Chef Rica Maezawa puts a fresh face on Edo Period cooking

by Lance Henderstein

Contributing Writer

Rica Maezawa took an indirect path to becoming the chef and owner of washoku (Japanese-style) restaurant Nanakusa in Tomigaya in Shibuya Ward.

As a child, her parents ran an unagi (eel) restaurant in Ibaraki Prefecture. The experience left her thinking that restaurants were far too much work.

“I would see my parents working from early morning to late at night and I thought, ‘I’ll never work in the restaurant business.'”

After university, she began working in an office in Tokyo but soon found herself reading books about food in her free time, particularly collections of recipes from the past. One of the authors of those books was chef Hiroshi Fukuda, an expert on Edo Period (1603-1868) cuisine and the now-retired owner of Nabeya in Toshima Ward.

Inspired, the then-29-year-old office worker phoned Fukuda directly to ask if she could work at his restaurant. To her surprise, he said yes. She quit her office job and began learning about Edo Period cuisine from the master himself. For the next few years, she learned to research and recreate the dishes eaten by the people of Edo (Tokyo) in the 17th to 19th centuries, updated for modern tastes.

Her concept of what washoku was, and what it could be, grew with experience.

“They were doing simple, inventive things like cracking fresh koshō (pepper) over rice and dashi to make a very spicy and fragrant ochazuke (rice soup),” she says. “And they created dishes with eggs and tofu that are very difficult to replicate today.”

In 2003, Maezawa used her experience at Nabeya to open her own restaurant, Nanakusa. From the beginning, the menu has been vegetable-focused, seasonal and traditional Japanese home cooking.

But the restaurant is neither vegan nor strictly vegetarian.

“Washoku requires dashi, which includes katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and kanbutsu (dried goods like sardines). Any dish can be made meat-free, but vegan dishes must be reconcepted from scratch,” she explains.

“It’s about combining different types of umami,” she continues. “Of course, vegetables have umami, too, but the umami of fish and meat offers a very different experience. Combining and balancing different sources of umami together, that’s ideal.”

Her thoughtful and thorough menu has earned Maezawa international attention. Last year, Finnair tapped Maezawa to create seasonal Japanese menus for its Signature Chef menu. She’s the first Japanese chef to be featured and her series of five seasonal signature menus has been served in business class on Finnair’s Tokyo to Helsinki flights since February.

“Each season has its own focus; spring is bitter, with sansai (wild vegetables), summer uses the sweetness of kabocha (pumpkin) and water-containing vegetables like cucumber, while fall features freshly harvested rice with earthy fragrances from mushrooms and dried fruits. Winter adds the subtle sweetness of root vegetables like daikon in soups — it’s designed to warm you up.”

Maezawa adjusts these traditional Japanese flavors for an international audience by using familiar aromas from herbs and spices to evoke dishes guests may already know.

“Finland and the Northern European regions combine fish with herbs like dill. Dill and basil aren’t very Japanese, but we’ll marinate fish in olive oil, lemon oil and soy sauce, and serve it with dill. A shira-ae (mashed tofu salad) can mimic the creaminess of Western dishes, while still being very Japanese.”

It’s a unique, open-minded approach to traditional Japanese cuisine that has solidified Maezawa’s reputation as an innovator.

“From the start, I wanted to do things my own way,” she says. “Balance, seasonality and variety are the key. A little bit of everything in every meal, that’s what I enjoy most.”

Nanakusa: Tomigaya 2-22-5, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0063; 03-3460-7793; www.nana-kusa.net; open 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; closed Mon. and Sun.; dinner from ¥6,000; nearest station Komaba Todaimae; Maezawa’s signature meals are featured on Finnair business class flights from Tokyo to Helsinki.