A Japanese Interlude
Studying a very different cuisine calms the soul and excites the mind
These days, I can’t help but think of that 1980 Vapors’ song “Turning Japanese,” which we all sang when I was a kid. And while no, I am not turning Japanese anytime soon, or, really, ever, I have recently fallen even further in love with that nation’s cuisine.
Why now? Because the techniques and flavors of Japan are so radically different from those of Mexico, my primary focus these days, that they serve as a counterpoint that helps me appreciate the beauty in both.
My interest in Japanese cuisine began in my 20s, years after a dreadful start — my initiation had been, like many in my generation, Benihana. Even as a kid, I viewed the restaurant’s weird shrimp-flipping showmanship as flashy-trashy and definitely not real. So with that in my head as “Japanese food,” I lived, unimpressed, until one day I went on a lunch date to a sushi restaurant.
It is surprising, even to me, that I did not try sushi until I was in my mid-20s. This was after my stint as a chef even; I’d worked in an Ethiopian restaurant and an American-style seafood joint, both of which are very different from sushi.
Confronted with that first platter of fish and rice, there it was: Neat, seemingly simple, small. I was a serious distance runner at the time, so the ratio of food to money spent wasn’t good. I nibbled with my date, paid the check, said good-bye, then grabbed a chicken parm sandwich before I went back to the office.
But she liked sushi, and I liked her, so we kept returning. Only this time I read the menu more closely. Ramen. Gyoza. Udon. Soba. Donburi. Starchy things! Much better.
I later learned to love sushi as my wallet grew a little heavier, and my distance running grew a little lighter. But to me at least, Japanese food was still an enigma. Weird ingredients, flavors wildly different from anything I was used to, wrapped in a cloak of almost mystical precision, Japanese cuisine kept telling my chef self, over and over, to just go away. Put your money down and enjoy it, but you can never cook this, gaijin.
And so it was, for decades. I ate a lot of Japanese food, but rarely had the courage to make anything more than a simple dashi or a homemade teriyaki sauce.
Flash forward to today. I am deeply enmeshed in a multi-year project/obsession with the food of Mexico in general and its northern states in particular. I’ve learned to read Spanish and am learning how to speak it smoothly, and have read and traveled and eaten enough Mexican food to be able to gauge a recipe at a glance.
To put this in human terms, Mexican cuisine and I are married, or at least in a steady, long-term relationship. On the other hand, Japanese cuisine and I are in those heady initial stages, flirty and flushed, a bit too excited about little things, and still deeply in the dark about some of the inner truths of what it’s all about.
Japanese food treasures restraint, subtlety, precision. Mexican food treasures big flavor, flamboyance, even excess. This seems too simplistic, but Japanese food, again, at least to me, feels “quiet,” while Mexican food is a party.
What’s more, very few Mexican recipes forbid freestyling — just look at how many variations there are on something like chilorio or barbacoa or mole poblano. I suspect this might also be true in Japan, but I do get the sense that there exists a stronger sense of “this is what makes x dish x dish,” and too much deviation is apostasy. Maybe I’m wrong? Probably I just don’t know the cuisine well enough yet.
I want to tell you what broke the dam for me, because I can point to it easily: First came the show Midnight Diner on Netflix, whose episodes hinge on one homey Japanese dish or another. Its simple humanity was a salve during the darkest days of the pandemic, and Holly and I find ourselves watching it over and over.
Then I heard about Sonoko Sakai’s cookbook Japanese Home Cooking. I bought it immediately after reading its many reviews. Hers is not the first Japanese cookbook I’ve bought. I’ve had a few others over the years, with Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art being the best. Maybe it’s the pictures, but Sakai’s book really opened up details that had still flummoxed me; Tsuji’s book is a classic, but lacks photos.
Her prose, and her familiarity — Sakai is, like me, a Californian — helped me realize that Japanese home cooking isn’t any more complicated than “normal” American cooking, and although there are lots and lots of differences, they are not difficult to overcome.
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Admittedly, I have an advantage. We have a large Asian supermarket nearby, and only a little farther away, in South Sacramento, there’s an actual, dedicated Japanese supermarket called Oto’s. Oh, and Gekkeikan, one of the largest sake makers in the world, is six miles from my house.
That said, many, many of the ingredients Sakai uses are available on Amazon or other online sellers, and with a few exceptions, the produce, meat, fish and seafood she uses is as available in North Dakota as it is here.
Ain’t gonna lie though: Wandering around in these markets is super fun. All the new ingredients, new smells, new ideas — a whole aisle just for dried seaweed! — has me popping things in my basket the way kids sneak candy into mom’s cart. Well that looks cool, let’s try it!
These are fun days. Lots of firsts, lots of following recipes exactly. I’m making ramen noodles from scratch for the first time today. Shumai dumplings are next. So much learning!
Make no mistake: I’m not some dilettante bouncing from cuisine to cuisine, never understanding any of them. I used to be, but I get it now. As someone who writes about other people’s food, rather than just cooking it privately for myself and my friends, it is hugely important that I know something about the culture underpinning that food, the nuances of the cuisine, the whys as well as the hows.
I’m more or less there with Mexican cuisine, even though I could spend the rest of my life across the border learning more and more and more. And I may well do that.
But there’s something to be said for the pure joy of a culinary flirtation. The raw excitement, the thrill of learning flavors and techniques for the first time. Will it grow into a long-term relationship? Maybe. But for now, I am just enjoying the ride.