I saw it first at Kobo, an exceptional Japanese crafts store in Seattle’s International District. It was a beautifully bound book with stunning images of simple Japanese farm food, a subject that has lately caught my interest. Flipping through the thick, almost squarish matte-finished pages was like an invitation to eat at the table of Nancy Singleton Hachisu, who authored Japanese Farm Food, the object of my fascination. I got the book as a gift last Christmas; it helped that it was on my wish list.
I’ve never done a book review post before, but this book I had to write about, particularly as it relates to this blog’s theme of food and travel.
Nancy Hachisu is not Japanese by birth. She’s an American, born and raised in the Bay Area, who as a young woman decided to go to Japan for language study and sushi but wound up staying when she married an organic farmer. She has lived in Japan for over twenty years, in the process becoming thoroughly immersed in living on an organic farm, growing crops, raising three sons and, of course, cooking Japanese farm food.
This book is about seasonal cooking and eating what grows around you, as opposed to the approach of making meals from recipes. As she writes in her introduction, “You don’t choose the vegetables, they choose you.” The recipes are both those of her husband’s family and her and her husband’s creations. They are all about simplicity, the ingredients about unspoiled flavors and textures. Read her ode to freshly harvested edamame immediately plunged into boiling water (like just picked corn), drained and sprinkled with sea salt, served blisteringly hot with beer, and you’ll want to do the same. Or imagine tasting high-quality, small-scale-produced rapeseed (canola) oil that is far superior to flavorless commercial versions, or being bowled over by freshly shelled raw homegrown pecans. And when you read her description of her locally available tofu (Yamaki), you might want to take the next flight to Japan.
The recipes rarely use more than four ingredients. For example, the one for nasu no shigiyaki (fried eggplant with sweet miso) is straightforward and exemplary. It involves scoring the backs of Japanese eggplant halves in a crosshatch pattern (to look like bird’s feathers; shigi => sandpiper) prior to frying them in organic rapeseed oil, then topping them with sweet miso (which you make yourself from the highest quality miso, mirin and sake), slivered ginger and shiso (perilla) chiffonade.
I was fascinated by recipes for natto fried rice, kurumi soba (soba with walnut dipping sauce), tamago-kake gohan (raw egg on hot rice), zukkini no nukazuke (zucchini pickled in rice bran), tataki kyuri (smashed cucumber pickles with garlic), kaminari konnyaku (stir-fried konnyaku with shaved bonito), nasu no shiomomi (salt-massaged eggplant with ginger and shiso), okura no ohitashi (sliced okra with dried bonito), buta no kaku-ni (pork belly simmered in okara), tori no kara age (deep-fried ginger chicken) or kyuri momi (salt-massaged cucumber with miso and sesame), just to name a few. Perking my interest was one small section devoted to making Japanese pickles (tsukemono), an old tradition that is slowly dying out in Japan. These are condiments that I grew up with. Using only vinegar, salt, soy sauce, miso, nuka (rice bran) and kasu (sake lees), alone or in combination, you can pickle any number of vegetables.
Aside from the recipes, what makes this book more interesting than, say, another book on the same subject? First of all, it’s highly opinionated. She writes not as a Japanese native but as a Westerner who has adapted to the Japanese way of life, not altogether a smooth and successful assimilation but one done willingly, with compromise and no illusions. She balks at the traditional role of Japanese housewife but deals with expectations in her own way in order “to live out [her] whole life in this sometimes restrictive culture.” Hachisu still feels like an outsider in Japan but that hasn’t stopped her embrace of things Japanese. And embrace she has. Hachisu is passionate about using the freshest ingredients, organic or natural (what “natural” means is explained below) when possible, because of their pristine flavors. Her pick of soy sauce, for instance, doesn’t include Kikkoman, but rather a locally produced organic one (Yamaki Jozo, marketed in the U.S. under the Ohsawa brand) that is naturally and unhurriedly fermented (therefore making it pricier). She even advocates buying tofu from tofu makers (tofuya) instead of supermarkets, whose products have been treated for long shelf-life, or making your own. One of her recipes includes making tofu from scratch.
Her preference for organic and natural foods is no less influenced by her own inclinations or Chez Panisse than by her husband, who opposed his father’s insistence on modernizing farming practices with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and became an organic farmer. Natural farming, she explains, is a method of farming that doesn’t use animal or bird fertilizers, for practitioners feel they disturb the soil’s natural nitrogen balance and adversely affect the taste of vegetables, which suggests that in Japan’s case, the term is more restrictive than organic rather than being the nebulous, worthless one used here in the U.S.
Hachisu’s stories and anecdotes are another captivating element of the book. The personal accounts wrapped around some traditional foods like umeboshi and konnyaku are fun to read because they involve the farmers who grow them or the people who simply bring them by. Her description in a sidebar of close family friends, a Japanese farmer and his wife, who every year come to Christmas dinner (which always include gougères and sparkling wine), is a tribute to their tireless work ethic and dedication as well as a recognition that she can never be like them (“for me, farming will always be about playing a role”). And lest readers think that farming life is pastoral, Hachisu reminds us that even in her corner of the world, urbanization is rapidly taking over.
Nancy Hachisu’s passion for Japanese farm cooking shines through in the recipes with their cultural notes and the book’s engaging sidebars and chapter introductions. The book isn’t meant to be authoritative like Shizuo Tsuji’s, but a compendium of farm food that she and her husband have made through the years. Country cookin’. I highly recommend it.