2000s Archive

Simplicity And Soul

Originally Published May 2000
Gourmet’s cooks learn the art of restraint and other lessons of the Japanese kitchen.

We are carving swaths from potatoes to make them resemble the beveled backs of turtles. We are shaping carrots into curvy plum blossoms. We are cutting beef into bite-size chunks. We scoop them into a pot and simmer them with dashi, the clear, ocean-flavored stock that is the foundation of many Japanese dishes. We also add sake, a bit of sugar, and, finally, soy sauce and cover the pot with an otoshi-buta, a wooden “dropped lid” that rests right on top of the ingredients, keeping them moist. And then we cross our fingers.

After four days of intensive cooking lessons with Japanese culinary authority, cookbook author, and teacher Elizabeth Andoh, we are trying to discover if we can make a truly Japanese meal. For our recital menu, or happyokai, Andoh has ordered us to concoct a meal from recipes we’ve invented ourselves, inspired by our weeklong culinary adventure, which included hours spent scouring local markets and eating dozens of restaurant meals. Have we done it? We watch nervously as she takes a taste.

We arrived in Tokyo intimidated, like many American cooks, by the very idea of making Japanese food. How could outsiders possibly re-create the delicate pageant of flavors, colors, and textures born of such a rarefied culinary tradition? What is it that makes a dish Japanese?

“The Japanese define a meal more by preparation than by range of ingredients,” Andoh began. “A real pro can cook a single ingredient seven different ways so that each time it tastes different.” She insisted that a mastery of Japanese cooking does not require the virtuoso knife work of a sushi chef, the artistry of a floral arranger, or the cunning of a fugu master (whose unenviable task is removing poison from the potentially lethal blowfish). What it does require is the application of a few basic tenets. And, for Westerners like us, a willingness to enter into a whole new relationship with food.

An American herself, Andoh has spent the better part of the past 35 years in Japan negotiating this relationship. A graduate of Tokyo’s prestigious Yanagihara Kinsaryu School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine, she earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in culinary arts. Her knowledge spans Japanese food culture high and low, from where to buy the best green tea to which shops sell the rubber sushi models displayed in restaurant windows. Andoh’s culinary orientation tilts so naturally toward the East that during a cooking course she took at the renowned French school La Varenne, she switched from a group of English-speakers to a class that held only Japanese. “I think Elizabeth is Japanese,” murmured her willowy young assistant, Mayumi-san, during one lesson from her station by the stove.

Dashi,” our instructor pronounces at the outset, “is the key to Japanese food. The quality of your dashi is the difference between a dish that is good and one that is gorgeous.” For us, the notion of stock as kingpin immediately brought to mind its French counterpart, veal stock. So when Andoh says, “Promise me Gourmet will never call for instant dashi [akin to bouillon crystals or cubes],” we instantly give our word.

But unlike our beloved veal stock, with its tedious cooking process, dashi is astonishingly simple to make. It has but two components: katsuo bushi, the pale dried fish shavings known in this country as bonito flakes, and a piece of kombu, or dried kelp. When the kelp and cold water are brought to a boil, the bonito flakes are added, then the broth is strained. The resultant stock, as clear as a handful of pure water scooped from a crystalline sea, has a sweet seashore taste and a slightly smoky aroma.

The deliberate simplicity of dashi’s preparation underscores another critical principle of the Japanese kitchen: the practice of restraint, not complex technique. “Do as little as possible, to let the honest, natural flavors be the star,” Andoh urges. Even in the markets there is a conspicuous absence of the loud, passionate ingredients and seasonings used to flavor the world’s more sultry cuisines.

What is at market—a bounty of vegetables and seafood—is fresh, and it usually hasn’t traveled far. “Seasonality in the Japanese kitchen is everything,” Andoh stresses. When food is largely oil-free and unadorned by sauces or spices, she says, the ingredients themselves must be fresh, flavorful, and in flawless condition. Her refrigerator makes her point. Instead of a huge freezer, there are roomy vertical bins, deep enough to store greens upright (in the direction they grow), thereby, say the Japanese, preserving their nutrients.

You won’t find corn here in December. Or broccoli in summer. “Even if you did,” Andoh remarks, “few people would buy them.”

Food must not only be of the season but also must evoke the season. In class we whittle thin shavings from a stick of burdock root that we cook with finely cut carrots in rice wine, dashi, sugar, and soy sauce, then pile into high, narrow mounds that recall golden autumnal haystacks. With a variation on the same strokes used to cut an onion, we transform turnips into chrysanthemums, using cracked gardenia pods to tint them a vivid yellow as they pickle in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Other food conjures images of nature: Shrimp, deep-fried and coated in broken bits of “spring rain” cellophane noodles, which puff and turn opaque in hot oil, appear to ride a stormy, mist-enshrouded sea.

Texture goes hand in hand with visual appeal. To the Japanese, says Andoh during dinner at the sushi bar Nakagawa, the way food feels in the mouth is as important as how it tastes. As we crunch on horse-mackerel bones fried to a crisp and let cubes of tender tuna in a viscous soup of slippery grated Japanese mountain yam slide down our throat, we suddenly understand.

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