Food & Drink | Women of Taste

Elizabeth Andoh: Writer, chef, world-renowned washoku expert

by Joan Bailey

Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Andoh’s kitchen is gleaming and organized — as expected of an award-winning cookbook author, teacher, food writer and Japanese food authority. For Andoh, it comes from a practiced awareness of possibility.

“It’s being in touch with what you’ve got,” she says as she sautes leftover daikon, carrot and pumpkin in sesame oil. “You’re constantly producing trim in the kitchen,” Andoh says, “and that’s another thing you can do something wonderful with.”

Andoh arrived in Japan in 1966 on a two-month scholarship from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan, rocked by John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “If the president of the United States could be assassinated, then nowhere was safe,” she says. “It was a really vulnerable feeling, and I wanted to take a step back.”

Chef, writer and Japanese cuisine expert Elizabeth Andoh | ROBIN SCANLON
Chef, writer and Japanese cuisine expert Elizabeth Andoh | ROBIN SCANLON

At the center of her new home on Shikoku was Kiyoko Andoh, who said to call her okaasan (mother) from the start. It proved prophetic: Andoh would later meet a family son, Atsunori, in Tokyo and marry him in 1969.

Andoh marveled at Kiyoko’s ability to welcome and feed children, grandchildren and visitors throughout the day. The food was always good, and Andoh felt the first stirrings of culinary curiosity. However, it was when she headed to International Christian University in Tokyo to study Japanese and ate a fateful bowl of noodles that this curiosity would turn to passion.

“I’d had many wonderful bowls of udon at the Andoh house,” she says. “So, when I saw udon in the (university) cafeteria, I ordered them. But they were so bad I spat them out. How could two things be so different?”

Later, working at an educational game company in Tokyo, Andoh discovered Toshio Yanagihara’s essays about Japanese food, later enrolling at the Yanagihara School of Classical Japanese Cuisine. She credits Yanagihara not only with her education in the intricacies of Japanese food, but for introducing her to food writing.

“He was a great writer,” she says. “His ability to tell the story of food absolutely captured me.”

Andoh's 2005 cookbook, 'Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen,' won her a second International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Award. | COURTESY OF ELIZABETH ANDOH
Andoh’s 2005 cookbook, ‘Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen,’ won her a second International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Award. | COURTESY OF ELIZABETH ANDOH

In 1971, Andoh began sharing her newfound knowledge and skills by hosting English-language Japanese cooking classes and writing a series of articles in Gourmet magazine. The classes and series were the first of their kind, and both met with success. Andoh became Gourmet’s Japan correspondent for the next 30 years, and her classes still fill to capacity.

Then, in 1980, the Andoh family moved to New York City. While Atsunori oversaw the opening of the Takashimaya department store, Andoh worked with Japanese chefs doing food shows in the United States. Seated backstage, she narrated in English what the chef was doing.

“I wasn’t a translator. Nobody saw me,” she says. “But the education was enormous.”

That same year her first cookbook, “At Home with Japanese Cooking,” was published and lauded for its detailed information and, for the time, unusual recipes. Two more soon followed: “An American Taste of Japan” (1985) and “An Ocean of Flavor: The Japanese Way with Fish and Seafood” (1988), which won an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Cookbook Award in 1989.

When Andoh returned to Japan in 1992, she was writing about food and travel for The New York Times and doing tableside commentary, explaining everything from ingredients and preparation to the cultural significance of dishes, in high-end restaurants. Both afforded her an experience that deepened her understanding of Japanese cuisine and the logic behind it by placing her in kitchens and restaurants she wouldn’t otherwise have been able to explore.

However, it was the publication of “Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen” in 2005 that truly brought Andoh into the global spotlight. Winning her a second IACP Award (and a nomination for the James Beard Award), it was the first cookbook to make the underlying principles of Japanese cuisine available and understandable for anyone, anywhere in the world.

“This is the heart of what I do. Being part of ongoing learning is really satisfying,” she says. “I love getting the passingly curious hooked on wanting to know more.”

Meanwhile, Andoh continues gathering and organizing ideas and staying in tune with things around her, all of which might lead to another book.

“There are endless possibilities,” she says, “of where to go with all of this. Endless.”

Information about Elizabeth Andoh’s books and cooking classes can be found at tasteofculture.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.

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