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The food editors were excited to welcome Nancy Singleton Hachisu in the test kitchen this week, especially Lauryn, who loves cooking Japanese food (and has even tackled making sushi at home!). Nancy originally hails from California but has lived in Japan for 30 years. She’s written three books about Japanese food, including her latest tome, a nearly 500-page bible called “Japan: The Cookbook.” She came by the test kitchen to chat about how it all came together.
It was no small feat to try to encapsulate between two covers an entire cuisine that most Americans still find too intimidating to attempt at home. Nancy worked on the book for three years, during which she gathered material from all kinds of sources: chefs, artisanal food makers, and Japanese-language cookbooks. What she found most compelling was the regional home cooking of the 1970s, which she describes in the book introduction as having “taken on an aspect of luxuriousness, thanks to the availability of ingredients and prosperity at the time.” The real coup for Nancy was convincing two local grandmothers who specialized in the cuisine of that period to cook for her. She made their recipes her own for the book, and the result is something altogether unique: “It’s not modern Japanese food. It’s not old Japanese food," says Nancy. "It’s a specific moment in time but freshened up. It’s a take on food from all over Japan that’s bright, colorful, and vegetable-centric.”
Nancy and the food editors compared notes on Japanese ingredients, from pantry staples like mirin and sesame oil to ancient Japanese seasonings such as sansho pepper and yuzu citrus. Her advice? “If you want to get a deep sense of how to use Japanese ingredients, find the best possible versions and learn from those. They’ll teach you about the real flavor. ” Once you develop a feel for the ingredients and understand how they interact, Nancy says you can dial down a level or two if necessary. It’s also important not to mix and match different grades; for example, a a low-quality soy sauce should go with a low-quality mirin; a high-quality mirin would be too overpowering.
Lauryn was surprised to learn that one of her favorite Japanese ingredients, shiso leaves, are not that commonly used in Japan. “ I like shiso, but it’s way overused abroad,” says Nancy. “It’s not really a thing in Japan. We only have shiso in the summertime.” She recommends trying shiso with umesu (Japanese plum vinegar)—the pairing is the star of a rice recipe in the book that Lauryn can't wait to try.
Nancy also dispelled the notion that this kind of seasonal cooking is how all Japanese eat. “People are trying to get food on the table, just like here. There’s a lot of convenience foods and prepared foods. If we make it sound like the Japanese are so perfect, then it’s doing them a disservice; they might not take a closer look at the fact that this more traditional way of cooking is disappearing.” That’s why Nancy strives to get the word out about well-made Japanese ingredients; she doesn’t want people to settle for mediocre big-box soy sauce when there’s an amazing artisanal version to be had. Not everyone might be able to buy it, but she believes it’s important to know the difference so that the tradition isn’t lost.
Nancy was also in town to cook at a dinner at celebrated New York restaurant Reynard, which Lauryn and Shira were lucky enough to attend. Lauryn says, “The overarching thing I loved about the food was that it was the opposite of most restaurant meals you get in the city, which tend to be aggressively seasoned. Nancy had an extremely light touch, so you really got to experience all the flavors working in the dish.” A good example of that was the Cold Prevention Soup, which Lauryn describes as “nourishing and clean. There was ham in it, which had a powerful smokiness, but everything still tasted really delicate.” Shira agrees that she’ll be making the soup all the time: “Talk about an elixir! It was perfectly balanced and so comforting.”
Lauryn’s also looking forward to trying the Stir-Fried Fava Beans in the spring and the Seven-Spice Chicken for a super-simple weeknight meal. Shira’s favorite part of the evening was sampling the ingredients that served as the building blocks of each dish. Nancy brought 50 kilos of ingredients with her from Japan for the dinner and let the guests have a taste. Shira says, “They really made you appreciate the idea that your meal is only going to be as good as the ingredients you start with. Getting to try the ingredients before the finished dishes was so inspiring—it really made me want to get my Japanese pantry in order.” Looks like the test-kitchen pantry is about to skew a lot more Japanese this summer!