Travel at Home – International Cooking (Japanese)

The pandemic has made it hard to eat Japanese food at restaurants, so learning to cook from home is key.  There are no recipes here, just an rambling story.  

While my wife (the other travelling half of Travel Insider) thinks we don’t need cookbooks, this is mostly true only for her Chinese cooking. We need some cookbooks though for cuisine we don’t know well, since these are not cooked daily and aren’t cooked frequently enough to memorize. This is what we’ve found with Japanese cuisine since we can’t remember all the steps or ingredients. And missing a few steps makes the difference between OK, or horrible, and good. So this is that story.

There are many Japanese cookbooks in the world, and the world adds to this daily. But we’ve found that these can be grouped into three camps: 1) beautiful, but overly complicated, 2) sushi-focused, and 3) highly useable. The ones we have fall into all three camps. We might eventually get more than these book, but becoming more discerning in what we might use is critical.

The primary Japanese cookbooks The Travel Insider uses

Some cookbooks have beautiful recipes, but need very specialized ingredients. This is where I put Andoh’s award winning, and beautiful, Washoku cookbook. It’s not practical to stock all the ingredients for the recipes unless you eat Japanese daily. Similarly, while sushi was our first introduction to Japanese cuisine, the sushi “cookbooks” are primarily on variations to rolls; and you need access to sashimi-grade fish. Such sashimi grade fish is hard to get in the midwest and the only supplier we know of and trust in Ohio is Tensuke Market in Columbus. While we frequent Tensuke often, that will be a post for another day, you need to consume the fish immediately if you want good flavor.

So that leaves us with a goal of finding cookbooks that give good recipes with mostly easy to find ingredients which result in authentic dishes. It very much helps to have a good baseline, so we’re lucky that our prior traveling and dining experiences included authentic Japanese dining. From both US and Japanese dining adventures, we know what oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl) and gyudon (beef bowl) should taste like.

When cooking across cultures, some special ingredients or tools are always needed, but in general you hope to be able to use these for multiple dishes. We have found that two Japanese cookbooks we have that are well balanced in this regard are: Izakaya and Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art. These are two books which give authentic dishes (similar or identical to what we ate in Japan), but use a reasonable amount of special ingredients and mostly easy to find items. Let’s see what is possible.

Japanese Cooking – A Simple Art. Long out of print, but a goldmine

When we look at the ingredients for one well loved dish, beef bowls (gyudon), we see that there is nothing terribly exotic, it’s just the steps that are critical (and I won’t share the recipe, buy the book – it’s highly recommended). It takes some time to optimize the recipe too, using much less water and dark soy sauce. Dark soy sauce being the more difficult ingredients to get since there are many types of dark soy sauce. We found that the typical Kikoman soy sauce with a drop of Chinese dark soy sauce (which is thicker than oil) was a good combination.

Simple ingredients for beef bowl, but still requires much care.

Ginger juice was actually the most difficult ingredient to get, squeezing ginger is not ideal and doesn’t yield much.  Cutting ginger small does get some flavor out, but not fully.  But we found that a Japanese grater (which we found at Tensuke Market) was the perfect tool to yield this as it shreds ginger quickly and releases ample juices.

Interesting and very sharp Japanese Grater, not the easiest to clean though.

Beyond this one tool, all ingredients are common at any grocery store. And over time, gaining experience each time we cook it, we can approach authenticity. Beef bowls are a staple of Japanese fast food and have an excellent combination of flavors. After a few tries, we were able to achieve the flavor and are working on the presentation.

Our gyudon (left) and Tensuke Express’s gyudon (right)

Another dish we found in Japanese Cooking is sake simmered mackerel. This is close to food we had in Hakone and other places in Japan. We found the recipe easy to follow. All the ingredients are common, sake and mirin are the most exotic and even Kroger’s has those in 2020. Only mackerel, the key ingredient, is hard to find. While we generally only see mackerel at Jungle Jims or Tensuke, this dish is easy modified with other fish. We found that salmon worked well and came out with a similar excellent flavor profile. In some ways salmon is better since it doesn’t come with the tiny bones unavoidable in mackerel.

Sake simmered mackerel

Sushi is another thing we can’t readily eat at restaurants due to the pandemic. While we’ve found this to be less practical to fix at home, getting sashimi grade fish is hard and then you must consume it almost immediately after buying. We do that a few times a year. We found some interesting fish options, and a pickled radish, at Tensuke in the last visit and made an assorted platter for lunch the next day. Overall, the sushi “cookbooks” are interesting, but not much needed if you want to cook Japanese food.

Homemade, or home cut, sushi.

Izakaya cuisine is one that greatly appeals to us, but has been hard to find. While we were surrounded by Izakaya in Japan, it was generally impossible to visit them since we had both a 1 and 3 year old with us. We were able to try some similar dishes in Hakone though at a resort. The book on Izakaya cooking by Mark Robinson has a variety of dishes which range in complexity from easy and readily cooked to those requiring esoteric ingredients. However, for a cookbook it is a great find since about 30-40% of the recipes are practically easy to cook. This makes sense since Izakaya are bars and bar food must be cooked quickly.

Two of the more recent ones we tried were Whitebait Nam Pla with Garlic Chips and Sweet Miso-marinated mackerel. Whitebait, small tiny fish which only a few Asian markets stock, was the hardest to find ingredient. Miso, of varying qualities, can be generally found now and the mackerel could be substituted appropriately with cod.

White bait, yummy…

The result was a good dinner with crispy tiny fish, excellent mackerel, and broiled Japanese peppers. While you can find sometimes find Japanese peppers at Krogers, bell peppers, Hatch green chiles, or Hungarian hotwax would work as well.

Whitebait Nam Pla with Garlic Chips and Sweet Miso-marinated mackerel

Overall, we haven’t mastered Japanese cuisine, we are still working on noodle soups and ramen, but with some practice and the right selection of cookbooks, you can easily make these recipes and have good Japanese food at home. These selections have given us welcome respite during COVID times.

Learn More – we can’t recommend these 2 books enough:

Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook – Mark Robinson

Japanese Cooking: A simple art – Shizuo Tsuji