On any regular Thursday evening in Tokyo, you’d probably find me in a restaurant or bar, soaking up the crowds, cramped conditions and conversation (the “three Cs”), but most of all, enjoying the food. Ranked by the number of Michelin-starred restaurants, Tokyo is the greatest culinary city in the world, and not being able to dine out has been one of the more minor tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, even though the state of emergency has run its course, you’re more likely to find me hunched over a gas burner, waiting for mirin- and shoyu-laden sauces to thicken as I do my best to recreate the dishes I miss the most. The efforts aren’t unguided and, when off the stove, my nose is pressed to the pages of a cookbook, taking inspiration from those who have taken great care to demystify the cuisine and write recipes that are both easy to follow and delicious.
One of my favorites has been “The Real Japanese Izakaya Cookbook.” Published last November, it is a cookbook for those missing the esteemed Japanese establishments known as izakaya. The book has recipes for 120 izakaya-style snacks, from karaage (fried chicken) and gyōza (dumplings) to more ambitious dishes such as glazed pork belly with seasonal greens. The instructions are all easy to follow, and there’s a comprehensive section on the cooking techniques that underpin the recipes. (Tip: If you’re looking for pork belly or any of the basics of Japanese cuisine in bulk, Hanamasa is your best bet in Tokyo)
For deeper insight into those techniques, pick up “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.” It is one of the biblical texts of Japanese cooking, and a Rosetta Stone for understanding its culinary concepts. The book is written by Shizuo Tsuji, the founder of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, and it was originally published in 1980. It celebrated its 25th anniversary with a new edition, which is still in print today. The recipes range from the simple to the highly involved, and are backed up with a wealth of knowledge about ingredients — both common and unheard of — and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of plants, fish and cooking techniques. If you want to know why lumpy batter is better for tempura, or how to prevent your chopping board picking up the smell of fish as you de-scale it, this is the book for you.
Also in the Japanese cooking canon is Elizabeth Andoh’s “Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen.” Andoh first came to Japan in 1966 and has since made a career out of decoding Japanese food for a non-Japanese audience. “Washoku,” first published in 2005, earned Andoh an IACP Award and a nomination for the James Beard Award, and serves as a more modern accompaniment to “Japanese Cooking.” Andoh is as comprehensive as Tsuji, but the presentation of her cookbook is more in line with what you might expect from a North American or U.K. cookbook, with recipes ordered around ingredients rather than the traditional Japanese course meal used as the foundation of Tsuji’s book. It also opts for lush photos of the dishes in the place of illustrations.
Learning Japanese cooking should really go hand in hand with learning the language (if you don’t already know it). Many ingredients and techniques have no good translation, and it’s better to pick up the terminology at source if you can. Enter, “100 Recipes from Japanese Cooking,” part of the Kodansha Bilingual Books series. The recipes focus on easy-to-make dishes commonly found in Japan such as okonomiyaki (a savory “pancake” — see, no good translation), with accompanying illustrations of each of the dishes.
Before we all rush back to the office, now’s the ideal time to learn an impressive bento recipe or two, to wow your colleagues and show them working from home wasn’t all long afternoon naps and convenience store onigiri. Regular contributor to The Japan Times, Makiko Itoh, brings bento to life in her two books dedicated to the boxed meal: “The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go” and “The Just Bento Cookbook 2: Make-Ahead, Easy, Healthy Lunches To Go,” which has an expanded selection of vegetarian, vegan and low-carb meals.
Sushi is arguably Japan’s most famous cultural export, and a comprehensive book to turn to for the avid home cook is Nick Sakagami’s “Sushi Master.” Sakagami is the only person outside of Japan to hold the rank of a o-sakana maisutā (fish master) and “Sushi Master” draws on his years of experience sourcing fish to introduce sushi culture and a selection of recipes so that you can make maki, nigiri and, dare I say it, even California rolls at home. Best hope you live somewhere with fresh fish. To complement “Sushi Master,” consider investing in Kikuo Shimizu’s reference book “Edomae Sushi: Art, Tradition, Simplicity,” which charts sushi’s journey from its origins as a portside street food to the present day.
Finally I’d recommend “Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint,” the autobiography and cookbook of ramen chef and New Yorker Ivan Orkin. Orkin is the loudmouthed star of an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” series, where he shows his passion for the dish through a stream of expletives and bowl after bowl of elegant noodles. At one point, Orkin ran two ramen restaurants in Tokyo and he became known for his shio (salt-based) ramen, the recipe for which is contained in the pages of this book. There are no shortcuts to making good ramen, but at least in Orkin’s company, you’ll have great fun while you’re at it.