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.