed to hitch a ride on the Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol ship Hachijo, where they partook in a ritual that is hallowed among Japanese sailors: Friday curry. “Picture a cement mixer and you’ll get an idea of the size of a typical ship-board cooking pot,” they write.

Salat praises the “tremendous” support he and Ono received during their visit from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other agencies. Anyone who reads “Japanese Soul Cooking” will realize that the TMG would have been foolish not to help. In their salute to populist cooking, the authors bring Japanese cuisine down from lofty heights and back to where it belongs — in the kitchens of ordinary folks like us.

“Japanese Soul Cooking” by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat is available at bookstores throughout Japan and from Amazon.co.jp. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.