Itadakimasu

A COOK’S JOURNEY TO JAPAN

 

By Sarah Marx Feldner (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2010, 160 pp., $27.95, hardcover

Sarah Marx Feldner had just finished college with a bachelor’s in Spanish and applied linguistics when she decided to take a job in Japan. There, she was first introduced to Japanese culture and its food. A few years later, she went back to Japan and with the help of many people compiled a hundred recipes, along with the stories behind every single dish.

Feldner’s book is half cookbook, half narrative, as each recipe is preceded by an anecdote: a personal story of the first time she ate the dish, a brief account of the significance of the dish, or how the recipe was acquired. The beauty of this book is that it actively captures the feel of home cooking in Japan. Feldner has listed everything from the most basic, common knowledge recipes for Japanese home cooks such as rice with green peas (mame-gohan) and curry rice, to special recipes shared by seasoned chefs such as oolong tea chiffon cake, showcasing the incredible range of tastes and styles Japanese home cooking has evolved into.

Divided into seven chapters by ingredient and type of dish, this cookbook is extremely comprehensive, including a tools and utensils list, and explanation of basic cooking techniques. Feldner also devotes a section to Japanese ingredients, complete with labeled pictures and a detailed glossary, explaining the unique properties of each ingredient. The layout is denser than most books, and the instruction and ingredient text may be small for some people to refer to with ease while cooking. There is a good selection of photos, although they are mostly of the finished product. Some recipes provide photos of preparation, but there are also a few recipes that have no photos.

Felder has 14 recipes she introduces in the beginning as “the basics.” These include fundamentals such as stock (dashi), rice (sushi and white) and pickled vegetables (tsukemono). None of the recipes are overly complicated, and readers will find they have a wide array of styles and tastes to choose from. Felder has drawn recipes from friends, professional chefs and her own unique experiences traveling throughout Japan, and they range from very traditional dishes — such as brown rice with red beans (azuki gohan) and miso-slathered daikon (daikon dengaku) — to the most casual snacks and street food, such as crispy rice snacks (okoge) and fried soba noodles and rice (soba-meshi).

This book is ideal for people who have little or no experience with Japanese food and those who want to learn the stories behind the food, as opposed to just learning how to cook a dish. Many of the recipes that Felder has gathered have a distinctly homey, family feel, such as the fried rice logs (konetsuke-reiko) and get-well-soon udon soup (kenchin udon). Feldner takes her time introducing her audience to Japanese cooking in a friendly and personable way, while including helpful tips and endearing stories.

“A Cook’s Journey to Japan” is a surprisingly entertaining read, which is unusual for a cookbook. One could easily spend an afternoon just reading her story of how she wrote this book, along with the stories behind each recipe. Her anecdotes will charm you, and the recipes will warm your home.

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