The heart of Japanese cooking

My Japanese Table FORMAT_Web


By Debra Samuels, photographs by Heath Robbins (North Clarendon, Vt.: Tuttle Publishing, 2011, 176 pp., $27.95, hardcover)

When I first started leafing through Debra Samuels’ new cookbook, “My Japanese Table,” I was overstuffed from a generous brunch and distracted by the din of the cafe around me. Yet after turning just a few pages, I was at once drawn in, mouth watering.

The book begins with Samuels’ engaging account of her time in Japan and what Japanese food has meant to her. Each recipe reads like a personal anecdote, warm and funny, yet also rich with the cultural context of each dish. The author has a deep reverence for the Japanese adage that we “eat with our eyes.” This is reflected in the beautiful yet simply staged photos, which allow the reader to drink in the attention to detail of each dish’s presentation.

The book is also peppered with ingredient substitutions and tips to keep recipes executable for the novice cook. This includes guides to Japanese ingredients and useful equipment, both of which are comprehensive without being daunting. Samuels deftly juggles these offerings for the beginners amid a diversity of recipes and techniques to appeal to even the most seasoned Japanese chef. The recipe for the staple dish, miso soup, is the perfect example of this balance.

The miso soup recipe is deceptively simple, comprising only five ingredients. The recipe offers variations in the soup stock used: vegetarian, instant and those made from scratch. Embedded within, however, are details of preparation — adding the miso by diluting little by little — that the keen chef can observe to better their miso soup. As someone who has been making miso soup for years, I forget that my preparation even includes these habits. The recipes in this book faithfully capture such details.

Samuels offers a wide variety of recipes, including traditional Japanese dishes like sukiyaki (hot pot) as well as foreign inspired items and modern selections like shiso pesto and mochi dumplings with strawberries and red bean paste (ichigo daifuku). Also included is a section on Japanese lunchboxes, bento, with an extensive discussion of the philosophy behind what foods to include and how to package and present them.
“My Japanese Table” reads as much like a cookbook as a travel diary and culinary memoir and makes for an excellent read as well as a cooking reference.

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