Japanese home cooking, worlds apart

Special to The Times

IF miso soup and sushi are all that come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine, it’s time to step away from the takeout California rolls and pick up a santoku bocho (all-purpose Japanese knife). But learning the fundamentals of a cuisine requires more than blindly testing recipes. You need a really good teacher.

Two recent books, “Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen” by Elizabeth Andoh ($35, Ten Speed Press) and “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” by Harumi Kurihara ($27.95, Home Books), promise to teach you all you need to know about Japanese home cooking. But they’re worlds apart in their approaches and their success.

“Washoku” reflects the ambition of an eager, enthusiastic teacher. An accomplished author and cook, Andoh passes on her knowledge by offering a comprehensive book focused on the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine. It’s the type of book you read from cover to cover, eagerly perusing the pages with sticky notes before even thinking about turning on the stove.

“Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” seems more like an attempt to appeal to readers by mixing Japanese and non-Japanese ingredients and taking plenty of shortcuts. It’s not an especially inspiring approach. Kurihara is a well-known television and cooking personality in Japan making her debut in the U.S. cookbook market. But where “Washoku” delves into a rich food tradition, “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” glosses over it.


Recipes for dashi (basic sea stock), a staple of Japanese home cooking, reveal the differences between the two books. Kurihara offers a few tips, but speed of preparation seems to be the name of the game for her. Andoh’s dashi recipe is more about understanding how to make a good stock rather than simply re-creating a recipe. She takes you through the process of making dashi with surprising detail and insightfulness -- from how to boil the water (start with cold water to avoid bitterness) to spotting spoilage (if the stock smells sweet).

It’s the details that elevate “Washoku,” such as asides that offer practical cooking and ingredient tips. Or the in-depth description of pantry staples, cooking techniques and kitchen equipment. Many recipes refer to these introductory pages, making “Washoku” a veritable Japanese food encyclopedia and cookbook all in one.

Andoh teaches you to recognize that washoku, literally “kitchen harmony,” is integral to a successful Japanese meal: The interplay of color, flavor and cooking methods is just as important as taste. Recipes explore the five washoku principles of traditional Japanese cooking -- go shiki (five colors), go mi (five tastes), go ho (five ways), go kan (five senses), and go kan mon (five outlooks).

Worth the effort

SEVERAL recipes call for Japanese ingredients that can be difficult to find, such as the freeze-dried yuzu peel in yuzu fumi hakusai (citron-pickled Chinese cabbage). Andoh recommends practical substitutions: lemon, lime or grapefruit peel.

“Washoku” is not the type of book you pull out for a quick dinner, unless you prepare some components in advance. Nama shiitake no gisei tsutsumi (tofu-stuffed shiitake mushrooms), a substantial side dish of mushroom caps stuffed with tofu and miso, refers to three other recipes (dashi sea stock, fragrant pepper salt and ocean herb salt). But the meaty sauteed mushrooms, juicy and satisfying with a sweet and salty mirin-soy sauce, are worth the effort. To save time, use sea salt as a subsitute for the flavored versions.

“Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” promises speedy, easy-to-prepare meals. It’s arranged as a straightforward recipe book, with much of the exploration of Japanese home cooking limited to a brief introduction. But it just scratches the surface of Japanese cuisine.

Kurihara frequently uses ingredients in nontraditional ways, one of the themes of the book, but she isn’t always successful. Tofu with basil, tomatoes and Gorgonzola dressing might leave you wondering where tomato basil salad fits into Japanese home cooking.


Even more frustrating, many of the recipes are missing key steps. In the sauteed squid Japanese-style, a simple, pan-fried dish of fresh squid with shichimi togarashi (dried pepper and sesame spice mix), Kurihara cautions against overcooking. But she doesn’t give any indication of cooking time.

The recipe for mushi dori no gomadare salad (steamed chicken salad with sesame sauce) lists sake in the ingredients but doesn’t tell you how to use it (combine it with the sesame oil before cooking the chicken). Kurihara says to pierce the chicken with skewers, but doesn’t say why. Or explain why microwaving is the best method for cooking the chicken.

Once you figure out how to make it, mushi dori no gomadare is a light, refreshing summer dish, the cool crunch of cucumbers and the gingery chicken balancing the nutty, mildly spicy sesame dressing.

Maybe it’s the glossy photos, perky entertaining tips, praise of jiffy cooking, or the matter-of-fact tone, but it’s no surprise to learn that Kurihara is known as “Japan’s Martha Stewart.”


Andoh, on the other hand, seems like she’s right at home in your kitchen, nodding in approval as you make yuzu fumi hakusai for the first time.


Steamed chicken salad with sesame sauce

Total time: 20 minutes


Servings: 2 to 4

Note: Adapted from “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking” by Harumi Kurihara. Chile paste and sesame paste are available at Japanese markets. Tahini or natural peanut butter can be substituted for the sesame paste.

3 to 4 green onions

2 small cucumbers


Salt and pepper

10 ounces boneless chicken thighs with skin

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon sake


Small piece of ginger, crushed

2 tablespoons liquid from the juices of the cooked chicken

2 tablespoons sesame paste

1 tablespoon soy sauce


1 tablespoon superfine sugar

3/4 tablespoon rice vinegar

3/4 teaspoon to ban jan (chile paste)

1 tablespoon roughly ground sesame seeds


1 tablespoon finely shredded green onions

1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1. Finely slice the green onions diagonally, reserving the green part for use during cooking the chicken.


2. On a cutting board, sprinkle the cucumbers with one-fourth teaspoon salt, rubbing it into the flesh, then rinse. Hit the cucumbers with a pestle (if you don’t have a pestle, use a bottle) and break them apart with your hands, to make uneven pieces.

3. Pierce the chicken pieces with a skewer or toothpick, and place in a large microwave-safe bowl. Add one-fourth teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper, the oil and sake and then place the green part of the onion and the crushed ginger on top. Cover and microwave on medium for 4 minutes or until cooked. Leave to cool. Keep the juice from the chicken to use in the sesame sauce.

4. Shred the chicken with your hands and place it in a serving dish.

5. For the sesame sauce: In a small bowl, mix the juices from the chicken, the sesame paste, soy sauce, superfine sugar, vinegar, chile paste, sesame seeds, green onions, ginger and garlic. Pour enough to coat the chicken, then drizzle over the cucumber.


Each of 4 servings: 200 calories; 14 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 37 mg. cholesterol; 479 mg. sodium.


Tofu-stuffed shiitake mushrooms

Total time: 1 hour


Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from “Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen” by Elizabeth Andoh. Kombu, bonito flakes and sansho pepper are available at Japanese markets such as Marukai, Nijiya and Mitsuwa in Los Angeles. Mirin is available in the Asian food section of grocery stores.

Dashi (basic sea stock)

15 to 20 square inches kombu


4 1/4 cups cold water, preferably filtered or spring water

1/2 cup loosely packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)

1. Place the kombu in a pot with the water. To draw out maximum flavor, let it soak for 15 minutes before placing the pot over medium heat -- this will further infuse the water with the flavor-enhancing properties and nutrients of the kelp.

2. Remove the pot from the heat as soon as small bubbles begin to break on the surface and at the edge of the pot. Add the katsuobushi, scattering the flakes across the surface of the water. After several minutes, the fish flakes will begin to sink. The larger the flakes, the longer they will take to sink. To keep the stock from tasting fishy, pour it through cheesecloth or a coffee-filter-lined strainer within 3 or 4 minutes of adding the fish flakes. The kombu can be reserved for another use; discard the remaining solids. The stock will keep for up to 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator.


Tofu-stuffed shiitake mushrooms

1/2 block firm tofu, about 6 1/2 ounces, drained and pressed

1/4 teaspoon sweet, light miso

1 1/2 tablespoons beaten egg


2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch,


12 large, uniform fresh shiitake mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil


2 teaspoons mirin

2 teaspoons light-colored soy sauce

1/3 cup basic sea stock

1 teaspoon coarse gray sea salt


Sansho pepper to taste

1. Place the tofu, miso and egg in a food processor and pulse until creamy and smooth, about 10 seconds. Transfer the tofu mixture to a small bowl. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the cornstarch over the tofu. With a spatula, use cutting and folding motions to mix thoroughly.

2. Remove the stems from the mushrooms (save them for enhancing a soup stock) and wipe the caps clean. If the underside of the cap appears to be trapping grit, brush it clean with a cotton-tipped stick (the kind used for cosmetics or medication). Dust the underside of the caps with the remaining 1 tablespoon cornstarch; a pastry brush will simplify the task.

3. Stuff the mushroom caps with the tofu mixture, dividing it evenly. Use a butter knife or spatula to press out any air that might be trapped between the mushroom and the filling, and to smooth the surface, slightly mounding the mixture in the center.


4. Use a skillet large enough to hold the mushrooms in a single layer. Place the skillet over medium heat and drizzle the oil, swirling it to coat the surface evenly. Place the mushrooms, filling side down, in the skillet. Press down on the mushrooms ever so slightly with a broad, flat spatula. Hold for a few seconds to ensure the filling adheres to the mushroom caps, then sear the mushrooms for 1 minute undisturbed, or until the filling is very lightly crusted over.

5. Flip the mushrooms so that the filling faces up. Again, press lightly on the mushrooms and hold for a few seconds. Lower the heat slightly and add the mirin, soy sauce and stock. When the liquid begins to bubble, flip the mushrooms again, so the filling is face down. Raise the heat to medium-high and simmer for a few minutes until the skillet juices have reduced and thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes.

6. Remove the mushrooms from the skillet and arrange them on individual plates or on a single platter. Turn some mushrooms so that the light filling is visible, and others so that the dark caps show. Pour any skillet juices over the mushrooms. Serve warm or at room temperature sprinkled with the sea salt and sansho pepper.

Each serving: 177 calories; 10 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 24 mg. cholesterol; 628 mg. sodium.



Citron-pickled Chinese cabbage

Total time: 10 minutes, plus at least 12 hours standing time

Servings: 8 to 10


Note: Adapted from “Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen” by Elizabeth Andoh. Togarashi dried red pepper and kombu are available at Japanese markets. You can use a tabletop pickle pot (see Cookstuff) or devise your own weights to apply pressure to the cabbage.

1/2 head Chinese cabbage, about 12 ounces

2 teaspoons coarse salt

1 tablespoon freeze-dried yuzu peel, crushed or cut with scissors into very small bits, or finely minced lemon, lime or grapefruit peel


1 piece kombu, preferably rishiri kombu, rausu kombu or ma kombu, 2- to 3-inch square

1 togarashi, broken in half, seeds removed, and cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon, lime, and/or grapefruit juice


1 teaspoon mirin

1 teaspoon light-colored soy sauce

Soy sauce (optional)

1. If you are using very fresh cabbage, you will need to wilt it first: Cut the cabbage into two or three wedges through the core and spread them on a plate or tray at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours.


2. In a large bowl, stir together the salt and yuzu peel (or lemon peel). Place the cabbage in the bowl and sprinkle half of the mixture over the cabbage, rubbing it into the thicker core and lifting layers of the leaves to sprinkle it between them. With sharp scissors, cut the kombu into a dozen strips. Lift the layers of cabbage leaves and distribute half the kombu among them.

3. Allow the seasoned cabbage to sit in a bowl for 10 minutes, or until it begins to sweat. The addition of the kombu will cause the brine to become slightly sticky. The kombu too will become slippery, which is a good sign. Gently squeeze the cabbage, applying greater pressure as more liquid is exuded and it becomes very limp and pliable. Keep whatever liquid (brine) is exuded in the bowl.

4. If you are using a shokutaku tsukemono ki (pickle pot), sprinkle the remaining lemon- or yuzu-salt mixture at the bottom of the container before laying the cabbage evenly over the top. Pour in any accumulated brine from the bowl, and then scatter the remaining kombu strips over the cabbage. Add the togarashi strips, placing several between and among the cabbage leaves and allowing a few to float in the brine. Screw the top in place under maximum pressure and let sit for at least 8 hours at room temperature, or for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. If the brine does not rise above the inner lid after 2 or 3 hours, unscrew the top, flip the cabbage over, and add a few drops of water. Replace the lid, again screwing it as tightly as possible. (Go to step 6.)

5. If you are devising your own weights, scatter the remaining kombu strips on the inside of a glass bowl and lay the cabbage flat on top. Sprinkle the remaining lemon- or yuzu-salt mixture over the cabbage. Pour in any accumulated brine, add in the togarashi strips to the pickling liquid. Lay a flat plate over all, and then place weights on top of the plate. Let sit, undisturbed, for at least 8 hours at room temperature, or for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. It is fine if liquid rises above the plate from the start, but if the brine does not rise above the plate after 2 or 3 hours, remove the plate, flip the cabbage over, and add a few drops of water. Replace the plate and place additional weight on top.


6. Unscrew the lid, or remove the weights and plate from the bowl, and pour off any brine. Transfer the limp cabbage, including whatever strips of kombu or citrus peel are in the pot, to a 1-quart jar or container.

7. In a small bowl, combine the rice vinegar, lemon juice, mirin and light-colored soy sauce and pour the mixture over the cabbage to cover, leaving one-fourth inch of headroom in the jar. For a spicier pickle, keep the togarashi pieces in the liquid. For a milder pickle, discard them. Seal the jar with clear plastic wrap and a tight-fitting lid, or use a mason jar. Let the pickle mature at room temperature for 2 hours and up to 5 hours. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Keeps 1 week.

8. Just before serving, removed the cabbage from the liquid and squeeze out the moisture. Chop coarsely. Pour a few drops of soy sauce over the pickles if desired.

Each of 10 servings: 9 calories; 1 gram protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 165 mg. sodium.