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A BEAUTIFUL LOVE LETTER TO THE SIMPLE, SOULFUL FOODS OF JAPAN

MY TITLE HERE is taken from comments offered by American chef, restauranteur, and activist Alice Waters in describing Sonoko Sakai’s book Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors. 

Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors, by Sonoko Sakai, Roost Books, 2019.

Sakai says, “This book is about Japanese cooking. It is also about home cooking. I was lucky to be raised in both. I was born in New York to Japanese parents and spent my childhood in Tokyo, San Francisco, Mexico City, Kamakura, and Los Angeles.” (Her father was an airline executive; a great-great-great-grandfather was Hermann Siber, a Swss silk merchant who came to Yokohama in the 1870s, just after Japan opened itself to the world.)

From Film to Noodles to Prius Touring. Sakai’s film production career ended abruptly with the 2008 recession. “At this point,” she says, “I felt I needed to steer my life in a different direction. On a whim, I took a workshop in noodle making while I was in Tokyo. I like eating noodles, but I also wanted to get my hands in flour to practice something tactile and restorative.” 

“In 2009,” Sakai notes, “I started teaching Japanese cooking out of my home in Los Angeles, learning as I taught and teaching as I learned. In a few years, I began teaching up and down the West Coast, I drove thousands of miles in my Prius loaded down with rice cookers, noodle knives, and pans….”

Building on Fundamentals. As you may sense, this is no ordinary cookbook. Sakai begins with her Five Elements of Cooking and Eating: the Five Flavors, Five Senses, Five Colors, Five Cooking Techniques, and Five Elements of a Meal.

Each section gets into serious recipes that look tasty indeed, like Nishime (Dashi-infused Root Vegetables). Sakai says it’s “like a stew but much lighter because the soup is not thickened with a roux.”

Sakai’s Nishime would require a trip to our local Japanese market for several of its root vegetables and other ingredients. This and the following images from Japanese Home Cooking.

Sakai’s Potato Salada. Wife Dottie really enjoys a potato salad as prepared by Mitsuwa, our local Japanese market. Sakai offers her Potato Salada, which I must try assembling at home.

Sakai’s Potato Salada.

We already have the necessary Yukon Gold potatoes, a few green beans, carrots, and a cucumber. (I have a long English cuke, not the little Persian ones that Sakai uses). A visit to Mitsuwa would be appropriate to get the Japanese Mayonnaise and Nerigoma (a Japanese tahini). Unless, that is, I tried making these from scratch with Sakai’s instruction and guidance (not to say some other ingredients from Mitsuwa).

Like I said, she’s into fundamentals.

Carmelized Satsuma Potatoes with Black Sesame. “Substitute sweet potatoes,” Sakai says, “if you can’t find Satsuma potatoes.” I’m confident Mitsuwa has the latter, but I happen to have several sweet potatoes here in our larder.

Above, Sakai’s Carmelized Satsuma Potatoes with Black Sesame. Below, my version.

Given my one-potato experiment, I reduced Sakai’s recipe by a third: for the sauce, a heaping Tablespoon of cane sugar, a teaspoon of soy sauce, a sloshy Tablespoon of mirin, and a teaspoon of water; for the potato frying, a Tablespoon plus a slosh of vegetable oil, a dash of sesame oil; and (expansively) a double hit of toasted black sesame seeds (two teaspoons).

The fact that our larder already contains the mirin and black sesame seeds says something, doesn’t it?

The technique is straightforward: Cut the potato(es) into bite-size chunks and soak them in a bowl of water for 20 minutes to remove starch. Drain and dry the potatoes.

While the potatoes soak, heat the black sesame seeds just until they’re fragrant, and set aside. 

Combine the sauce ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce it for a minute, and set aside. Pan fry the potatoes in the oil until toasty. Reheat the sauce, add the potatoes, and top with the toasted black sesame seeds.    

Sonoko Sakai’s Japanese Home Cooking does more than entertain and instruct; it inspires. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

One comment on “A BEAUTIFUL LOVE LETTER TO THE SIMPLE, SOULFUL FOODS OF JAPAN

  1. Damian
    March 1, 2021

    Inspired by your entry, I made a broth of dashi, shoyu and mirin, then boiled some soba and cooled it while I cut some veg. A kitchen and larder without Japanese, no, Asian ingredients is sorely lacking indeed. And Soba with mussels and togarashi is sublime, as was the salad of tomatoes and cucumbers seasoned with lemon, mirin and furikake. The sesame was lost somewhere in the Edwardian clutter of our kitchen…

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