Japanese American cookbooks as primary sources


A BAY AREA JA HOME COOK’S GUIDE ­— “JASEB Cookbook”. photo courtesy of Nina Ichikawa

A BAY AREA JA HOME COOK’S GUIDE ­— “JASEB Cookbook”. photo courtesy of Nina Ichikawa

I received my first cookbook from my Sansei mentor. “Asian Cookbook” had a sumi-e painting of winter matsutake (pine mushroom) and ripe fuyu persimmons on its cover, a chunky plastic comb binding, and ran an astonishing 429 pages. It was sold as a fundraiser for the Japanese American Services of the East Bay sometime in the early ‘90s (they forgot to include a publication date) and although the title page bore a disclaimer that “the recipes in this book have not been laboratory tested, but their merit has been established by the contributors and their families and friends,” it has served as a Yonsei kitchen primer for my Japanese American meals for the past 25 years.

Whenever I needed a baseline recipe for miso-yaki nasu (grilled miso eggplant) or namasu (pickled vegetables), I cracked it open, even if I inevitably called my mom to get her version too.

Mom’s collection includes no fewer than a dozen of these Japanese American cookbooks, the most dog-eared and oil stained of them all being “Favorite Island Cookery,” which included more than 260 recipes covering appetizers, soups, main dishes, sauces and dressings, pickled vegetables, desserts and adult beverages. This cookbook was compiled by Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Honolulu in 1973, and proved to be so popular that it continued as a series of six — all bearing the same illustration on the cover but in different distinguishing colors — with the last cookbook published in 1995.

According to Asian American food and farming scholar Nina Ichikawa, American community cookbooks first emerged around the American Civil War in 1861. Japanese American community cookbooks’ popularity rose in the 1950s and held strong through the 1980s. They are still being produced today, usually through a committee of women and sold as fundraisers for churches, temples, and cultural organizations.

Ichikawa initially conducted her research on this topic for an article published in 2015 to accompany “Off the Menu,” a documentary film about what food means to Asian American Pacific Islander communities, made by Grace Lee for the Public Broadcasting System. Ichikawa acted as a consultant for the film and was later invited by the Center for Asian American Media to write the piece for their Website.

Her article was revived in an online public program titled “Community Cookbooks: Sharing Family Recipes Through the Generations,” co-hosted by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose and Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service. Ichikawa was the featured speaker of the Oct. 3 event. The program also included recorded cooking demonstrations by four community cooks: Margaret Tomita, Jane Kawasaki, Kathy Higuchi and La Donna Yumori-Kaku, who prepared a menu of Chinese chicken salad, horensou shira-ae (spinach salad), sweet and sour chicken wings, and layered rice.

Just as Ichikawa described in her research, the Yu-Ai Kai demonstrations reflected the cook’s idiosyncrasies, the things they love, the way they were taught to prepare certain ingredients, and the conditions we are living in (the example being that in the COVID-19 era, one should prepare food at home with only your household members). Some of the cooks shared their experiences in creating their own family cookbooks, that incorporated family photos and stories, or recountings of Japanese American folk tales and cultural explanations between favored recipes.

Ichikawa noted that viewed historically, these cookbooks are precious primary sources that reflect how our community has evolved and how this has impacted the way we eat. This includes the expense of groceries and time and the rise and fall of the popularity of certain foods (consider Velveeta cheese, hot dogs and instant pudding mixes). Some recipes, such as “Chicken in a Hurry,” demonstrate a need for sheer survival, when cooks depended on canned goods and things in the pantry, and upon reading this recipe, Ichikawa felt it was both a historical reminder and a connection to a busy mom from another era.

A close examination of Japanese American community cookbooks show the ways they expanded to include recipes influenced by non-Japanese American friends and neighbors, such as apple pie or chow mein, and how “celebrity recipes” from community heroes such as Min Yasui, Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Wendy Tokuda became a popular inclusion.

Best of all, as Ichikawa pointed out, recipes from community cookbooks read like a relative (or in this case, a Yu-Ai Kai volunteer) is standing by your side, instructing the reader to make the dango the size of a ping-pong ball, or to prevent the rice from sticking, keep your fingers wet.



JA cookbook trends and pandemic cooking

Nichi Bei Weekly Contributor

Editor’s Note: The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Nina Ichikawa via e-mail following the Oct. 3 “Community Cookbooks: Sharing Family Recipes Through the Generations” event. The following interview has been lightly edited.

Nichi Bei Weekly: Tell me more about the work that you do professionally and how that relates to Japanese American history and culture.
Nina Ichikawa: I work as the executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley. Whenever I can find the time, I am researching and writing about Japanese American and Asian American issues, mostly food and farming, but not entirely.

NBW: It feels like recently there has been a growing popularity of cookbooks of Japanese cuisine, both the “presentation” fancy dishes like sushi and tempura, things people might experience in a restaurant, and the more homestyle cooking, like Bachan (Grandmother) used to make. Do you have thoughts on this?
NI: I love looking at them and wish I had time to cook from them more! I really like Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s cookbooks. It’s interesting that a white American woman who married a rural Japanese farmer presents recipes that seem the most approachable and familiar to our farming roots.

NBW: On another level, there’s Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) cooking, which is quickly becoming a lost art. How has your family approached osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year foods) for the Yonsei and Gosei generations?
NI: We love it and I’m so sad we can’t do Oshogatsu together for 2021. Somehow we’ll have to figure out a workaround. Thanks for the reminder.

NBW: In the program, you spoke beautifully about the hybridity of Japanese American recipes and how tastes, ingredients and cooking methods will continue to evolve. Could you elaborate on that for those who weren’t at the program?
NI: Our recipes reflect whom we loved and worked with, where we lived, when and which incarceration camp we were in, and so many other historical twists and turns. I’m not so interested in “purebred Japanese cooking,” whatever that is, because that would strip our rich history away.
(To my delight, one participant asked Ichikawa if she had been able to determine if layered Jell-O had been invented by Japanese Americans).

NBW: While you weren’t able to confirm layered Jell-O’s origins, will Jell-O continue to show up on Japanese American family tables?
NI: Yes! Kanten (agar agar), which has gelatin-like properties, has ancient roots in Japanese cuisine and can be found in Japanese desserts.

NBW: You also mentioned your appreciation of a busy mother’s quick recipes from a post-war cookbook that incorporated canned items and ‘shortcuts.’ How are you cooking for your kids in a pandemic? Be honest, even if it means lots of take out. Or Trader Joe’s, haha.
NI: I’m doing an awful job. Just awful. I am so busy and stressed out. My go-tos are a coconut spinach curry recipe I found online, homemade kare-raisu (curry rice) with beef via Just Hungry, and or just steamed vegetables added to some other random junk food. I got that from my Obaachan (grandmother) — an insistence to add vegetables to anything. We eat a lot of tacos and burritos, either homemade or from the taqueria. I apologize to my ancestors for sometimes just serving my kids for dinner: tofu squares (with shoyu and furikake), some frozen peas and fish sticks with lemon (thanks Costco).
I am grateful for some local Japanese restaurants that are holding on in these hard times. We try to support them. Recently, I had no plans and little food in the house, two screaming kids and an injured husband and somehow made cha-han (Japanese fried rice) with frozen fried tofu, frozen corn, negi (green onion) and portobello mushrooms and a salad. I thought it was pathetic, but my daughter said, ‘I really like what we’re having, Mommy,’ and I breathed a sigh of relief.

NBW: Just for fun, what would you imagine a JA quarantine cookbook would look like?
NI: I love this question. Lots of ramen, veggies from the garden, canned fish and boxed tofu. Learning how to make tofu from scratch again? Homemade sake. Very large bags of rice.

A recording of the “Community Cookbooks: Sharing Family Recipes Through the Generations” program can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch’v=_W1siMtB4YE.

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