Harumi Kurihara: Homing in on success

by and

As a cook and lifestyle guru, Harumi Kurihara has often been dubbed Japan’s answer to America’s Martha Stewart or Britain’s Delia Smith. But in February this year, she scaled new heights when the English-language edition of her book “Harumi no Japanese Cooking” — titled “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” — was judged Best Cookbook of 2004 — the highest honor bestowed at the 10th Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Orebro, Sweden. In scooping what’s known in the culinary world as the “Cookbook Oscar,” Kurihara not only outshone 5,000 entries from 67 countries, but she also became the first Asian to be awarded the honor.

Though international fame now seems to be hers for the taking — with Spanish, French and Dutch editions of her book already out, and German and U.S. ones set for next year — Kurihara has long been a household name at home. Here, her books have sold almost 6.5 million copies, her quarterly magazine, Suteki Reshipi (Lovely Recipes), has sold 8.7 million copies and she has a long-running cookery series in the women’s magazine Lee. As well as that, her company, Yutori no Kukan (Relaxed Space), runs six restaurants, as well as 25 department-store outlets nationwide that bear her name and sell household goods ranging from dishes and kitchen utensils to T-shirts, towels and aprons.

So what is so special about Japan’s best-known karisuma shufu (charisma housewife)?

Well, according to Edouard Cointreau (of that liqueur ilk), founder and president of the Gourmand Awards, Kurihara’s cooking exemplifies “the strongest trend in cookbooks today: a simple, down-to-earth approach to stylish living and eating, with a philosophy of elegance and simplicity.’

In Kurihara’s own view, she has struck a popular chord because she is “only one-sixth of a step ahead of the times,” and because her ideas all come from her own experience — whether finding a good way to use leftover edamame (green soybeans in the pod) or imagining how to have fun cleaning the house. In fact, despite her phenomenal success, which has brought her an inhumanly hectic work and travel schedule, she insists that her mind-set as a regular housewife has not changed.

Petite and looking a generation younger than her actual age of 58, the friendly and unpretentious mother of two grown-up children took time out recently for an interview with The Japan Times in her elegantly decorated home-cum-office in an upscale Tokyo neighborhood.

How did you start to promote your work abroad?

I first went to London about eight years ago to do a story for my magazine, and I met a British coordinator named Sue Hudson who speaks Japanese fluently and was an English teacher here a long time ago. Sue and I got on really well, and she has been working for me in Britain ever since.

One time, six or seven years ago, we visited a farm in Scotland to do a story about local home cooking. While we were there, they had some leftover beef, so I prepared steak with butter, soy sauce, wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and wine. They loved it, because I guess if you go as far as Scotland, the fact that soy sauce and butter taste great together is still not widely known. Some people eat sushi, but they don’t really use soy sauce in their cooking. At least back then they didn’t. Sue saw their reaction and said my cooking would appeal to foreigners, especially because it’s so simple and easy to cook.

Since then I have been visiting Britain once or twice a year, staying in rented condominiums, buying local produce and cooking for TV programs.

Over there, I cook my regular Japanese recipes for my staff, and they love them — whether it’s tendon (tempura on rice), katsudon (deep-fried pork on rice) or oyakodon (egg and chicken on rice). I also buy maguro (tuna) locally and mix it with avocado, negi (green onion) and shoga (ginger). Then I grind basil and fresh mint — that’s instead of oba (perilla), because it’s not available over there — and mix them all together and pour them over freshly cooked rice. For toppings, I always bring my tube of wasabi paste, nori (seaweed) and goma (sesame seed) from Japan.

How did you come to have your book published in English?

When Sue saw how much my staff loved these dishes she said we should definitely publish a book in English. That was about four years ago. It wasn’t easy, since I was a nobody there, but she was very determined and found a publisher. Then I suddenly got that award. I still wonder how it happened (laughs).

My husband always says that it was thanks to all the grassroot efforts by crusaders for traditional Japanese cooking who came before me, who, though they often struggled to find ingredients, continually promoted Japanese cooking overseas and thus laid the foundation for me. So I might not have won the award a year before, or a year later, because it wasn’t just me going overseas and getting accepted, but because foreigners already thought that Japanese food was healthy, simple . . . and surprisingly nice. I also find that foreigners find the ability to use chopsticks very fashionable.

What do you think was distinctive in your style that appealed to them?

I make it a rule to offer recipes that foreigners can really follow. For example, my avocado and tofu sauce recipe is very popular because it looks healthy and is filling. I prepare sweet yakitori (grilled chicken) and put my sauce over it, whereas they might only have sprinkled salt and pepper on the chicken and put an avocado sauce on top. But when they learn they can mix in tofu, they love it, because it is healthier. Gomadare (sesame sauce) is another one. Japanese people use sesame paste a lot, but if you can’t find it over there, they can use peanut butter instead.

What was the judging process like at the Gourmand Awards?

I still wonder why my book was chosen. The candidates’ books all looked great, but my publishers had put on the cover that I am Japan’s equivalent of British home-making guru Delia Smith. I didn’t want them to do that (laughs), but they needed to because I was unknown in the UK. I had also done a lot of cookery demonstrations for the local media, and they went down very well and helped to promote my book.

One time I showed them how to make roll sushi, and I also made kakitama (stirred egg soup). They were amazed at the way the soup got so thick when I blended potato starch into water and put it into the soup, and then poured eggs in. They were like, “How did that happen?” I said, in my poor English, “Magic” (laughs). At that time, I had all the instructions interpreted by Sue, but getting the award made me want to study English so I could convey the subtle tips myself. All my life I have tried to remain a housewife, so having a job, getting an award and learning English had never been in my plans.

Life is amazing; the smallest things can lead to great opportunities. When I started working, I never thought it would lead to a lifelong career. I’m such a workaholic today, but I never intended to be. I wasn’t told by anybody to work like I do today, and I never had a burning ambition, really, to carve out a career. But I never quit working, and that was probably good.

I understand you started your career as an assistant on a TV cookery program called “Yushoku Banzai (Cheers for Dinner).” What was that like?

I struggled like anyone doing their first job. But I learned a lot. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have acquired any social skills. I was just an assistant, and my job was to do all the behind-the-scenes work for the tarento (TV celebrities) — I didn’t have any opportunity to express myself or be addressed by name. When I started out, I was not really determined to seriously commit myself to work. But I realized strongly during those three years that, if I were to work, I would have to offer something special that people recognized me for, or I would end up living in obscurity. In hindsight, that might be why I kept on working.

How did you move from that to, first, writing your cookery column in the women’s monthly magazine, Lee, and then launching your Harumi Kurihara brand?

Well, the three-year stint on the TV program made me feel that I had done enough assistant work. Then something strange happened. An editor at Lee, who years before had visited our home to interview my husband (who was a TV anchor), remembered the food I had served up, and she contacted me to ask if I could be featured introducing some of my recipes. The first article was about 16 pages long. Then, the following month, they featured me cooking fish dishes, which were not so popular among Japanese housewives back then. So afterward, they continued to feature me and it turned into a series. Because I was spread over more than 10 pages each time, it must have made a big impact, and similar offers from other publications started flooding in. I have a special attachment to Lee, and even now — 21 or 22 years later — I still have my column there.

You are dubbed Japan’s karisuma shufu (charisma housewife), and a lot of women adore your lifestyle and love your tips on how to enjoy homemaking. What are your thoughts on Japan’s housewives?

I feel queasy about being called a karisuma shufu. I feel I have been a housewife all along, as I have this old-fashioned view that a woman should not work unless she can take care of the home as well. I have cooked dinners and prepared boxed lunches for my children, and have taken care of my husband. Homemaking, I think, is a great job for women. I enjoy being a shufu. I may not be a professional cook, but I’m a professional housewife (laughs).

My husband likes to eat at home, so I cook dinner for him every night — even if I am busy and not there, I leave it for him. Otherwise, I would be just cooking meals for work. Inspiration for my recipes often comes from the left-over food in our house. If I cooked in order to fill slots on TV programs or magazine pages, the dishes would get too fancy and too out of the ordinary and be not quite mine. That kind of cooking does not fit my style. A long time ago, when I was swamped with work, I felt like I had to cook to fill all those pages. But that felt so unlike me.

So are you trying to present something that oozes a real sense of life, instead of art?

Yes. I stay away from the kind of recipes that would require just a little bit of shredded aka-piiman (red paprika), for example, and would leave you wondering, “What am I going to do with the rest of it?” (laughs) . . . Carrots, onions and potatoes are often left over, so I’m always racking my brain how to use them up.

What I always say is, don’t try to follow my recipes perfectly. If I say in my recipe, “Use 200 grams of edamame,” when you actually have 250 grams, you can improvise. But people follow the guidelines so rigidly. If they have only three eggplants when my recipe says four, they rush out to get another one (laughs). They don’t have to do that.

Many women are psychologically bound by rules, and I try to free them up. Improvising is the fun part of cooking . . . I first try out new recipes on my family, and if they like them, I put them in the magazines.

I waste no food. In creating recipes, I try to be a one-sixth step ahead of the times; If I am way too far ahead, I would find no one behind me when I turned back (laughs). I try to create recipes that won’t make people feel like, “It works for you, because you are different.”

How do you get inspiration for your recipes and presentation ideas?

Those things just pop into my mind. I try to come up with cute and interesting presentations so that young people, who are not so interested in cooking, can enjoy it.

These days, though, cheap take-out dishes are widely available, and convenience stores are everywhere. Surely this is affecting the way people regard food.

Yeah, and I have my line of desserts sold at convenience stores. People are busy, so I wouldn’t reject ready-made food entirely, but you shouldn’t live off it. The key is to incorporate the fun of cooking in your life and balance it with other aspects of life. I’m not ruling out eating out and take-out food. But when you have time, it is nice for the well-being of you and your family to take time to make tomato sauce, pickles or miso, for example. Food tastes good, after all, if you spend the time to prepare it. I try to give readers two ways of cooking: the do-it-quick microwave recipes and the more time-consuming alternatives. If you resort to microwaves all the time, you start to lose important human qualities like being gentle and kind to others.

In your 32 years as a housewife, haven’t you ever become tired of it?

Of course I have, but not so often. Homemaking really suits me. Weekly magazines have run stories saying that I’m way too busy to actually live like a housewife. But I do. I clean up fast. I get up early, before 6 a.m. every day. I feel like I’m running in the house. It might be that I’m trying to make up for the 14 years that I spent as a stay-at-home wife.

Do you ever look back wistfully on those 14 years?

Once in a while, we all look back on our past, don’t we? I wonder if things would have been different if I had started out earlier . . . Well, maybe it was just the times; my friends all married early back then. I was certain that I would marry and become a happy housewife and live happily ever after.

But I understand that your husband urged you to work.

Yes. I think he didn’t like me just sitting at home and waiting for him to come back. He sort of nudged me to find work, though he didn’t say outright that I should work. He said that I should live my life, that I should find something I could have fun with.

I had no other ideas back then, though, because I was a very serious housewife. Every night before he came home, I prepared the bath, cooked nice dinners, took care of the children, did laundry and ironed the clothes. I was so into homemaking. He probably didn’t like that. Rather, he wanted me to be an independent person. So he is probably most surprised at my changes over the years.

As I look back, I feel it’s been a good life for me. All our children have grown up and are very good at cooking. Our son has had his own cookbooks published, and is now taking care of my company.

What do you think about foreigners’ perception of Japanese home-cooking? Do you feel that it’s not well known yet that Japanese home-cooking mixes Western and Japanese styles?

What is great about Japanese housewives is that they can cook various dishes from all around the world. Housewives in China, for example, would probably not cook Italian food at home. Housewives in Britain probably wouldn’t cook Japanese or Chinese food at home. Yet even just making boxed lunches, I think Japanese housewives really make a great effort.

What future projects have you got in mind?

I would like to cut back on work, and travel more around the world while I’m still healthy. I would like to travel with my husband, not just for sightseeing, but to stay longer, like a month, in a condominium. For that, I need to learn how to speak English. My husband speaks English well, and I’m too embarrassed to speak it in his presence. If I could speak it, though, I think traveling would be so much more fun.

How are you studying English?

After a year of trial and error, I realized that, regardless of which teachers or schools you pick, you will not improve unless you establish your own learning style. I decided to memorize words related to my recipes, then I realized that I could memorize them! That’s relatively easy, because I know all my recipes . . . But with the word “suitable,” for example, I had a hard time remembering it, and then I figured out I could associate it with a phrase like, “a heat-resistant container that is ‘suitable’ for microwave use.”

I feel like I have come a long way from how I used to study. But now, I regard learning English as a leisure activity, not an academic one.