The ABCs of cooking California-style Japanese food

Japanese Cookbook for Beginners: Classic and Modern Recipes Made Easy

By Azusa Oda (Emeryville, Calif.: Rockridge Press, 2020, 146 pp., $16.99, paperback)

With “Japanese Cookbook for Beginners: Classic and Modern Recipes Made Easy,” genius home cook and designer Azusa Oda has embraced the traditional Japanese flavors and dishes that she grew up with and recalibrated them to suit contemporary palates and dietary needs.

“Japanese Cookbook for Beginners” offers a modern approach to very familiar classic recipes that most Japanese Americans will recognize — her bonito onigiri (Japanese rice balls), omuraisu (Japanese rice omelet) and furikake (Japanese rice seasoning) salmon are both sumptuous (I tested numerous recipes before writing this) and ridiculously simplified for folks like me who are comfortable in the kitchen, but don’t know how to approach the food from my childhood.

Oda provides a primer on the basic Japanese pantry, tools and utensils, and preparations and cooking techniques such as itameru (stir-frying), itameni (braising) and iru (dry-frying/pan-roasting.) She has cut the amount of sugar usually added to classic recipes way back and searched for alternatives for healthy fats, recommending avocado or olive oil in place of the usual vegetable oil. Oda is also sensitive to food allergies and prepares cooks with creative substitutions for two of the most important ingredients in the Japanese kitchen: shoyu and miso; every recipe includes added notes at the top alerting readers if the recipe is nut free, gluten free, vegan and/or vegetarian. Recipes that are easy to prepare in 30 minutes or less are also earmarked, so that a quick flip through the cookbook can help the chef hone in on what to cook when time is a factor.

Here was the ultimate test of her cookbook though: I had my Sansei mother, who is a phenomenal cook and raised me with a taste for a Hiroshima-leaning aji (read: sweet!) browse the recipes and then test out a number of them with me in her kitchen in Fresno, Calif. She balked a bit at the use of olive oil since it has such a distinctive flavor that can alter the final flavor of a dish, and had a different technique for handling the inari (slit and open before or after cooking?) but otherwise approved of both the selection of beginner recipes and Oda’s contemporary California approach.

Oda was born in Japan to Japanese parents but spent most of her childhood growing up in California. Her family moved back to Japan when she was nine years old and lived there through the end of junior high school. Throughout the time that she lived in Tokyo, her grandmother did all the cooking, developing her Japanese palate and contributing mightily to the person she would become.  

Her 73 recipes run the gamut of comforting soboro (ground) chicken donburi and earthy green beans with sesame, to silky cold tofu (hiyayakko) done three ways and a cauliflower steak that is roasted, then brushed with miso-honey butter. I look forward to working my way through the recipes and making home-cooked Japanese part of our family routine.

I’ll also let you in on a secret: Since 2009, Oda has run a cooking blog under the moniker “Humble Bean” and it’s packed with more great ideas and recipes, including a bevy of desserts, which are missing from her new cookbook. One New Year’s Eve, I learned how to make oshiruko (sweet red bean soup) reading her blog, and later discovered my potluck go to: Oda’s toothy chocolate mochi brownies dusted with matcha are especially delicious.

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