Hachisu's Relentless Curiosity About Japanese Food Is Our Gain

When Nancy Hachisu wrote, "I could write a whole book about Japanese pickles", she wasn't kidding. Here it is with her second cookbook, Preserving the Japanese Way.

Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen

Publisher: Andrews McMeel
Price: $40.00
Author: Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-08
"Japanese cooking is a way of walking into Japanese culture. "

-- Jane Grigson, The Mushroom Feast

In 2012, Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s first book, Japanese Farm Food, quietly rocked the food world. The California native had followed her interest in Japanese food to its source. Then she met handsome organic farmer Taadaki Hachisu.

Part memoir, part anthropological study, part cookbook, Japanese Farm Food is the work of an intelligent woman integrating traditional Japanese and Western foodways very far from home.

Three years later, Hachisu returns with Preserving the Japanese Way, a book delving even more deeply into Japanese culinary culture. Hachisu’s passion for preserved foods comes as no surprise to her fans; in the "pickles and soups" chapter of Japanese Farm Food, Hachisu offers a tempting array of tuskemono, or Japanese pickles, commenting, "I could write a whole book dedicated to Japanese pickles."

Like its predecessor, Preserving the Japanese Way is far more than a simple cookbook. It's a journey that takes readers to people, places, and processes we might otherwise never know. As such, this is engrossing reading for everyone. While writing Japanese Farm Food, Hachisu found herself increasingly curious about foods she’d long taken for granted. "I used to take things at face value: Knowing something was well made was enough: I didn’t need to obsess about exactly how it was made. That point of view has changed, though."

Hachisu’s relentless curiosity is the reader’s gain. For many, soy sauce is just another fast-food leftover, another packet shoved into a drawer full of paper packets of crusting sugars, foil packs of cheap catsup and neon-yellow mustard, and errant coffee stirrers.

That no longer needs to be the case. Hachisu joined a soy-sauce making collective, where she made her own, an incredibly laborious process. Those readers unable to ferment their own soy sauce benefit from a painstaking explanation of commercial soy sauce manufacturing practices. Soy sauce ranges from cheap corn syrup concoctions to exquisitely calibrated brews, with the finest soy sauces requiring Japanese soy beans, cedar casks, and a two-summer fermentation period.

Hachisu suggests Kikkoman Organic Soy Sauce for the budget-minded. Those with deeper wallets are directed to Ohsawa Nama Shoyu: "a beautiful, well-balanced, deeply nuanced soy sauce".

Ever intrepid, your author forked over $10 for a ten-ounce bottle of Kikkoman's at her beloved Berkeley Bowl Market. That evening, I set a small dish of the stuff beside some fresh tuna. My husband took a cautious taste.

"This is a terrible mistake,” He announced, licking his lips.

"Why? What’s wrong?" I asked.

"Now we can never go back to the cheap stuff."

Hachisu’s equally enlightening explanation of shottsuru, or fish sauce, sent me right back to the Japanese food aisle. Nine dollars later, Red Boat Fish Sauce elicited the same response. That said, Hachisu encourages readers to ferment their own, if they're so inclined. Be warned: it's a three-year process.

But don’t be deterred. Preserving the Japanese Way offers projects long and short, simple and complex; there’s something for everyone. Citing pickling guru Sandor Katz, Hachisu exhorts readers to take risks, to try new things, to forgive themselves should their pickling projects fail, writing "Do not be afraid to try again."

Admittedly, the idea of drying fish outdoors or leaving vegetables to ferment unrefrigerated may startle some Western readers. Realizing outdoor drying isn’t for everyone, Hachisu encourages alternatives like fans and low ovens.

Preserving the Japanese Way is organized by method, beginning with "Salt, Wind, and Sun". Salt, Hachisu writes, is "ground zero for preserving". These are recipes within reach of any willing cook, including Baby Turnips With Salt-Wilted Greens, Salted Young Shallots, and Fermented Napa Cabbage -- all extremely simple, all delicious.

"You can make miso", Hachisu writes in chapter two. Should you be so inclined, the time is nigh, for miso-making calls for cooler weather. Once again, Hachisu explains how commercial misos are made, helpfully clarifying the differences between shiro miso, hatcho miso, and inaka miso. Recipes will surprise those thinking miso only means soup: Hachisu pats it around eggs and kabocha squash; she layers green beans in it. She once buried whole garlic cloves in barley miso, forgetting them, for "about a year". The result? "sublime".

Miso is followed by chapters on soy and fish sauces. As noted, making soy sauce is a complex process best suited to group effort and open spaces. Fish sauce is easier, requiring fish, a large barrel, and patience. While waiting for your sauce to ferment, buy commercial shottsuru and prepare Fish Sauce Fried Rice. While savoring your rice, consider Hachisu’s concept of "hidden taste": "When fish sauce is sufficiently nuanced, it can introduce a subtle salty overtone that hearkens back to the sea. You should never overpower a dish with it, and for the most part you should not even notice the flavor."

From here, Preserving the Japanese Way moves into unfamiliar territory. Nevertheless, recipes for pickled ginger will resonate with sushi lovers, while Pork Belly Simmered With Daikon and Leeks uses okara, or soybean pulp, leftover from soy milk preparation. Having none on hand, I made the dish without. Calling for soy sauce, sake, hon mirin, and brown rice vinegar, the result was a bracingly sweet/sour sauce contrasting irresistibly to the fatty pork.

Ume, or sour plums, are fermented into pickles, which are available cheaply, crammed in plastic jars or, more expensively, organically prepared and carefully arrayed in clamshell flats. They are also used to make a beautiful cordial called umeshu: drop the fruit into a sterilized bottle, pour vodka to cover. Stir in sugar. Cap, wait three months, then make Hachisu’s ume shu kakute-ru, or sour plum cordial cocktail. Chastise yourself for not making enough. Make more for the next year.

Koji, or Aspergillus oryzae, is the spore necessary for fermenting miso, sake, and soy sauce. Requiring large, sterile spaces, koji-making isn’t a DIY venture. Instead, buy a carton -- usually found in markets near the miso -- and stir up shio koji: mix rice koji with salt. Allow the mixture to ferment for a week. The nearly imperishable result can dress a salad or be used as a marinating medium. Hachisu massages it into bitter melon and drizzles it over tomato wedges.

With sake lees, the mash left after brewing, Hachisu makes Sake Lees Cured Chicken and Sake Lees Ice Cream with Figs. Rice bran, sold in bags, is necessary to create the pickling bed for nukadoko, or Japanese rice pickles, which require tending but are not difficult.

Preserving the Japanese Way’s final chapters lead readers through making tofu, natto, and konnyaku. Hachisu’s description of katsuoboshi, artisanally dried whole skipjack tuna, will have you tossing your bonito flakes, while explanations of sake, which should not be drink warm, and shochu, a white liquor, are edifying.

Profiles of the lively, often idiosyncratic artisans keeping Japan’s cultural legacy alive are woven throughout the text. There are makers of washi, or handmade rice paper, lacquerware artists, and fashioners of handmade tabletop barbecues. We meet a man whose dried fish "tell" him how much salt to use, a vinegar maker whose grandfather convinced local farmers to farm organically, and a master fisherman who became a salt maker. All are as passionate as their interviewer.

The book’s single drawback is a decided Northern California slant. Hachisu maintains her deep roots in the Bay Area, directing readers to Berkeley’s Monterey Market, Hida Tool, and Tokyo Fish Market. In fairness, the book includes an extensive online shopping guide, and is hardly singular in its geographic emphasis.

This criticism is minor, and hardly reason to avoid Preserving the Japanese Way. Following Hachisu’s lead, I embedded garlic cloves in miso and slathered shio koji over bitter melon. I made ginger-soy pork sandwiches and umeshu. Perhaps best of all was finally understanding the merchandise for sale at the local Japanese market. Carton upon carton of koji, all manner of pickled ume, bottles of shochu, bags of dried fish and rice bran. Elderly Japanese women reached past me into the chiller for fresh tofu.

Like Japanese Farm Food, Preserving the Japanese Way closes with environmental disaster. In February 2014 a freak snowstorm destroyed Taadaki Hachisu’s chicken coops. Both boks close with him undecided about his future. Nancy is working with Fuji Television, traveling to film artisans at work; they have indicated interest in filming the couple together. Their fans can only hope so.

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