Japanese Farm Food: A beautiful book with simple, fresh preparations and a deep respect for tradition

farm foodI had the good fortune to spend six months in Central Japan in 2010-2011; during my stay, I took four Japanese cooking classes in three different cities focusing on traditional cooking methods and regional specialties, including a class led by Elizabeth Andoh (author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions). The act of making and preparing food according to tradition (including the concept of kansha, or appreciation) was a deeply spiritual journey for me.

I contacted Nancy Singleton Hachisu through her blog, and she was kind enough to send a review copy of Japanese Farm Food. When I opened it, it was an instant homecoming for me. Memories of prowling the morning markets at Takayama, admiring the kaleidoscope of pickles at Nishiki Market in Kyoto, or learning about the many varieties of sansai (wild mountain vegetables) at an Osaka department store food hall came rushing back.

After a compact look at Japanese farmhouse pantry staples and tools and a handy three-page visual dictionary of cutting and cooking techniques, you’ll find the Japanese equivalent of munchies: tsumami. These are simple preparations that showcase the freshness of the ingredients, like ikura (salmon roe), edamame, eggs pickled in soy sauce, fried fish and Okinawan staple goya champuru (stir-fried bitter melon with egg and red pepper). The pecan miso was an absolute revelation; I used SOUTH RIVER ORGANIC 3-YR BARLEY MISO 1 LB, and the depth of the flavors was superb. The oil from the pecans (ground to a paste) complemented the salty umami hit from the barley miso and would be great as a dip for raw veggies. The soy sauce eggs make a great snack; these are traditional in homemade bento boxes.

One of the great pleasures of any Japanese market or department store food hall is browsing the huge assortment of pickles on display. I loved the section on tsukemono (pickles); these are an essential part of Japanese cuisine. There are several main pickling methods used, including massaging with salt, rice bran (nukazuke), or pickling in vinegar. Here you’ll find smashed cucumber pickles with garlic, sweet-vinegared daikon and carrots, young ginger pickled in plum vinegar, and zucchini pickled in rice bran (additional pickle recipes can be found throughout the book). There is an extremely useful guide to vegetables by method at the very back that covers most of the common Japanese cooking/pickling methods.

Tofu and eggs get their own chapter; there’s a straightforward recipe for homemade tofu and several excellent egg dishes including the traditional rolled omelette, egg custard squares with crab and spinach, and egg custard with flowering mustard in sour orange halves. I loved the idea of steaming chawanmushi in an orange shell instead of the traditional chawanmushi pots; it makes for a beautiful presentation, and the slight hint of citrus in the custard is a welcome addition. (For an excellent and easy primer on making your own soymilk and yuba, I recommend Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.)

Comfort foods also make an appearance, including miso-broiled fish, teriyaki, deep-fried ginger chicken, gyudon and yakiniku. There’s a primer on homemade udon and ramen, simple sushi and onigiri preparations, and many vegetarian options (the chapter on vegetables offers nearly *thirty* varieties of salads, tempura, stir fries and simmered veggies). Handy tips and sidebars offer additional suggestions and variations. Various staple recipes such as Japanese mustard, Japanese mayonnaise, dashi, ponzu, and several excellent vinaigrettes and dressings are worth the cost of the book alone (walnut-miso, sesame-miso, tofu-miso, etc.).

Along the way, the author frequently reminisces about individual dishes or ingredients, her multicultural family, her encounters with local Japanese farmers and traditional methods, and descriptions of local festivals and disappearing food traditions that read like talking to an old friend.

The graphic design also deserves a special mention; ai-zome (indigo textiles) are a visual theme throughout the book, including the beautiful fabric binding. The photos are stunning as well; there are gorgeous glimpses into Japanese gardens, local farmers hard at work in their fields and orchards, scenes of rural festivals and rice pounding, traditional kitchen tools, and closeups of farm-fresh produce as well as finished dishes. Unlike many cookbooks these days, the pages are matte, so glare/slippery pages is not an issue.

If I had to sum up Japanese Farm Food in two words, they would be “simple” and “fresh.” Inside these pages are dozens of simple, tasty ways to prepare seasonal produce; most recipes include only a handful of ingredients and take mere moments to prepare, but the depth of flavor that is achieved (aided by umami in the form of miso and/or soy sauce) is nothing short of amazing. And one of the best parts is that the author calls for far fewer hard-to-find Japanese ingredients than many other Japanese homestyle cookbooks; this makes a huge difference for items that are not easily substituted (especially fresh vegetables / herbs). This is an absolutely gorgeous cookbook that nourishes the spirit as well as the body.

(Arigatou gozaimasu to Nancy Singleton Hachisu and her publicist for the review copy!)

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