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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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