"Here at last is the best of East and West. Eric Gower has combined the unique and subtle taste of Japan with the lusty cuisine of the West. The recipes are full of inspirational and simple ideas that are perfect for today's cook." --Ken Hom
One of the best things about living in a country that has a great culinary tradition is that you get to eat a hell of a lot of good food. My 15-year stay in Japan has exposed me to some of the most delightful gastronomy on the planet. It' s reassuring, to put it mildly, to know that I can walk outside and eat world-class meals any time I like. I feel blessed to have been surrounded with so much good, authentic Japanese food and ingredients for so long. The country is a cook’s paradise.
I started experimenting with Japanese cuisine and ingredients because, after having a great many first-rate but orthodox meals, I discovered it was fun to push the boundaries a bit. I still like to reproduce Japanese classics, but what I enjoy doing most in my own kitchen is delighting my own senses, incorporating ingredients and techniques that may stray a bit from the traditional but that really do it for me. And that is what cooking is really about: making things that delight you. You will almost certainly find that your enthusiasm becomes infectious, and that others will enjoy the results too.
I think that most people who really enjoy going out for Japanese food have been reluctant to delve into experimenting with it on their own because it just seems too daunting. But it should be recalled that French cuisine, marvelous as it is, was stuck in a traditional rut before a whole new generation of chefs started borrowing and incorporating and fusing, often with exhilarating results. California cuisine has always been about the attraction of disparate elements; while this was less successful in the early days, with the new emphasis on the hyperlocal and the hyperfresh, it is now spawning some of the most innovative and delicious food around.
There’s no reason a similar revolution can’t happen with Japanese cuisine. But we first have to break free of the idea that food has to be traditional to be taken seriously.
One day shortly after arriving in Kyoto, I was taken by a friend to a traditional kaiseki restaurant—which involves umpteen courses of seasonal cuisine in teeny portions, all in a tightly defined order and served on sumptuous pottery. It was a real eye-opener because of the amount of care, time, and resources that could be put into something like lunch. It never really inspired me to try to incorporate kaiseki-style food as part of my daily life, but sitting in a pleasant room and having someone bring you a few dozen courses of some of the world’s tastiest morsels, all the while sipping premium sake and tea, is a wonderful way to spend the day.
That is tradition at its best, and it’s impossible to overemphasize how delicious traditional Japanese cuisine is. Time-honored (and we’re talking centuries here) traditions got to be the way they are because some inherent balance was struck, the results were great and relatively easily reproducible, and people simply passed on their knowledge and experience. The cuisines of all regions throughout the world follow this pattern.
But tradition can get a little fetishized, and this is especially true in Japan. There is great reverence for the way things have always been done. That same emphasis on tradition is precisely what appeals to many non-Japanese. Think of Japan, and it’s hard not to imagine its temples, its ancient but extremely modern sense of clean, minimalist design, and its gorgeous, artful food.
Happily, young Japanese chefs today—almost certainly influenced by their many trips abroad—are branching out. After developing sound foundations they are using them as springboards for innovation. Yet even more Japanese cooks seem to believe that experimentation is for the unserious. In other words, it’s fine if you’re bored and want to play around a little, but you prove your worth as a cook by flawlessly executing the classics, at least for a while. And of course the sensei, or expert, or whoever it is that knows more than you do, has to give his seal of approval on everything. Many Japanese chefs take it as a given that palate—to my mind, the only measure of a meal’s worth—is a secondary consideration.
And it isn’t just chefs. Ordinary Japanese, like people everywhere, come to like and expect the standard repertoire when it comes to Japanese food. They learn from childhood that there’s a right way to eat almost anything. Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) is served with tonkatsu sweet sauce, always. Pickled ginger goes with sushi. Fresh tofu gets soy sauce, ginger, and chopped green onions. You dip zaru-soba (cold buckwheat noodles) in tsuyu (a kind of dipping sauce), and only tsuyu. Edamame are shucked and popped with beer as snacks. People everywhere, of course, do this—vinegar with the chips in England, ketchup for the fries in the U.S., mayo for the frites in Belgium—but not to the same extent.
Rice, moreover, is sacred in Japan, and is simply not messed with at all. Rice is a deeply embedded cultural concept, used in countless ceremonies and rituals, many of which involve the emperor and the imperial family. Moreover, rice means japonica, and no other. Back around 1992, Japan’s rice industry had a horrible harvest, and Thai rice had to be imported in large quantities, producing a massive outpouring of protest from Japanese housewives. My local rice seller used to give me as many five-kilogram bags of it as I could carry, for free; there simply wasn’t a market for it, and much of it, sadly, wound up in dumpsters. No other kind of rice is available in stores, unless you count the little $12 half-pound bags of Minnesota wild rice at my local gourmet store.
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Outsiders, like me, who weren’t exposed to any of that conditioning, are by definition freer than the average Japanese. I love, for example, to brush a mixture of umeboshi (super-sour pickled plums), olive oil, some apricot jam, and some shallots over a nice piece of young yellowtail, and broil it. I also like to combine pickled ginger (usually eaten between pieces of sushi), fresh figs (dessert), and extra virgin olive oil (pure Italian food), and spoon it over creamy tofu (Japanese)—a truly delicious combination that unfortunately tends to freak Japanese people out. Until they try it. My favorite thing to do with edamame is to puree a little with some olive oil and fresh shiso leaves, and to add fruit—the big meaty Bing cherries work beautifully here—then mix this sauce in with the rest of the edamame, and eat it with smoked salmon and a bone-dry chilled white wine. It’s a beautiful dish, and most people really like it, but it’s just a heart-stopper for most Japanese.
As you gain confidence as a cook, you’ll cook more often, and become more flexible and improvisational. Or at least that’s what happened to me. I never went to cooking school or cooked in a restaurant—I learned by cooking thousands of meals, many of them without adequate time, planning, or even cookware. I use little more than a couple of good pots and pans, an old oven I bought for 3,000 yen ($25) from a neighbor, an excellent blender, and a few sharp knives. I do try to keep a fairly well-stocked pantry because I realize that I often don’t feel like shopping for fresh ingredients. I know I can make dozens of healthy, tasty meals just by always having a good supply of pasta, dried and fresh fruits, nuts, fresh herbs, eggs, onions, garlic, lemons, tofu, potatoes, excellent olive oils, and several kinds of vinegar (okay, about 15 kinds of vinegar).
What I always try to do is make use of everyday Japanese ingredients in new and accessible ways, while remaining grounded in sound culinary principles. Novelty for novelty’s sake has not—at least I hope—played any kind of role in these pages.
A great part of the joy in cooking for me is spontaneity. Almost anything can be interchanged at will, depending on mood and what is available. It’s okay to use lamb instead of beef, or tofu instead of chicken, or to just omit the protein altogether. Any degree of acidity can be added through the use of citrus or vinegar (whose heavy use in these pages tips you off to my preference), or any intensity of heat through the use of chiles. Herbs can be freely exchanged. You can use more or less intense heat than called for. The only “right” way to cook something is to make it exactly how you enjoy it most. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be interesting, unusual, and delicious. And it certainly doesn’t have to be arduous, as I’ve tried to demonstrate here.
And finally, contrary to popular opinion, wine actually goes marvelously well with Japanese-inspired dishes. Most of the dishes presented here have been created from the start to be served with wine, and come with specific varietal suggestions for pairing. For me, drinking wine with a meal vastly enhances the flavor of the food and the pleasure of eating it. It can’t be a fluke that in two of the world’s greatest cuisines, those of Italy and France, it would be almost unthinkable to serve meals without wine. Wine is simply part of the equation. In traditional settings Japanese food is not paired with wine, but I hope you’ll agree with me in thinking that the combinations suggested here are mutually enhancing.
A person’s approach to food is a good barometer of the way they approach life in general. I hope to inspire home cooks who want to expand their repertoire, to enjoy the process more, and to cook great food without impossible amounts of time or hassle.