There is a tradition of English-speaking writers effectively translating the cuisines of other countries for us, and it’s a worthy one. Those authors may be native to the country of their subject: Marcella Hazan, for example, or Julie Sahni. Or they may have been foreigners, like Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, or Julia Child. To some extent, they offered us the food of other countries in a way we could only otherwise experience by going there, because for the most part the restaurants representing those cuisines were not yet offering us the real deal.
This is the position Elizabeth Andoh is in, and her job is as challenging as any. Ms. Andoh, an American who moved to Japan more than 40 years ago and has spent that time learning Japanese cooking (and culture, and the language, and more) and refining it for English-speaking audiences. One might argue that Ms. Andoh has written the same book several times, a book that says, in essence, “Please. It’s not as hard as you think. Let me explain it to you so you can give it a shot.” Her most recent effort, Washoku, is now nearly five years old and, I think, is underappreciated despite an IACP award.
In the 80s, I spent a great deal of time with Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, the most widely praised basic book on Japanese cooking. I always had problems with it, though: The recipes needed tinkering, many were underseasoned (causing me to believe, mistakenly and for many years, that Japanese home cooking was dull), and the book had what I guess you might call the Child-ish (that is, Julia-ish) tendency to overexplain things that really could be quite simple.
Washoku (it means, she writes, “the harmony of food”) is the first comprehensive step forward in the last couple of decades. It begins with a robust, 90 page section on basics, a readable introduction to the most important ingredients and techniques used throughout the book. All of this is readily understandable, and much of it will be helpful to the beginner or even somewhat experienced person interested in Japanese cooking. Some is too esoteric to be practical: there are (I learned), at least four kinds of kombu (kelp), each of which are used for different purposes. Academically, I find this interesting. But I, for one, buy the kombu I find, and I use it until it’s gone, usually a year or two later.
In each of the recipe sections are things I have or want to make. For example: tofu sauce (blend tofu, mirin, miso, salt – how great is that?); chilled roasted eggplant; rice porridge with umeboshi; and walnut miso sauce, which I made with Ms. Andoh and Yumiko Kano, a remarkable vegan chef I wrote about a few years ago. I wish there were more; at 300 pages (and with about a third of those spent on basics), Woshoku feels short on recipes. Someone – Ms. Andoh may or may not be the candidate for this – needs to do The Big Fat Japanese cookbook.
For now, Washoku will do; it’s general, it’s smart, the recipes work, and there is just enough detail to guide the inexperienced through what is not for most of us an intuitive cuisine. Washoku looks like a modern cookbook (it’s quite pretty), but it feels old-fashioned, and I think that’s a good thing. For the most part, our exposure to Japanese food is as limited now as was our exposure to French or Italian food forty years ago; we see the “greatest hits,” for the most part: sushi, teriyaki, yakitori – these are easy to understand, easy to explain, easy to replicate. Ms. Andoh’s book can take the home cook, even a not-very-serious one, to the next level, to one that is barely touched by 95 percent of the Japanese restaurants in the United States.