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Sustaining Life Just Two Hours Outside of Toyko: 'Japanese Farm Food'

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Thursday, Jan 17, 2013
Even if your idea of cooking involves a box and a microwave oven, Japanese Farm Food is a captivating look at Japanese rural farm life from an outsider’s vantage point.
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Japanese Farm Food

Nancy Singleton Hachisu

(Andrews McMeel)

“I urge you to cook from this book with abandon, but first read it like a memoir, chapter by chapter, and you will share in the story of a modern-day family, a totally unique and extraordinary one.”
—Patricia Wells


Nancy Singleton travelled to Japan 20 years ago to study Japanese language and food. There she met Tadaaki Hachisu, a third-generation farmer. The couple fell in love, married, bore three boys, and restored the Hachisu family’s farmhouse while Tadaaki farmed and Nancy ran an English language immersion school. All the while, the couple has cooked from their farm’s bounty. Tadaaki raises chickens, eggs, wheat, and numerous vegetables. What the couple doesn’t grow themselves is carefully sourced from fellow farmers, fishmongers, and butchers as committed to sustainable food practices as they are.


Along the way, Hachisu became active in the Slow Food community, creating a worldwide network of friends in the cooking world, including the folks at Chez Panisse and coobkook authors David Lebowitz and Patricia Wells. At their urging, she wrote Japanese Farm Food, a chronicle farming life two hours outside Tokyo.
  
As Japan rapidly modernizes, fewer young people are willing to farm or even cook. Meanwhile, the Hachisus cling to the old ways, practicing ancient holidays, making their own soba noodles and mochi (pounded rice most often used for sweets), and restoring their home with authentic baskets and Japanese furnishings.


As Patricia Wells writes in her introduction, Japanese Farm Food is far more than a cookbook. It’s a deeply personal document, a memoir of one woman’s unexpected life as a Japanese farmwife. Hachisu clearly never expected to spend her adult life in Japan, and 20 years in, remains ambivalent about much of it. She views herself an outsider, one who initially longed for frequent escape—to France, to Italy, even to Northern California, where she grew up. Much as she loves Japan, her family, and her life there, she has never fully acclimated to a country so radically different from her birthplace. Her tone is often tart, acerbic, even defiant as she reiterates the many ways she will never be a “good Japanese farmwife”. 


Where so many cookbooks aim to sell a feel-good lifestyle—cook this dish, and you, too, can participate in the fantasy of a perfect life, your airy kitchen filled with happy friends and family—Hachisu shares her frustrations with Baachan, her elderly mother-in-law, who lived with the family until her death in 2011 (going on to say how terribly Baachan is missed), and the struggles of raising three bi-cultural boys. That she cooks incredible food in an exquisite home with a great kitchen is a part of her life that she’s grateful for, but never sentimental about. This is not to say she isn’t warm: she describes her home as a welcoming place frequently filled with an eclectic mix of guests who are made to feel at home—by being put to work in the kitchen! 


Hachisu is careful to separate the “farm food” she and Tadaaki cook from the specialty dishes intended for guests or the sweets more commonly served in restaurants or at tea time. Even those familiar with Asian food may find Japanese Farm Food, with its emphasis on vegetables, quite different from “stir-fry with rice” cookery. Hachisu writes that she comes to cooking through vegetables. When going out into the fields to pick produce, “I would stroke them (the vegetables) and feel their energy. Touching vegetables while they are still living is something every cook should do. You have to accept them, not force your will on them.” 


Some readers may find the above off-putting, or unhappily reminiscent of New Age thought. Hachisu is serious, and she is correct—she is talking about our connection to food. More broadly, she is talking about life. Hachisu and Tadaaki, a practitioner of Shinto, are deeply connected to their land and home, which she refers to with a capital “h”—the House. Seeing the photographs of their traditional Japanese home, with its ancient furnishings and central beam, the daikoku bashira, one understands. This house, though beautiful, is no magazine showpiece: it’s a place where a family lives and works to keep the old ways alive. 


Hachisu makes repeated references to Tadaaki’s physical appeal—he is six feet tall and strikingly handsome—but this man is more than a buff farmer. Apparently unconcerned with traditional Japanese roles, he married a blond American whose impetuous nature meant she would never be a traditional, submissive farmwife. An accomplished cook, his recipes appear throughout the book. Further going against tradition, he insisted on organic farming methods despite his father’s disapproval. 


A word about Japanese kitchen tools and ingredients. Hachisu offers numerous mail-order sources for the American cook, including Hida Tool for Japanese cooking knives and other equipment. Hida Tool is about two miles from my home. While I am dying for a bunka bosho, or all-purpose knife, the holidays did their fiscal damage; I must wait. But Hachisu, in an effort to encourage those daunted by unfamiliar ingredients and equipment, writes:  “Look to what you do have, not what you don’t. ”


I would apply this to the food, as well. On a buying trip for this book, I stood in Berkeley Bowl’s Asian food aisle, list in hand, flummoxed. Berkeley Bowl is owned by a Japanese family, and the sheer availability of Japanese foods, most lacking English labeling, reflected this. I stared at bags of katsuobishi, or dried bonito shavings (bonito is dried fish), trying to decide which was best. Customers reached around me, chattering in Japanese. I felt too shy to ask for help. Still, I collected sake, mirin, a bag of konbu, brown rice miso, and sushi rice. In fairness to Hachisu, she gives excellent instruction on purchasing Japanese foods, offering the Kanji lettering for MSG—she suggests avoiding it—and choosing the most aesthetically pleasing-looking or “authentic” Japanese packaging. 


Hachisu is insistent about using the highest quality food, largely organic. She offers suggestions for American-made organic konbu and miso that are, alas, alarmingly expensive. One container of miso, less than a pint, retailed for almost $9. I’m sure it’s wonderful. I can’t afford it. On the other hand, Hachisu is adamant about purchasing “Good-tasting flour (that) will blow your socks off”  suggesting readily available, affordable brands King Arthur, Giusto’s, or Arrowhead Mills.


And then there are the recipes. Hachisu begins with basic pantry items, then moves to modes of preparation, helpfully aided by photos. Hachisu notes Japanese meat, fish, and vegetable cuts vary greatly from American preparation modes, though none of it is especially frightening. The major differences this American cook sees is equipment—although Hachisu has plenty of Le Creuset, there are also wasabi graters, a large strainer that appears to be made from bamboo, and numerous suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestles) of varying sizes. There’s an arsenal of Japanese knives,  baskets, steamers, and tabletop cookers necessary for dishes like Shabu-Shabu. 


These are desirable, but the cook with a decently sharp knife, a deep pot, and a pan that can act as a wok will manage. Hachisu herself says that while this chapter is exhaustive, it’s not necessary to master the cuts or possess the implements to cook the food, adding that “the majority of young Japanenese today” lack kitchen skills or any interest in acquiring them.


The recipes begin with tsumami, or small bites, largely vegetables treated with miso, soy sauce, and dried bonito. There are some fried items, home-made fruit cordials, and Japanese potato salad, fascinatingly called poteto sarada. The potatoes are mashed before the vegetables are added, and the mayonnaise here is made from rapeseed oil, which Hachisu prefers to olive oil.


The chapter on pickles and soups will call out to even the most rudimentary cook. At this time of year, with turnips in abundance, how lovely to have a recipe for quick pickling both root and leaves. Salt-massaged Napa Cabbage with Yuzu slivers (Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit) can be prepared with Meyer lemon, offering a new way with a sometimes challenging vegetable. Sweet-vinegared daikon and carrots is simple and refreshing. 


Nabe are one-pot dishes, often prepared at table in portable gas-top burners. These are easily acquired at hardware stores, but again, storage and financial challenges deter some of us. One could make these stovetop, with a bit of running to and from the table, arguably wrecking the convival intent of nabe.


“Soybeans and Eggs” offers a recipe for homemade tofu (you’ll need a kit). The egg recipes are both familiar—omelette-type dishes and chawan mushi, which is egg custard—and possibly repellent, depending on your turn of mind.  The Hachisus raise chickens, giving them access to wonderfully fresh eggs, which they crack raw over rice for breakfast. Try this only with a trusted egg source, and never feed small children or those with compromised immunity raw eggs. Instead, take Hachisu’s advice and lightly cook your eggs first. 


“Noodles and Rice” discusses the backbone of Japanese cuisine. Hachisu writes, “Meshi=rice=food in Japanese…most Japanese feel that without rice or noodles, there is no meal.”


While noodle-making isn’t difficult, it does require a pasta machine. Rice is easier, even if, like me, you lack (but long for) a rice cooker. I did try making authentic sushi rice, which came out gloopy. To cook is to err and try again. Hachisu devotes an entire essay to the washing of rice, a task that is easily rushed. Hachisu admits to impatience, and the first time she became seriously immersed in washing the rice planted by her family, Tadaaki noticed the difference at table.


The vegetable chapter is especially engaging. My spouse and I are often challenged at this time of year by endless piles of greens and cabbage in our Community Supported Agriculture box. How nice to have some new ways to address yet another pile of mustard greens—with shaved bonito (a big hit with the kitty), and a drizzle of soy sauce. Leeks vinaigrette gives way hereto steamed leeks with miso-mustard sauce, while pedestrian carrots are slivered and stir-fried with soy sauce. I’ve had these ingredients in my fridge for years and it’s never occurred to me to prepare them this way. And something else, thank heavens, to do with red lettuce—soy sauce, rice vinegar, and rapeseed oil.


The chapter on fish is excellent if disconcerting: because Hachisu lives in Japan, she has access to sashimi-grade fish. As sustainability is a concern for all committed cooks (this means you, friends), I strongly suggest is downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list and shopping accordingly. I was able to prepare Clams Simmered in Sake with Scallions, which was easy, sustainable, inexpensive, and delicious. Would I like to prepare Foil Wrapped Salmon with Butter? Hell, yes. Will I? Hell, no.


The meats chapter begins with Hachisu cleaning the chickens Tadaaki has butchered. Like Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal, Hachisu speaks eloquently of the connection and thankfulness that come from slaughtering and preparing your own animals. 


Japanese meat handling and preparation methods differ greatly from American and European approaches. High-quality meats and even chicken are often served raw or nearly so, the meat strung on skewers, cooked briefly over burning rice-straw, then plunged into icewater to halt the cooking. Meats are then placed in the fridge to chill and served cold, literally raw within. Not for everyone, perhaps, but the more easily accessible chicken teriyaki was easy to make: put four chicken thighs into a sealable freezer bag with mirin and soy. Leave overnight. Sauté. Eat. 


There are numerous tempura recipes, which look delicious for the cook with the equipment and wherewithal to deep fry at home (not me).


“Dressing and Dipping Sauces” are simple yet revelatory.  Miso’s role in Japanese cuisine goes far beyond soup. Other ingredients—sesame seeds, soy sauce, and mirin, or Japanese cooking wine, are easily found. 


Hachisu departs slightly from Japanese norms in the “Sweets and Desserts” chapter. The American notion of dessert is uncommon in Japan; Japanese prefer to take sweets during tea breaks. Yet ice cream is popular, along with more traditional rice sweets, which may strike some as both difficult and unusual. Hachisu gets around this by offering numerous ice creams and sorbets based on fruits commonly grown in Japan. She owes much to Chez Panisse’s original dessert chef, Lindsey Shere, whose Chez Panisse Desserts served as the backbone for much of this chapter. 


If you have an ice cream maker, you’ll be able to make the recipes here.  More traditional Japanese sweets, like mochi, call for equipment unlikely to be in an American kitchen (Tadaaki uses an enormous mallet to pound rice in a huge pail. This is an operation performed outdoors). Nonetheless, it’s an education for those of us who thought mochi an interesting Japanese ice cream served after sushi.


Japanese Farm Food concludes on an awful note. As Hachisu was finishing the manuscript, the devastating Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan. The resulting tsunami caused the Fukushima Nuclear Plant meltdown. Countless Japanese were killed, while others lost their homes and livelihoods. Japanese fisheries sustained permanent damage. The Hachisus live 215 kilometers from Fukushima—a frighteningly close 133 miles.  t’s impossible to say what will happen to their meticulously grown food, or for that matter, the fish they consume.


Despite the sobering ending, Japanese Farm Food is a stunning work that belongs in any serious cook’s kitchen, where it’s bound to bring years of cooking and eating pleasure.


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