Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Japanese Kitchen Tales

After a fruitless search for the latest issue of MPH Quill, MPH called to tell me that they saved two complimentary copies for me.

A Cook's Journey to Japan, reviewed in MPH Quill July - Sep 2010

Though I'd hoped the author would demonstrate more of her knowledge and experience in her field for the e-mail interview, it all turned out okay. The editorial team did a great job with the piece and the magazine in general, which looks more lifestylish now. A few good articles, particularly one from Ellen Whyte.

Do pick up a copy, but don't rush. As of now it seems they haven't gotten the issue to all their stores yet.

I'm still in the middle of getting snapshots of nearly every print article, write-up or mildly interesting listings I've worked on. Each item will be categorised and backdated to the day or month it was published.

Japanese kitchen tales
KW Wong reviews A Cook's Journey to Japan by Sarah Marx Feldner and interviews the cook about her long, heart-warming homecoming

original text; edited version published in MPH Quill, Jul-Sep 2010

Since he left the kitchen, trash-talking celeb chef Tony Bourdain has been hoisting his saucepan about a number of things: the US foie gras ban, radical vegans, factory farming and the fast food industry. Now, it’s people who can’t even fry an egg.

In one episode of No Reservations, he got some big name chefs to demonstrate how to roast chicken, make omelettes and prepare spaghetti in red sauce; Tony B himself showed us how to cut onions and make beef stew. Why? Because Bourdain claimed that Americans (and perhaps people in general) can’t seem to cook a thing right nowadays.

However, not all of us can ring up the likes of Thomas Keller or Jacques Pépin to arrange cooking lessons. And if I’m right, you might be tired of the usual Western-style classics of steak, pasta and English breakfasts.

May I suggest an alternative, such as, say, Sarah Marx Feldner’s cookbook, A Cook’s Journey to Japan: Fish Tales and Rice Paddies - 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens?

“A cookbook?” you would probably scream. “How cheap! And is she even a cook?” you might ask. Well, she spent some time as a pastry chef, has a master’s degree in the art of collecting recipes and food research, and from what I’ve read, also tried her hand at many of the book’s dishes. Also, her mentor for the project and cookbook writer Elizabeth Andoh gushed at Feldner’s “passion of purpose” and “commitment to ‘doing it right’ (no haphazard shortcuts)”, so I suppose readers will be in pretty good hands.

More than just a repository of food terminology or recipes, A Cook’s Journey is as advertised: a record of Feldner’s personal culinary journey throughout Japan, the continuation of a love affair with the country that began when she first arrived to teach English. It’s like peeking into the kitchens of everyday Japanese, and by extension, their personalities, lives and culture, but without the screaming and flying utensils – always a good thing in anyone’s book.

Feldner calls the book “an act of desperation’, but it’s hardly a harried jumble of text and pictures. The author sticks with people from the smaller towns and rural areas, whom she finds more open, and willing to talk and share. The language speaks of her love for her adopted country – or did it adopt her? The characters she encountered seem to suggest the latter. The aunt of a friend, a friend of said aunt, generous café owners and chefs, a gallant director of an information centre and his fisherman friend, and so on. She also braves such dangers as an old man with “questionable” motives and getting stranded in paddy fields in the middle of nowhere. It is undoubtedly a labour of love.

The inclusive vibe of this culinary journal is somewhat upset by her goal of writing it for other Westerners like herself, scared stiff by more “foreign or difficult” ingredients and presentations found in other Japanese cookbooks. Even the recipes are organised according to how gwailos eat and cook. Curious Asian epicures might feel a bit left out, but that’s a minor hiccup. Already an old hand at Japanese cooking? This book might not be for you.

Home cooking may be less intimidating, but without knives, open flames and hot oil, you won’t accomplish much. Labelled pictures help a lot in introducing the tools and ingredients in Japanese home cooking. Learn how to slice and dice veggies (down to the millimetre in one instance), make real wasabi (grind the root in a slow circular motion with a sharkskin grater for best results), and how to make stock (dashi) and perfect sushi-style rice. The steps also serve as warm-ups for the recipes that follow, from snacks and salads to drinks and desserts.

Each recipe is well-documented; for the more complicated ones, Sarah-san takes you gently by the hand and shows you how to do it, slipping a few tips and trivia about the ingredients, the dishes, and the terrible, terrible things that can happen if you screw up. Of course, the author and publisher won’t be responsible if you happened to use a bad fish, lop off a finger or burn your house down while giving this book a go.

There are other useful appendices as well. Got a party? Can’t think of a menu for a surprise dinner a la Take Home Chef? Some menu suggestions are available. Where’s this Iwaki she stayed in? Nonplussed about Nagano’s location? Lo, at the end of the book, a map of Japan; Iwaki, is somewhere north of Tokyo.

Narrowing down the scope of cuisines and places to cover helps keep the book focused, so there really isn’t much room for improvement. The omission of unagi (eel) may have been deliberate, as none of the ingredients mentioned require special handling; eel blood is toxic.

All in all, a nicely done visual feast and window into the lunchboxes of everyday Japanese, and a gift to anyone who wants to cook different. Like most good cookbooks this is not one to read on an empty stomach. Even pictures of a simple rice-and-peas dish will send you rushing towards the nearest eatery, Japanese or otherwise.

A Cook's Journey to Japan
Fish Tales and Rice Paddies: 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens

Sarah Marx-Feldner
Tuttle Publishing (2010)
160 pages
ISBN: 978-4805310113


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