About the Book
This month I chose Japan by Nancy Singleton Hachisu for my Cook the Book series. I came across this book when I was looking for what could be considered a definitive book on Japanese cooking. The book is framed as traditional and authentic recipes from the 70s and 80s—recipes that made in homes. Given I have no concept of what Japanese cuisine is like by era, I figured it would be a comprehensive enough collection.
With over 400 recipes, this is an encyclopedic book, and I by no means even scratched the surface of what was inside of it. The recipes are organized by course and preparation, so I tried to choose at least one recipe from each section.
Ease of Recipes Rating
I had imagined that cooking a cuisine that is not very familiar would be a daunting task. A lot of the recipes were very straightforward. My only complaint being that you need to own at least 4 pots for some of these recipes to boil all of the ingredients you’re instructed to boil. That’s a pretty unrealistic expectation, though, and some of these recipes will take longer than the time estimates because of that.
Speaking of equipment: another thing I also struggled with was not having all of the kitchen tools called for in the recipe. In particular, a suribachi and surikogi, which are sort of like a mortar and pestle. I made do with my mortar and pestle, but looking at the tools, I know it wasn’t exactly what was needed.
Ingredients Obscurity Rating
The biggest barrier to cook through this book was the availability of the produce used in recipes. There were many ingredients I had never seen in a grocery store: shiso, shungiku, nagaimo. Some Japanese produce can be found in stores like Whole Foods. Japanese eggplant, which has many recipes in this book, is currently out of season, but can be found in these stores during the summer.
(If you’re wondering how to identify which eggplant is the Japanese eggplant, it’s the one that looks like your eggplant emoji.)
Cooking from this book can be a bit costly, too. And some ingredients are frankly too cost prohibitive. For example, I was able to find umeboshi, but at my local store, the cost was $18 for a 7 oz package. For any pantry items mentioned, you can likely find them for purchase online.
But, there are also a lot of familiar ingredients that come together in possibly new-to-you ways. The vegetables I used most frequently were cabbage, carrots, shiitake, green beans, spring onions/scallions, and cucumbers – all things that can be found in most grocery stores. And once you own some other basic pantry items like rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, mirin, soy sauce, and miso, you can make a good portion of the recipes in this book.
Grocery Store Rating: I hope you too have a local Japanese market, but I’m guessing you might not.
What I Made
Note: Apologies in advance, but it appears that almost none of these recipes are available online.
- Okonomiyaki – I had never had okonomiyaki before, but the concept really appealed to me. The name is derived from “okonomi”, meaning “what you like”, and yaki meaning “cooked.” All of the suggested toppings combine to create a perfectly balanced dish. Honestly, who would have thought to combine mayo and a sauce that is basically just a mix of Worcestershire sauce and ketchup? My favorite new-to-me toppings were the julienned pickled ginger and the aonori, which I found at our local Japanese market. They both added a sweet element to the final product. I recommend seeking out these ingredients!
- Daikon with Sweet Miso – I had never tasted daikon before. So when I saw daikons available at Whole Foods, I found a recipe that highlighted them. This is another simple preparation: the daikon is cut into half moon then boiled and served warm with a miso/mirin dipping sauce. The daikon has an earthy flavor and the miso with added sweetness made an interesting combination.
- Crispy Green Beans in Sesame – If you’re looking for a simple, but tasty preparation for green beans, this is a great option. The green beans are blanched to preserve their crispiness and then tossed in a sesame oil dressing and a ton of sesame seeds.
- Cucumber and Shiitake in Sesame-Vinegar – This recipe is dressed in a similar fashion as the crispy green beans in sesame, but the rice vinegar adds a pleasant acidity. If cucumbers aren’t your thing, there’s a similar recipe in this book that uses asparagus.
- Rice Bowl with Ground Meat (+ eggs threads) – The headnote for this recipe says that you’ll be able to get to the point of not needing a recipe to make this. And I agree that definitely seems possible! This bowl was really convenient for me to make after my okonomiyaki party – I had almost everything on hand. Leftover green beans, shiitake, and eggs and my new favorite condiment – julienned pickled ginger. The egg threads were a bit of a challenge for me because I’ve never cooked such a small amount of egg. Overall, an easy recipe worth making again.
- Cabbage with Hot Sesame Vinegar – I’m a big fan of a cabbage salad and this is definitely one I will return to after this month. The cabbage is light and still crunchy and the sesame adds even more crunch. I wasn’t able to find pimans, but I substituted with a smaller portion of a green pepper. The green peppers are a nice addition that adds to a lot more flavor than you’d expect. I made this with leftover cabbage from my okonomiyaki.
- Spinach and Udon Soup – I didn’t make the Japanese Chicken Broth as instructed. When are cookbooks going to learn that I am never going to make my own broth. NEVER. To make up for it, I added some ginger to a store-brought broth. It added a nice spiciness to the broth that improved what would have otherwise been a bland dish. There aren’t too many flavor elements in this dish, so the broth is where most of that will come from. I also noticed an error on this recipe. The ingredients listed soy sauce but never stated when to add it. I added it to the broth in the bowl to add some extra saltiness.
- Japanese Style Scrambled Eggs – These scrambled eggs are a much heavier version of the type of scrambled eggs I make. Maybe you could even consider these a dinner scrambled eggs. The flavors are very rich, but it’s fun to watch the bonito flakes move from the steam of the eggs (try to resist yelling “IT’S ALIVEEEEE”).
- Oyakodon – The name for this dish comes from the words for parent and child (“oyako”), or rather the chicken and the egg. And the “don” part comes from it being served in a donburi. Singleton Hachisu also notes that this dish is a favorite of children. Since I know that I also have the palette of a child, I had a feeling I was going to like it. The dish came together simply enough. My only hesitation was knowing when to stop cooking. I got a little nervous about the eggs being under done, so I may have overcooked them. Next time I make this I will err on the side of runny. Even with the over-cooked egg, the dish was very flavorful and satisfying. This dish also gave me the opportunity to make the Katsuobushi Dashi, which contributed to the rich flavor to the dish. Definitely worth the extra time!
- Fish Dumpling Soup with Miso – The dumpling came together quickly with a food processor. I took the time to make Katsuobushi Dashi again (…but I won’t make regular chicken stock?). The dumplings were flavorful and the miso added even more flavor to the broth. A good meal for a cold day.
- Salmon Croquettes – I’ve had this one can of salmon in my cupboard for who knows how long and was excited to finally find a recipe to use it. They came together quickly enough (even with the 30 minute refrigeration time). I even got to practice my deep-frying with this recipe! The ponzu dipping sauce is definitely worth seeking out for these. It’s citrus-y acidity is the perfect pairing with fried fish.
- Sweet Potato with Lemon Dressing – And now for the only failure of my recipe selection. Though in my defense, I only chose it because I wanted to use a Japanese sweet potato I found at Whole Foods. The 80s are alive and well with this recipe, though. This (and the terrine) are some of the most 80s recipes in this book. I should have realized this when it suggests serving the salad in a lettuce cup. I didn’t include a picture of this recipe because it was frankly too unappealing.
What I Want to Try Next
February was a short month and I found myself struggling to make time for cooking. Especially when a lot of the recipes involve hard-to-find ingredients.
Here are some of the recipes in the book I want to try in the future:
- Rolled Egg Omelet – This requires a special pan I wasn’t willing to buy.
- Anything from the pickled section – Again, more special equipment…and months of waiting. Not necessarily the best combination for a month-long project.
If you want to check out some more recipes from the book that I didn’t feature, you can find 4 recipes here.