Archway and entrance to Kabukicho, the entertainment and red-light district part of Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Japan has become quite an anomaly to me through the years of studying its culture. I have learned how to read and speak Japanese, I have lived and worked in Tokyo, and I have revisited once a year for the past 3 years. I now use Japanese ingredients and flavors as the backbone of everything I cook and look to the traditional foods as part of my quest for foods that heal primarily through acclaimed cookbook author and chef Nancy Singleton Hachisu. With that in mind, I've had to dive deeper to understand the conundrum of how in a land where I felt so alone for being a salad-eater, there also exists one of the largest populations of centenarians. If you are interested in Japanese traditional cuisine, washoku, and using local organic produce as well as fermentation techniques, then this guide is for you.
From L to R: Kushiyaki restaurant scene in Tokyo, backdoor of an izakaya in the Gion district of Kyoto receiving a shipment of beer.
When I first moved to Japan, I didn't realize the ubiquitous nature of MSG, the lack of nutrient dense vegetables, and the elusiveness of the real ferment when it comes to pickles, soy sauce and miso in the commercialized world. Urban Japan is all about conveniences and consumerism. There are more 7/11s or conbini than you can imagine, a vending machine for all your needs, and a way to pay for it using your phone or train card. Many imagine Japan to be like Shinjuku, a vertical city with indecipherable signs and tiny alleyways, where nights are spent lingering in smoke-filled izakayas and ramen stalls between sessions of pachinko and karaoke. While culturally there is some truth to this, it only really represents a slice of the ideas surrounding food culture in Japan. On the contrary to many views, you can walk just a few blocks from these busy train stations and find parks and plenty of peace and quiet being observed. Similarly, once you leave the city, you will find the farms and local artisans. So the challenge is learning how to navigate to find the authentic farm-to-table Japan and that is what we set out to do this past spring.
Images of Kyoto Region. Top L to R: From Nishiki market in Kyoto - hinona kabu in nukazuke, katsuobushi or shaved dried bonito, umeboshi plums. Bottom L to R: Torri towers at night at Fushimi-Inari Shrine, Bamboo from Arashiyama.
Most of the commercial grocery store chains and markets that are frequented by tourists serve foods that use a good amount of food coloring, preservatives. It is hard to deny vats of umeboshi plums, pickles of bright colors, or even large picture-perfect produce. But the truth behind the average "health" food is that it is most likely GMO and grown nutrient void. All this may be fine for the tourist staying for a week or so and enjoying rounds of sushi and other delicacies such as nabe and natto. However, after about 6 weeks of living in Tokyo, I became malnourished and considerably anemic. The dramatic shift in my diet from primarily farmers market sourced plant-based food to white rice, raw fish and assorted grocery store produce, meant that I no longer fueled my body with what it needed. How could I become malnourished in a place known for its food? That question led me to dive deeper into the culture around food and to find the select groceries that had JAL certified organic produce and the various raw food and macrobiotic restaurants. Not surprisingly, a lot of these can be found near the more international Ometesando and Hiro-o neighborhoods in Tokyo. But what about the rest of the country?
From L to R: A deer outside of Nigatsu-do Temple in Nara, cherry blossoms in full bloom along Tokyo's Naka-Meguro in Daikanyama.
On my last visit, I decided to head to Japan during Sakura season for hanami, or flower viewing celebrations to usher in spring. It was always a dream of mine to visit Tokyo's Naka-Meguro during this time as the trees that line the river all bloom at the same time and create a dazzling spectable where people come to enjoy street snacks and cheers a flute of champagne. I also decided to take some time to journey to the Kansai region to visit a friend in Osaka to understand the true experience of local okonomiyaki, to enjoy all the kinds of tofu in Kyoto, to taste the sake of artisanal producers outside of Nara, and to enjoy the early morning chanting of monks and vegetarian shojin-ryori while staying in a Buddhist monastery in Koyasan.
Images of Koyasan. Top L to R: A meditating Buddha in Okunoin Cemetary, snow-capped cedars, view from my single traditional tatami room during dinner service. Bottom L to R: Door front of a Monastery in town, facade of Fukuchi-in where I stayed overnight, a memorial shrine along the 2 Km walk in Okunoin on the way to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum.
I left Osaka in the pouring rain to travel up the mountain on a series of trains and eventually to a steep cable-car upon which I ascended to the elevation where the rain turned into snow. As a person who doesn't experience snow so often, this was a welcomed and most gorgeous surprise in late April. I had traveled solo on this mission to understand how monks in Japan still live and eat especially in a UNESCO heritage site.
The monastery was interesting in that its primary business was for people who came to visit. I chose to stay simply in a single room with the most traditional tatami and food configuration that was offered to the over 50 something rooms. After check-in, I marveled from my room at the snow outside while dinner was served to me. I sat patiently, quietly, and really tasted all the various vegetables, tofu, and soy milk based soups. It was so serene and after there even was an onsen or Japanese hot spring onsite to warm me before sleeping. In the morning, I woke early to sit in with the monks while they chanted for an hour. Each holding a prayer book in their hands, chanting so methodically and meditatively, the time passed without me even noticing. After breakfast was served, I ventured out to see the town and to walk the over 2km inside the Okunoin cemetery. The peace and splendor that I experienced along this walk were unexpected. I particularly enjoyed taking breaks by occasionally stopping to warm up with a tea. I couldn't believe that in just a few hours I'd be heading back down the mountain to the urban pace. So I slowed down a little while longer and appreciated taking the time in Koyasan, a visit which is rare for most Japanese people.
Images of Tsukiji. From L to R: Workers clean and prepare the daily catch for sale, fish wrapped in newspaper detail.
During our time in Tokyo, we made sure to make the proper arrangements so we could tour Tsukiji fish market with one of the wholesalers directly. Having access also meant I was granted a photo/video pass to be there during the morning hours of operation. On my 5th visit to Tsukiji I knew the etiquette as there really is no good place to be with wheeling carts and fish parts flying around, it is best to keep moving and to absorb the pace of one of the world's largest seafood distribution facilities while making sure you don't get in the way. You find frozen fish being sawed and sectioned, live seafood and fish being kept, and a quite orderly and clean display of the quality and cost per company of the daily catch. There is also a separate section for commercial produce primarily that have been imported from large farms in California, Florida, and Australasia. It is the epicenter for so much of Japan's food supply, it is almost impossible to understand the culture of Japan's food without understanding its relationship to fish as that history is much longer than the more recent meat craze, which stems from the change in diet with Western influences.
Images of Tsukiji. From L to R: Rated and priced frozen tuna on the ground, assorted seafood on display.
About 1 hour outside of Tokyo Station we made the way to Hanjowaseda in the Saitama Prefecture to visit with surprisingly enough, an American woman who has been living in Japan after having been married to a Japanese farmer since her 30s. In the past 5+ or so years, Nancy Singleton Hachisu has become a household name for her contributions to the English language understanding of Japanese cuisine. Nancy is not strictly making Japanese food but she is using the best of local ingredients sourced from neighbors who have their own farms, the local produce market, and artisanal food vendors like Yamaki Jozo who take the time to ferment miso and soy sauce the traditional way for 6 months to 1 year. Her cookbooks, Japanese Farm Food, Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, and soon Japan: The Cookbook (coming April 2018) are the books I look to for using these ingredients and flavors. She knows the delicate differences in sesame oils, mirin, sake for cooking, spices, pickles, and yea - she actually is making miso outside of her house! So we were elated to meet with her and to get a sneak preview of one of the recipes she was creating for her upcoming book. It was interesting to see her use modern techniques and concepts from studying the food of California and Mediterranean countries.
From L to R: Nancy Singleton Hachisu giving us a lesson on the traditional way of katsuobushi or bonito flakes, Nancy's current reading collection and inspiration plus a few of her books that have been translated into different languages.
Nancy is a busy woman who is constantly inventing new recipes and testing them. She and her husband also have a business called Sunny Side Up, which is a kid's English language day-care and elementary school. It is important to her that the students also learn and experience traditional Japanese flavors and are fed nourishing meals each time they are there. No details are spared here and even the most simple sandwich gets a boost. Even though I had my expectations about the kind of food she makes on the daily, I was even more pleased to learn that she is a true artist in the kitchen and her work is ever evolving and being influenced as she is keen to master and perfect techniques with a very relaxed and less serious way. Her process too seems to flow as a result of her unquenchable curiosity. When she told us she wanted to present a Japanese take on a more American concept, we were intrigued. It also represents to me the contemporary approach to food in Japan: one that is heavily influenced by Western ideas yet undeniably Japanese in flavor.
The making of a new recipe for upcoming cookbook, Japan: The Cookbook. A perfect blend of California meets Japan.
Ginger-Soy Ban Sando with Sesame Vinaigrette Napa Cabbage
Using Wadaman White Sesame Oil and Iio Jozo Premium Fujisu Vinegar on the coleslaw makes this a spectacular dish. Substitute the best rice vinegar you are able and a light, pretty olive oil or Nonezawa Shoten canola oil. But be sure to use Matsuda Mayonnaise or make your own, since other commercial mayonnaise contains additives that perhaps are better avoided.
1 (250-g) block of best bacon
3 tablespoons mirin
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 medium carrot (125 g), scrubbed and cut into 4-cm long julienne
¼ medium cabbage (285 g), sliced finely crosswise
¾ teaspoon flaky sea salt
4 tablespoon chopped nobiru (bulbs and 4 cm up the stalks)
2 bunches of cilantro, roughly chopped (about 250 cc)
3 tablespoons white sesame seeds, warmed slightly in a dry frying pan
4 tablespoons Wadaman white sesame oil
1 tablespoon Fujisu Premium Vinegar
¾ teaspoon Kushino Nouen red yuzu kosho
6 tablespoons Matsuda Mayonnaise
8 (7.5- by 10-cm) slices levain or wheat bread
8 large pieces of red lettuce
Place the bacon in a quart-sized freezer-style resealable bag and marinate with the mirin, soy sauce, and ginger for 1 to 2 hours.
Massage ½ teaspoon of the salt into the sliced cabbage and ¼ teaspoon of the salt into the julienned carrot. Leave to macerate for 10 minutes. Squeeze the cabbage and carrot gently to express any moisture and drop into a large mixing bowl with the nobiru, cilantro, and 2 tablespoons of the white sesame seeds. Whisk the sesame oil into the vinegar until well emulsified, and toss with the cabbage mixture.
Stir the red kosho into the mayonnaise and spread on the slices of bread, making sure to cover all the way to the corners. Tear each piece of lettuce in half and lay two halves on each piece of bread. Mound a healthy 1-cm layer of the slaw on one side of the bread. Cut the bacon into 16 slices, blot dry with kitchen paper, and sear in a grill pan over medium-high heat until browned and caramelized on both sides. Lay 4 slices of bacon on the sides of the bread without coleslaw and sprinkle the meat with the remaining sesame seeds. Close the sandwiches, cut in half, and serve one per person.
This recipe is © Nancy Singleton Hachisu. All ingredients are listed to promote artisanal vendors.
Top L to R: Backside of Nancy's house where she has two different types of miso fermenting, large vats of miso at Yamaki Jozo. Bottom L to R: An uber delicacy - the softest skin of the soymilk called Kumiage Yuba, chrysanthemum greens or shungiku, japanese sweet potatoes or satsumaimo, tara no me mountain vegetables, maitake mushrooms.
The first day we spent with her, she was hosting a group that she prepared a lot of Japanese style food for that included Maitake Mushroom Tempura, sashimi, a pressed firm tofu with blanched chrysanthemum greens dish with sesame oil, air-dried and kombu marinated fish, a sea pineapple sea quirt and seaweed dish, miso, rice, and more. We were impressed with the level of technique and diversity of dishes for such a gathering. Nancy explained to us that she enjoys preparing Japanese food especially to out of town guests and her mastery of tradition has been proven. What is interesting to see is the emphasis on real fermented and nutrient-rich ingredients. Her farm-to-table approach sets her food and her community apart. There is a whole world of nuance in flavors and textures. Nancy knew we would enjoy visiting, so we took the 30 or so minutes to drive to Yamaki Jozo , who is passionate about pursuing the authentic Japanese cuisine culture and the harmony of nature and people. With products like miso, shoyu, tofu and pickles. For me, this place was like heaven! Their storefront shop had all kinds of yuba and various umeboshi plums and pastes. Yuba is one of the highlighted ingredients from this trip for me. It is the soft skin that forms atop soy milk when the cream and protein separate. The softest kind as pictured above has the same texture as burrata.
On the way back to the train station, we were able to visit with friends who run and primarily sustain themselves and neighbors off of their small organic farm. They know the future of their health (and they do not go see doctors) lies in their hands as they can control what they consume. They think the shifts in diet and lack of emphasis on farm culture are rapidly affecting the health and longevity of its people. They proudly promote sustainable farm-to-table practices in a time where most Japanese are moving towards powdered and processed ingredients as a result of being overworked and relying on quick eats in urban spaces.