Japan has always seemed to me a little like the cool older girl in college that you admired from afar. The one who wore a mash up of vintage clothes mixed with the amazing stuff from Daffy’s or H & M that you never managed to find. Who had an equally eclectic mix of friends that proved she wasn’t cliquey and sought out interesting characters, but also that she had fairly high standards, and not just anybody was worthy of her time. Who seemed serious and studious in the library, but involved in zany parties and social events too. Who you always wished was in one of your classes but, alas, remained an obscure, and dare I use the word—exotic—mystery. Sorry, I know it’s not very PC to “Orientalize” if that’s even a word and my spell check says it’s not, but I can’t help it. Almost everything about Japan intimidates me, because it’s so, well, amazing, but also so foreign. That includes Japanese food.
Much of this “mysteriousness” is rooted, for me, in the array of ingredients that have little-to-no counterparts in the western kitchen. If you’ve ever been to a store that specializes in Japanese foods, you’ll know what I mean; the isles are filled with seaweeds of every size and texture, jars of fermented beans, dried gourd ribbons, funny colored sticky sweets (at least I think they’re sweets) made of rice or soy. And then we come to the fish, and not just all the less than familiar fresh varieties; the Japanese have a million and one ways of curing, smoking, fermenting and drying fish—the condiments alone, based on seafood in some stinky but no doubt flavorful variety, are completely intimidating, and I’m a chef who likes anchovies and sardines. And then there’s the delicacy, the aesthetic perfection of presentation in Japanese cuisine. What in European and New World culinary traditions can remotely compare to kaiseki, the ancient Japanese tea ceremony and multicourse tasting menu of magnificent little plates inspired by the seasons? If you are unfamiliar with this food-as-art form, I encourage you to check out Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant, by kaiseki master chef Yoshiro Murata—it’s breathtaking.
So I’ve decided to take some baby steps toward introducing myself to cool girl Japan, by auditing one of her classes. Literally. I’m not just belaboring a metaphor here. This past Sunday I sat in on a demonstration/tasting about miso at En Brasserie in Greenwich Village—an awesome restaurant if you are ever in the vicinity—about the provenance and uses of this tasty, tasty ingredient. The seminar was taught by food writer and cookbook author Harris Salat together with one of En’s master chefs, Abe Hiroki (honestly, I’ve never seen anyone mince an onion quicker or more perfectly—it was like a magic show!).
One of the many cool things about the object of my culinary girl crush, is that Japanese cooking, for the most part, doesn’t rely on slow cooking techniques to extract flavor from ingredients. Instead, they ingeniously use flavoring agents—soy, sake, bonito, miso, etc.—that have been fermented over long periods to add flavor during quick cooking. It’s a culinary express train to flavor town, and who doesn’t love that?
Miso is a beautiful thing. It’s basically just a mixture of soy and either rice, barley, or more soy, that’s fermented in giant barrels for at least two summers, but like most things, the Japanese have elevated this to an art form and there are dozens of varieties, depending on the region it comes from and the length of fermentation. Miso is a combination of sweet/salty/umami/yummy, and I urge you to try cooking with it as it can add so many layers of flavor to soups, stews, sauces, dressings, and marinades. There are a couple of really good cookbooks out there specifically on miso. The original groundbreaker, and still perhaps the best, is…wait for it…The Book of Miso by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, experts who have collaborated since the 1970s on the study of all things soy related. That, my friends, is dedication.
Miso is highly prized for its nutritional and medicinal properties—most Japanese start their morning with a steaming hot cup of miso soup—and as delicious as coffee can be, it does nothing good for our health, to say the least. John and Jan Belleme are authorities on the healing powers of Japanese foods, and they spent eight months apprenticed to a traditional miso master; the result is The Miso Book: The Art of Cooking with Miso. Try and name another sticky brownish paste that inspires such slavish dedication (and, sorry, nutella doesn’t count).
Finally, a shout out to Japanese Hot Pots, written by Harris Salat and Chef Tadashi Ono. It’s a cozy tribute to Japanese one-pot meals and is just right for these ever-brisker days, when the nicest thing I can think of is getting together with friends and family over a steaming bowls of goody-strewn broth, cooked together at a common table. Shabu-shabu, baby! This duo has another book coming out in the spring, The Japanese Grill, so that’ll be fun to check out if, like me, you find the combination of barbeque and Asian flavors irresistible. Now if you'll excuse, me my umami buds are watering.
Do you/have you cooked with miso? Tell me about it!
Although Carolyn Grifel has been cooking, baking, and devouring cookbooks since she was old enough to read, it took her four decades to finally devote herself to professional cooking. She received a degree from The French Culinary Institute in 2009, while working at Epicurious.com. Since graduating she’s been a chef for Sweet Deliverance, as well as the executive chef at the historic TA Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming. She’s currently a private chef for a family of five in NYC, and the enchanted mother of a 10-year-old named Stella.