Like any traditional cuisine, Japanese food evokes its culture, environment and history. The ingredients available, the presentation trends, the methods of preparation, and the people making it and their belief systems all inform the food. These elements integrate and culminate upon the plate in a series of flavours, scents, textures and look. Yet this is perhaps achieved with more awareness in Japanese cuisine. There is much care and consideration involved in each step; there is a gentleness to it.
It is both wonderful and intimidating to consider each part of the process – from available ingredients (affected by trade or climate) to the plating – as being essential to the end result, not unlike a haiku. The search for harmonious balance, the blend of elements and senses eloquently expressed on the plate, the ideas associated with Japanese aesthetics – a subdued, stark or cutting beauty – can leave one feeling under-confident when considering whether to attempt to recreate this style of food.
Enter Lonely Planet’s Japan: From the source, which seeks to honour many of these elements. The idea behind this series is to present local dishes, with the chefs’ original recipes and methods, the way they have been practiced for centuries. Lonely Planet is tapping into a need for authenticity and place via the celebration of regional fare, or in other words, the dishes people have been making in places for ages.
But respecting authenticity requires time and practice. The editor acknowledges the difficulty of finding some of the ingredients in your average supermarket (Okinawan island tofu, katsuobushi and so on), but even with stand-in ingredients it can turn into a timely affair to create one dish.
Recipes are arranged by region. The book moves from northern Japan with its stews and soups that have developed in response to a cooler climate, through Tokyo and central Japan with its modern influence and fusion style, on to Kansai – the imperial heart of Japan – with its refined dishes, and ends in southern Japan with its subtropical climate, which, according to the editor, renders the food ‘distinct from that of other parts of Japan’.
The book is a visual pleasure and the photos of the dishes evoke the refined Japanese presentation style. Each recipe is accompanied by the story of the dish and the chef who has offered the recipe. Indeed many have shared their signature dish or one they have been polishing for years.
Accordingly the reality of making recipes from this book, for this cook in any case, was quite different – given my lack of practice and time. I made one of the quickest dishes – okonomiyaki or savoury pancake. The main ingredients are cabbage, pork belly and flour – whatever is readily available. Hence its fame in Hiroshima: ‘During the post-war era, okonomiyaki kept people’s stomach’s full’. My results were mediocre, far from the crisp, dense pancake containing finely shredded cabbage in the picture.
Japan: From the Source offers welcome insights into the culture, history and tastes of Japanese food, but you need time and patience to recreate the ‘Authentic recipes from the people that know them best’. And this should come as no surpise, given the aspects of practice, specialisation and refinement inherent in this cuisine and culture.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Japan – From the Source
Published by Lonely Planet