‘Japan: The Cookbook’: Beautifully presented recipes for home cooks

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

In “Japan: The Cookbook,” publishers Phaidon found the ideal food writer in Nancy Singleton Hachisu.

While this is Hachisu’s first book with Phaidon, it’s her third book on Japanese food, and it comes after 30 years of living in Japan, collecting and cooking hundreds of recipes, writing hundreds of thousands of words about Japanese food and continuously advocating for the country’s culinary heritage.

At over 450 pages, it’s a door stopper of a book. For the past two months it has rested on the floor in our living room in easy reach of my sous-chef, who just turned 5 and regularly thumbs through it — or falls over it. So far we’ve worked through about a dozen recipes, selected together from the stunning photographs that accompany many of the 400-plus recipes.

By and large, this is a classic recipe book. It includes a short introduction, which is followed by an equally short summary of the history of Japanese food, before Hachisu proceeds to the meat and bones of the book: recipes.

The recipes are divided into 16 categories, spanning everything from vinegared, fried, steamed and rice dishes. In the final section of the book, Hachisu turns it over to nearly a dozen chefs —both in Japan and overseas — whose cooking she admires. Chefs such as Yoshihiro Imai of Monk in Kyoto and Shuko Oda of Koya Bar in London are given a few pages and free rein to dispense their own Japanese culinary creations.

Shortly after she returned from the U.S. for a book tour, I spoke with Hachisu about the process of putting together a book as ambitious and authoritative as this.

“It was kind of like going to graduate school,” says Hachisu, referring to the workload and schedule of completing a project of this scope in a couple of years.

Having traveled around Japan for the past 30 years, Hachisu relied heavily on her connections, but as she writes in the introduction, the book “is less an examination of ‘regional’ cooking traditions as much as a curated experience of Japan’s culinary framework from a specific moment in time.”

Nearly every dish in the book is the product of Hachisu conducting multiple visits to locations across Japan, documenting each trip through photos, film and pages and pages of notes before carefully distilling her work into brief and simple recipes.

There are two cooks and authors whose influence shines through in Hachisu’s writing: Harumi Kawaguchi, a Zen nun from Okayama Prefecture — “her food is gorgeous and clean and lovely,” says Hachisu — and Teiko Watanabe, an octogenarian cook from Iwate Prefecture connected with the ironware shop Oigen Ironworks and whose food Hachisu describes as “bright and delicious.”

While you would expect cooks and chefs such as Kawaguchi and Watanabe to cast influence over “Japan: The Cookbook,” Hachisu gives equal weight to suppliers. Rather surprisingly, at least for me, was how many recipes had me and my son reaching for a packet of sesame seeds or a bottle of sesame oil.

Hachisu says sesame is one of the most important flavorings in Japanese cooking — after the sa-shi-su-se-so of sugar (satō), salt (shio), vinegar (su), soy sauce (seuyu, archaic) and miso. Again, Hachisu’s connection is personal: She’s a “close pal” with Takahiro Wada of Wadaman in Osaka, “perhaps the best sesame roaster in the world.”

Hachisu told me she wanted the book to be a “celebration of sesame,” to place focus on an ingredient she believes is losing quality in supermarkets.

Hachisu is an ardent advocate for quality. “Well-made ingredients will be excellent teachers in and of themselves,” she writes in the introduction. While she acknowledges that it is more expensive to procure better-quality ingredients, she also believes the difference between low and high quality can be “life-changing.”

In many ways, cooking Japanese food has never been easier: the internet is boiling over with recipes and it’s increasingly easy to source Japanese ingredients outside of Japan. But, often these sites trumpet convenience and speed over slower, more traditional ways of doing things — making homemade dashi, for example.

And this is where the element of curation (and dedication) comes in. There are recipes in the book such as potato salad with black sesame that you’re unlikely to have ever seen before in an English-language cookbook about Japanese food. It’s a dish that combines a handful of ingredients, is made in less than 20 minutes and is pleasingly understated, earnest and, crucially, sans mayonnaise.

With “Japan: The Cookbook,” Hachisu has helped reaffirm that Japanese food is a deliciously simple yet rich culinary tradition, simple enough for 5-year-olds but also a delight for any home cook.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu contributes to The Japan Times, writing the Nature’s Pantry column on a freelance basis.