Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

by Elizabeth Andoh

Washoku in Japanese means “home cooking.” I had never heard of the art of Washoku in many years of serious cookbook browsing, and it surprised me even more to discover (when searching for books widely available to the American reader) that there have been no wide-ranging readings in print on this subject. Elizabeth Andoh’s recent release Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen steps out into this deserted byway as a solid scholarly tome, thorough and workable, with the bonus of being all dressed up in a stunningly attractive style.

Washoku cookery is not the sort that is easily reduced to mise en place followed by a single flat layer of production. Neither is it something that can be easily understood and conquered by doing A, B, and C in order, to be finished by placing the foods on the matching dishes from the cabinet and serving it up. The way of Washoku goes deeper than that: Washoku cookery embraces a philosophy.

It starts with a gathering of many different things. The first task is to hold in one’s mind with a serious yet playful, focused intensity the basic sensual natures of the various foods taken in hand to be prepared for the meal. Traditionally, this cookery has resided firmly within the female domain – the women of the home hold this vital (and perhaps powerful) role of ruling the kitchen. In Washoku, the goal is to breathe a congruent internal life into the foods that will be lovingly placed on the family table, where they will in turn breathe a vital and warming life into those whose hungers will be sated by their tastes.

Washoku is aesthetics intertwined with culture, all knit together with strong agile threads of memory and ritual. These threads stream back thousands of years, patchworking an embroidery of living meaning in the natural and human world of Japanese culture. Washoku is conceptually about simplicity and clarity, with a core of both philosophic and mathematic logic.

This art of cookery stands firmly within the realm of classicism; there is a simple beauty diplayed within a Washoku meal, an accomplished panache which can be intimately felt. Each singular element should enter into a final, balanced whole. The flavors of the food are not the sole note demanding focus, which is instead the balance of every singular ingredient that enters into preparation of the meal. There is every bit as much importance given to the idiosyncratic choices of bowls, plates, colors and textures by the provender that will arrive before the diner for the theatre of the meal. All must be amicably balanced: color, texture, heat and cold, smooth and crunch, flat and round – a circle of engagement is met with each look, touch, or taste.

It is quite possible that the reasoning and drama Washoku embraces may not perfectly translate into the language of another culture; but the joyous tastes and gorgeous balances certainly are in this collection of recipes. All the recipes are easily manageable by any good cook (even one to whom the Japanese kitchen might be unfamiliar), after finding the pantry ingredients and summoning the strong integral focus on seasonality. To really hit the mark with Washoku, one cannot discard this concept as is more easily done in the American kitchen, where seasons are assumed to be year-round in terms of many ingredients.

This core concept of seasonality, so oddly disconcerting in this fast-lane, quick-fix, everything-possible land, bestows upon the cook who bows to these rules a grounding, a sense of feet hitting earth with a satisfying magnetism, a hint of a joyous interaction.

The book offers a tempting path for readers to follow that leads to an understanding of five basic principles that enter into each Washoku meal: five colors (go shiki); five tastes (go mi); five ways (go ho); five senses (go kan); and five outlooks (kan mon).

The extensive section on Japanese ingredients and cooking methods is an enormous boon to those unpracticed in Japanese cooking, and the recipes cover everything from soup to desserts, with rice and seafood, meat, noodles and every possible thing one could be hungry for. The tips on “Kitchen Harmony,” “Harmony at Table” and tales of folklore are sandwiched between bright photographs of recipes bursting with bright colors that summon memories of aromatic whiffs of garlic and soy. The simmering sauces, with their undertones of the honeyed ripe fruits of the earth, draw one further into the culture and narratives that form the colorful, deep tapestry of life both for those in the kitchen and those hungrily waiting at table.

In this warm gesture Elizabeth Andoh has made, offering readers this book and knowledge, she has proved to be a most patient and loving docent of Washoku. Any reader intent upon being a mindful listener, who hungers for words on food that hold more than mere pretty promises or stark xeroxed blueprints, will have a quite fulfilling, merry feast for both senses and spirit entwined.

Washoku is a keeper.

Elizabeth Andoh’s other writings include the IACP Award-winner An Ocean of Flavor. She is also Gourmet magazine’s correspondent in Japan and a regular contributor to the New York Times.

Review by Karen Resta

Karen Resta has had an…interesting…career history, one part as Executive Chef for Partners Dining at Goldman Sachs in NYC, and another as VP for Goldman Sachs NYC. Her final career choice: Avoid the word career like the plague and refuse to talk about the juicy parts for money or fame.