How to cook Japanese food when you are not Japanese
There are two things about me you may have already guessed:
- I really like Japanese food; and
- I’m not Japanese.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a while. I think the answer is that I can’t be truly authentic in my Japanese style cooking. But, I’m OK with that, because I can still make the kind of dishes that my household and I really enjoy.
Let me share two stories which capture what separates me from an authentic Japanese cook.
A few years ago we spent a several months in Japan, and during our stay visited an old temple on a forested hill. In the centre of the temple grounds was a tree: enormous, quiet, unmoved. Our friend and guide explained that this tree was 1,000 years old. I had to repeat that fact to myself in my head a few times to let it sink in – one thousand years. My home town celebrated its centenary not that long ago, and I was standing in front of a tree that was 1,000 years old.
A street full of seasonal smells
I remember one Spring morning riding my bike to take an English conversation class. The whole trip I could smell the same delicious smell I had noticed for days, wafting out of the houses and onto the street. I asked the ladies in the class about it and they explained that because it was the beginning of Spring, everybody was cooking a particular fish dish with soy and ginger.
Not only was I curious about just how much the Japanese cooking year followed the seasons, I was struck by the power of a culture where things are done in a certain way. Although this tradition does allow for some variation and the special skills of particular cooks, “the way” to make a regional dish is deeply imprinted in so many kitchens in Japan.
It’s not the same here
I stepped out of that place with its age old traditions and the patterns people follow in so many aspects of life, back to a people without that same historical and cultural thread and with a very different cultural flavour. In my own Australian culture the most recent layer is relatively new, and some of us are still scrambling for a history with any depth. Plus, many of us here seem eager to put our own unique stamp on life rather than blend in with the crowd, at least to some extent – this is not particularly Japanese. Our food culture here is borrowed (or stolen) and adapted rather than shaped by hundreds of years of tradition. We can’t even agree with our New Zealand neighbours as to who invented our biggest food icons.
So, what hope do I have of cooking Japanese food the Japanese way? Perhaps the answer is that I can’t be authentically Japanese, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try.
I’m starting with the premise that it won’t be the same, but that’s OK. I’ll just enjoy cooking and eating, taking my inspiration from the flavours I love in Japanese food, and we’ll make simple, tasty food we can enjoy together. My way is OK!
How to try and cook a little bit like a Japanese person
You’ll be off to a good start if you make your meals:
- seasonal, and
The first two are self-explanatory. By sufficient I mean serve an amount of food so that you can comfortably eat everything on your plate, and it will be enough. No need for between meal snacks!
Hungry for more? I’ve found these tips make any meal look and taste more Japanese:
- Eat rice. Don’t just eat it, treat it with respect. Use good rice and cook it well. Let it speak for itself, don’t disguise it with anything else, except maybe a few sprinkles of seasoning when serving. Now eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Stick to a palette of particularly Japanese food flavours. Think soy, sake, ginger, mirin, miso, and salty, fishy, sweet.
- Use a lot of small bowls and plates. They don’t have to match. In fact, it’s better if they don’t.
- There must be miso or some other kind of soup – that goes without saying.
- Eat fish, or a small amount of meat. Slice the small amount of meat into small slices. Remember, the meat needs to be small.
- Use fresh, in season ingredients. I know, you could say that about a lot of cuisines.
- Add some pickled vegetables, just a little. Something as simple as pickled ginger works.
- Make it beautiful, in a natural, unaffected way (no pressure!). If you can’t make it beautiful, make it cute. Cute is very Japanese.
- Keep trying.
On that last point, I’ve noticed a few Japanese masters of various arts express the idea that they see themselves on a continuous journey of improving and perfecting their craft. For example, Jiro Ono of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, perhaps the world’s greatest sushi chef, says something like this at the end of the movie. Again, this drive for continuous improvement is something I don’t see expressed as strongly in my own culture.
There’s a little of the idea in this quote from the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai, known for his iconic Great Wave and Red Fuji paintings*:
From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.
Perhaps if I keep trying I’ll live long enough to prepare a tasty Japanese style meal. Come over for dinner while I keep experimenting?
I hope you’re convinced to accept and embrace the seat at your own cultural table, and perhaps to sprinkle it with a little Japanese flavour. Itadakimasu!
Find out how to make a simple Japanese style dinner in the next post here.
Read how I learned to cook a famous South Indian dish, even though I am not Indian, in this post about making your own dosa.
* learn more about Katsushika Hokusai at this site here.