Saturday, October 10, 2009

Japanese Cookbooks

On my most recent trip to Japan, I scored some great new cookbooks. As I was thumbing through them (from right to left), a few notable differences struck me. Cookbooks and magazines everywhere have become more dependent on photography to atract buyers, but the photos and the page layouts were very different in Japanese books, and they tell us a lot about how we differ as a culture and as cooks.

Seasonal Beauty at Kikunoi

This beautiful book hit the shelves in English just weeks before my first trip to Japan in autumn of 2006. The chef, Yoshihiro Murata is the third generation chef of the family restaurant, Kikunoi. The book is divided into four chapters addressing the four seasons. The innovation of the book is that it often has a full page photo of his dishes with a description of its inspiration and meaning on the opposite page. It also displays the beautiful dishes and lacquerware that kaiseki is often served in, and how it is presented to the guest. All the recipes are presented at the end of the book in the appendix, not that the recipes are less relevant than the pictures. Murata-san is a very talented chef. The photography of the book is stunning, but the strength of the book lies in the stories that accompany his dishes, revealing both his innovation and purpose. Japanese cuisine, and especially kaiseki, is a highly seasonal and symbolic art whose meanings are often lost on foreigners. Kodansha (講談社) has been publishing in English for years, and are very experienced in translating for a foreign audience. I am greatly indebted to the chef and his publisher for the timing of this release, just prior to my first tour of Japan.

Two Books from Bunka Shuppan (sorry, in Japanese only)

This is chef Toshio Tanahashi's only recipe book, Shojin, Vegetables are Genius (精進、野菜は天才). I have enjoyed shojin ryori before I bought this book, but my appreciation has deepened tremendously since. Shojin is devotion cuisine, the vegetarian fare of the Buddhist temples. Although humble in origin, it is the predecessor of the tea ceremony and kaiseki cuisine. The chef ran a restaurant called Gesshinkyo out of his home in Tokyo for many years (read more about him here), named after the temple Gesshinji in Kyoto where he apprenticed. The publisher, Bunka Shuppan Kyoku (文化出帆局), like many in Japan, have been publishing books with step-by-step photography, showing how the recipes are executed, not just what they look like at the end. The page layout seems especially appropriate for Japanese cooking, since there is a great appreciation for appearance in the presentation of Japanese dishes. The book is divided into twelve chapters, and the pages reveal a few dishes from each month, as well as instructions and photos of technique, the appearance of the raw ingredients (shokuzai), and the ritual devotions of preparation. The most famous example of this is the chef's use of his ninety minute morning meditation to grind sesame in his mortar for the daily gomadofu!

Another great book from Bunka Shuppan is Grass, Leaf, Root (草 菜 根), by Hisao Nakahigashi. The chef is very famous for his foraged ingredients and his organic renditions of kaiseki. The name of his restaurant in Kyoto, Sojiki Nakahigashi, gives an indication of his style. Sojiki means "to eat grass," but the first prefix suggests that these grasses and leaves are medicinal. That is to say, his restaurant is like an apothecary. Indeed, one of his most defining characteristics is the presence of bitterness in his food, which people often associate with medicines, and his use of the whole plant in his dishes. If you are served sweet potato, it would probably be served with its greens, and the same would be true of peppers, carrots or lotus. If you are served a small fish in one course, you are likely to have it's roe or innards in the following course. The chef says his mentor instilled this approach-his mother. He does not seek the finest ingredients in the country, rather he has a great connection with local products. Only lake and river fish are served, local meats, wild vegetables, and he is intimately attuned to changes in the seasons. If the beans are tender in early summer, and starchy in early autumn, they are used for what they are instead of being discarded for the next prized commodity. And people respond to his cooking...the restaurant is often booked several months in advance! I like this book, because it features many forgotten ingredients that people want to remember, and the photography often shows the chef foraging or working with the farmers who supply him. These connections have become very popular in American cookbooks, but here the connection goes a little further to the source.

Reference Books and Everyday Cooking

Of course, it is not only celebrity chefs books that people want to read. I am always drawn to the detailed Japanese reference book. Whether it is about food, architecture, motorcycles, or electronics, the Japanese people have a penchant for diagrams of the smallest detail. This book published by NHK from their Today's Cooking series (きょうの料理), gives great instructions for the classic Japanese repertoire, more washoku than kaiseki. Photographs demonstrate techniques often hard to explain in words, from peeling a chestnut or cleaning fresh bamboo shoots, to simmering mackerel in a miso glaze. None of the techniques are very difficult, but the pictures reveal the simplicity of the steps and the beauty of the ingredients. Regardless of the level of difficulty, all these books have one common thread, an intuitive understanding of seasonality. The readers of these books have a great understanding of the seasons, and their Shinto heritage and traditions weave together these ingredients in a kind of story we may have once had, but have now forgotten.

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