An extensive and accessible approach to Japanese food

Japan: The Cookbook

By Nancy Singleton Hachisu (London and New York: Phaidon, 2019, 464 pp., $49.95, hard cover)

The first thing you will note about this cookbook is its sheer size. The recipes Nancy Singleton Hachisu has compiled through her time in Japan spans regions, time periods and occasions, and is extensive. This cookbook includes a history of food in Japan, a glossary, and of course, hundreds of recipes organized by course or type, giving readers a wide and comprehensive culinary picture of Japanese cooking.

While many cookbooks have perfectly food-styled photos that won’t resemble the end product of the average home-cook’s recipe attempts, the pictures in “Japan: The Cookbook” are simple and most importantly, authentic. Every shot features the food in the way it would be served to you in a home in the most appealing way possible. Most of these recipes don’t come with an accompanying photo, but those that do look appealing, approachable and realistic. Unless something goes awry, you can be assured that your end product will resemble the picture.

Recipes are simply written, and no recipes exceed a page. While individual steps are written out, imagine a family member telling you on the phone how to make a recipe; that’s how the recipes read in this book. Stylistically, it’s less “detailed step-by-step,” and more “some instructions that also happen to have the list of ingredients and measurements.”

In her introduction, Hachisu says she learned many of her recipes and learnings in Japanese cooking orally, and that style allows for every recipe, even those that are a little longer or have extra steps, to seem more straightforward.

Many of these recipes are ones that you wouldn’t ordinarily find in contemporary cookbooks, as Hachisu’s recipes reference a home cooking style that gained popularity during the pre-Internet times. She even includes what people might consider foundational Japanese dishes, such as dashi, basics such as miso soup and dashimaki (rolled egg), and even fundamentals such as gohan (cooked rice). That being said, she also has a section at the end titled “Shefu” (chef) with Japanese recipes from chefs all from all over the world, yet even these recipes have been written in her same straightforward, explanatory style.

While this book includes many of the more popularized Japanese foods that many people know and love — such as ramen and tempura — the real gems are to be found among some of the home or comfort-style dishes that might be lesser known.

Some great recipes to try include: Fried Kabocha balls, any of the shirae (smashed tofu) or gomae (sesame-dressed) dishes, as well as chawanmushi, a hot egg custard that can be customized with different vegetables and meat.

There’s also a whole section on nabe (pot), which is great for a cold day and can easily feed a crowd. The pork and cabbage nabe is a great nabe dish to try for beginners, or for those who want to start with a simple recipe.

And finally, Hachisu has a small dessert section where she shares recipes for old-time favorites such as ohagi and gohei-mochi, as well as recipes for carrot cake and soy milk and cocoa gelée.

If you grew up eating Japanese home cooking, many of these recipes will bring you a nostalgia and familiarity that you will want to relive through these foods. If you didn’t grow up eating Japanese food, these recipes will immerse you into the world of Japanese home cooking in a way that few books are able to do.

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