Debra Samuels, a longtime resident of Japan, demystifies Japanese homestyle cooking in “My Japanese Table.” Included are such favorites as sushi (including hand-rolled sushi and chirashi-zushi), skewers (grilled mixed veggie and tofu, chicken), donburi (one-dish meat and rice bowls), okonomiyaki (cabbage and egg “pancakes”), and a whole chapter devoted to bento, ornate Japanese lunchboxes prepared according to a strict balance of colors, flavors, and ingredients. I liked the photos of Debra’s chrysanthemum bento box so much that I ordered an identical one from Japan!
“My Japanese Table” is a perfect starting point if you’re new to Japanese cooking; it’s not as intimidating or complicated as other Japanese cookbooks, and it uses commonplace American supermarket ingredients whenever possible. The vibrant photography and clear font make it especially easy to read and cook with. The thorough intro on Japanese cuisine includes the handy mnemonic device of “sa shi su se so” (the Japanese hiragana letters that correspond to sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, and miso, the staples of the Japanese kitchen). And kudos for a particularly helpful section on Japanese ingredients with clearly labeled photos to match. There is also a handy bibliography and list of shopping resources (mostly online).
Like Tuttle Publishing’s other Asian cookbooks, “My Japanese Table” is designed to fit today’s busy lifestyle and includes many main-course recipes that take 30 minutes or less to cook using common (U.S.) supermarket ingredients (both the prep times and cooking times are helpfully included at the top of each recipe). Another bonus is that measurements are given both in metric and imperial measurements; no need to convert if you’re cooking overseas.
I just spent six months working in (and cooking my way across) Japan, so I was really looking forward to testing these recipes. First up were the colorful matcha mochi cupcakes. Mochi are sticky pounded rice cakes (no relation to American “rice cakes”) traditionally served at New Year’s, but variations of mochi are found in many common Japanese desserts. I made the cupcakes as instructed and sprinkled cinnamon on top, but they still needed a little something extra, so I added the matcha frosting from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. This gave the cupcakes an extra boost of grassy green tea flavor (and color) with a touch of sweetness (see attached photos).
Next up, I tried several of the vegetarian recipes like the Sweet Simmered Mushrooms, Pumpkin Rounds and Japanese Mushroom Mélange with Butter and Soy. In some cases, I found that I had to adjust the cooking time. In the case of the mushroom mélange, you’re instructed to bake 2 pounds of mushrooms for 15 minutes (the cooking time at the top said 20), but I had to bake them for closer to 30 before the mushrooms released their juices. Also, it was difficult to fit two pounds of mushrooms into a 10 x 13 piece of parchment paper as instructed!
I was happy to see that some traditional Japanese desserts were included, mostly focused on mochi, anko (sweet red bean paste), and green tea. You’ll find favorites like ichigo daifuku (ripe strawberries wrapped in a layer of bean paste and coated in mochi) and matcha and black sesame ice creams. The chapter is rounded out with instructions on how to prepare several kinds of traditional teas (sencha, matcha, and hojicha).
Debra is a patient teacher (Tuttle has dubbed her “The Julia Child of Japanese cooking”) and frequently defers to Japanese colleagues, or includes stories of her life in Japan that makes “My Japanese Table” part cookbook and part travelogue. The book could have benefited from a little extra proofreading (there were several typos in addition to mismatches between stated cooking times, conflicting instructions, etc.), but overall “My Japanese Table” has something to appeal to everyone, from the meat-and-potatoes crowd to vegetarians to kids (there are several cute bento box suggestions aimed specifically at kids and teens).
(Many thanks / arigatou gozaimasu to Tuttle Publishing for generously providing a review copy)