Isabel Gilbert Palmer interviews food writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu about food in Japan. Phaidon will be publishing her third book called Japan the Cookbook on 6 April. Nancy says that Japan the Cookbook is not an examination of regional cooking traditions, as much as a curated experience of Japan’s culinary framework from a specific moment in time. Using both line and generous strokes, she said she has put together what she hopes is a broad and rich picture of the food of this island nation. Three years in the making, the book hs a collection of over 400 recipes of authentic and traditional Japanese dishes and explores every part of Japan home cooking through soups, noodles, rice, pickles, one pots, sweets and vegetable dishes.
Nancy I was introduced to your work by a chef in Malibu, Los Angeles, last summer who on one of his free days, picked Japanese farm food off a friend’s bookshelf, not because he’s a cookbook reader, but because of the title. He had spent 14 years living in Japan and was intrigued by it. He said he couldn’t put it down once he began as it reminded him of all the experiences he had had in the kitchen of his mother in law during that time and he could remember the taste of most of the recipes you shared.
When that chef contacted me through friends, his words jumped off the page at me with such honesty and energy that I knew I could not refuse a meeting with him at the restaurant where I was doing a collaboration dinner. In person, the chef was clearly such a kindred spirit that I agreed to a jaunt off to Malibu for dinner at Soho House, a venue that I previously had not known. And that was the start of a possible other interesting collaboration. I love how I can live in a 15,000-person town in semi-rural Japan yet still be a citizen of the world—and more specifically, the world of food.
You have written and collated your 3 almost 4 books in a space of 6 years. What motivated you to write the first one Japanese Farm Food in 2012?
I have been cooking and buying cookbooks since I was a child, so it made sense that I had been wanting to write cookbooks. I worked my way into being in a position to publish and originally thought I would write a book in Japan of “my food”—California/French country-style food for the Japanese audience. On the other hand, I had never seen a Japanese cookbook that appealed to me or had the honest, direct, deliciousness of my husband’s food, so that was the motivation to write a Japanese cookbook. Ultimately, I realized that everyone wanted the Japanese cookbook first, and by then I was well placed to find an agent and publisher. And in writing Japanese Farm Food, the food became mine, not my husband’s. So the die was cast.
Your second book in 2015 hit the right trend as preserving is now very much part of any progressive and contemporary chef’s kitchen. What did you want to bring to the food world with this one?
Preserving the Japanese Way spoke to all those mad fermenters and pickling enthusiasts out there, but it was also a big hit with a lot of well known chefs (or so I hear!). In some ways, Japanese Farm Food made much more of a splash, but Preserving the Japanese Way burrowed its way into quite a few influential kitchens so I feel this book will have a lasting impact on how Japanese ingredients are understood. In the preserving book, I talk about the artisans and their products in more depth, yet also there are simple recipes for how to use these fermented or preserved foods. So in that sense, the book has something for everyone.
I have spoken about your first two books when actually you are just about to release another book which will be released by Phaidon and another to be published in Australia in 2019 , Food Artisans of Japan. So you will soon have a series of four books out there. Going by the first two I have at hand, they are very well researched and put together, and very readable like letters to a friend but they are hefty, volumes. Where do you get the time, energy and inspiration to collate and write so well and deeply?
I guess it is a bit like magic! I sometimes reread what I wrote after it is published and am amazed that I got the words to work together so well—yet sometimes I reread my words and cringe, wondering why I did not edit myself down by about fifty percent. Actually, for each book I had to find my good physical and mental place to write. And I need to be in the zone. Sometimes I could write at my noisy little immersion preschool if I had the early Joan Baez blasting in my ears. Sometimes I need the total quiet and isolation of my bed, curled up with my cat.
Seriously though, writing involves getting into a personal groove along with a bit of kismet to elevate the words you string together from the mundane. It can seem like you will never finish a given piece of work, but when you do, the euphoria makes any difficulties you might have had just melt way.
You are well established and have a wonderful global group of highly respected and notable chef and cookbook writer’s as your friends friends.
I do. Such as the chefs and alumni of Chez Panisse, Deborah Madison, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz, Rick Bayless, Edward Lee, Michael Anthony, Harold McGee.
And you have also made some guest appearances in their kitchens. Can you tell me where?
In California: Chez Panisse, Berkeley; Jardinière, San Francisco; Izakaya Rintaro, San Francisco; Bar Tartine, San Francisco; MTN: Venice. In Phoenix at Olympia Provisions
and Luce; in Seattle at Matt Dillon, Corson Building, Sitka and Spruce and Bar Ferdinand. In New York, at Gramercy Tavern, Estela, Andrew Tarlow, Reynard/Marlow and Achilles Heel as well as in Australia at Ester, Sydney; Boon Café, Sydney; Gerard’s Bistro; Brisbane and Pope Joan in Melbourne.
In the many years you have lived in Japan, what was your first authentic Japanese meal, which one alarmed you the most, and what can you not go a day by without eating?
No question, my first authentic meal was at a small, very high quality sushi shop in Kumagaya-shi, the city where I first lived. I must have good instincts, because I stumbled upon it in my first month and despite outward appearances, it was regarded as the best sushi-ya in the area by sushi aficionados. The master gently taught me that sushi is all about the expertly chosen, treated, and sliced fish draped, unadorned, across perfectly cooked and seasoned rice. The simplicity of each bite and the resulting pleasure experienced from the pristine flavours and myriad textures of the fish and shellfish elevated my sushi-loving to abject worship for this way of eating. Alas, this level of sushi can be cripplingly dear, so it must be enjoyed in moderation. And in this way sushi is alarming!… as well as a food I cannot go a day without eating (but unfortunately must).
What at this point might be three of your most favoured Japanese dishes and three you haven’t yet taken into your heart yet?
Sushi and sashimi remain my favourite all time foods in the Japanese landscape. One might think that preparing raw fish only involves cutting skills, but that would be incorrect. Fish and shellfish are treated in many different ways to tenderize, firm up, cure, or age slightly, in order to achieve the perfect state for eating raw. Skillfully treated raw fish is the benchmark for any Japanese chef worth his or her salt. Beyond that, I would love to say that soba is my next love, but truthfully, it is all the dressed vegetable treatments (aemono) using a combination of a couple of the following ingredients: sesame, tofu, miso, soy sauce, mirin, and dashi.
I am not a fan of curry rice, okonomiyaki, or yaki soba. The first, because of the gloopy roux most often used to prepare the dish, and the second and third because I cannot stand the over-insistent “sauce” used in these dishes. That said, I have tasted or made delicious versions of all three dishes.
What role do the senses play in your appreciation of Japanese food, growing, harvesting, preparing and enjoying?
To set the record straight, I have not grown anything since I started writing books in 2011. I tried to plant seedlings but somehow they never got replanted in the field or the weeds engulfed them before I could get back to attend to them. I finally gave up.
But picking what my husband grows in the field is certainly a crucial part of my cooking process. In the field, as you cut or pull something from the earth, you can inhale the vegetable’s deep smell and that triggers your creativity and inspires you to intuit how you will prepare the vegetable. Of this I know without question. Also, I am lucky (or cursed!) that almost all of the vegetables I have eaten or used in the last thirty years have come from our field or my friends’ fields.
If you close your eyes what senses and tastes do you conjure up that are compatible and in your mind and mouth essentially and intrinsically Japanese?
Gentle, salty in a well-balanced, fermented kind of way. Root vegetables are used in many simmered or stir-fried dishes as well as pickles, while leafy greens are used in soups, dressed things, and pickles, too. I suppose almost any vegetable in Japan can be pickled. To narrow the flavours down is difficult but perhaps you can expect salt, sweet, sour, bitter, with textures that can be crunchy, soft, chewy, or slimy—all in the good sense of those descriptions. A bonus is the sesame, sea greens, or other aromatics that come into play.
Understanding the regional prefectures of Japan, seaside, country deep, mountain high, far north and tropical south communities. What do they use in common? What not?
Regionality has become quite difficult to discuss or separate out. This is the modern world and just about everything is available wherever one lives in Japan. Of course mountain areas are going to be more likely to have hunters and also might forage for mushrooms or eat river fish. Seaside dwellers will consume fish daily because of ready availability and historical precedence. But again, Western foods and mainstream Japanese foods are eaten regularly in all areas of Japan.
The West is enamoured with and aware of Japanese cuisine and its exquisite preparation and presentation whereas they may be unaware of character of Japanese cooking, What are the major differences you see between these two practices?
I see Japanese cooking to have two sides: the wild fermented foods and the elegant, restrained preparations such as kaiseki. Yet those lines can be blurred, so that fermented foods appear in kaiseki dishes and elegance is a component of home dishes.
The sukiyaki sushi paradigm as you once called it has now become a tuna sashimi explosion and restaurant shabu shabu revelation. What are your thoughts on this evolution?
Having lived for thirty years in Japan, I cannot really comment on the Japanese restaurant or food culture abroad. I will say, however, that I caution chefs or cooks to source the very best versions of Japanese products if they wish to learn how to incorporate these ingredients into non-Japanese foods thoughtfully. Mediocre ingredients to do not have the strength of character to teach understanding and the result will not be pretty. Not to point fingers, but I have been frequently disappointed by how Japanese ingredients are used willy-nilly or without context on Western menus.
How do you think Japanese Way is treated in the West…what is your worst nightmare with this and what encourages you that an understanding is dawning ?
In continuation of what I expressed regarding the use of Japanese ingredients abroad is the hopeful news that slowly…very slowly!…excellent Japanese artisanal products are becoming available abroad. The most important message here is that consumers and chefs need to keep asking for these artisan products so that the distributors and importers know there is a desire and market to sell the products. Otherwise, they won’t reach your shores.
How much is the etiquette in the Japanese Way part of the experience and enjoyment of eating Japanese?
Perhaps more than etiquette is cultural expectations and precepts. There is an inherent selflessness in the way one eats Japanese food—serving others, not taking the biggest or last piece. Also restraint is huge, though modern Japanese are less likely to follow this tenet. One should not douse foods with soy sauce, nor mindlessly sprinkle foods with powders or seasonings. Dishes are usually served to be eaten as is and not to be doctored or embellished. There seems to be a lot of heavy hands out there in the world putting disparate flavuors together, so I believe there is a lot to learn from this notion of restraint.
If a chef wantsto begin on the Way what are the fundamentals they should take on board first?
Learn from the best artisanal Japanese ingredients available and remember that less is more. Make that your mantra!
And a home and family cook? I thought maybe beginning and a familiarity with the Japanese Pantry and making straight for your dips and sauces would be a perfect 101 Introduction?
For the home cook I recommend sake-steamed fish, quick salt-pickled vegetables, and miso soup as the entry dishes into Japanese cuisine. From there any of the dressed dishes (aemono), especially goma-ae (miso with ground, roasted sesame) or ohitashi (boiled greens with soy-dashi and katsuobushi) would be the next place to go before moving on to those appealing fried foods such as tempura or kakiage.
Despite gathering traditional recipes and adding new ones from your Japanese perspective and community , it is interesting to see how you have included variations from other kitchen temples especially Chez Panisse.
The food paradigm and philosophy of Chez Panisse is right in line with my style of Japanese food: seasonally-driven, light, bright, delicious. My first two book launch dinners were at Chez Panisse and it is my favourite restaurant in the world. Seasonality in Japan is slipping away, like all over the world, so we need to fight this and Alice Waters gives me and the rest of the world energy to keep up the fight. Japan is not my native country but, with a Japanese husband, I am here for the duration. And thus it is my responsibility to point out the amazing parts of Japan, while not sugar coating that we are losing ground to industrial and processed foods. The positive point about Japan is that before WWII it was mainly agrarian and traditional foods were entrenched in the whole food culture. The country has not lost these foods, but if we are not careful, they will become precious and only available to the wealthy. This would be heartbreaking since everyone deserves to eat good, healthy, safe food.
What is your involvement with the Slow Food Movement?
I started a Slow Food Convivium (local group) in 2000 and tried to stay active over the course of about ten years, but I have been unable to keep up the affiliation. Slow Food stands for everything I believe in regard to honour and fight so I support the group with all of my heart, though in spirit only.
What do you bring to this global sharing, what have you taken from it?
Other than visits from global food people and Japanese TV or print media, I lead a quiet existence cooking and writing every day. But through the incredible reach of social media and my willingness to spend most of my resources to travel abroad, I have been able to form a deep bond in the world of food and this has enabled me to have a larger and broader voice regarding Japanese food. With that voice comes an obligation to speak honestly about the food culture of Japan and to faithfully write about and cook what I think are the most delicious dishes in Japan—whatever their profile: farm, fermented, retro, temple-based, or locally oriented. I have more books on the horizon, but all of the food in my books share, or will share, the commonality of honesty, seasonality, and deliciousness.