How learning to cook Japanese food improved my life
October 30, 2022
by Jeffrey Ian Ross
Over the past twelve years, I’ve been increasing my knowledge and skills towards mastering cooking Japanese food.
Although my initial efforts in this direction were slow and haphazard, learning about Japanese cuisine and how to cook it ranges somewhere in my life between a strong interest and a passion.
And in many respects this preoccupation has transformed my life.
At the very least, like any hobby or avocation, cooking Japanese food is a distraction; it gives me a break from my academic life, gets me up from my desk and away from the computer screen. At its worst, my desire, need, and frequent obsession to master Japanese cooking dominates my waking hours. Frequently, no sooner have I completed cooking and eating a Japanese dish or meal, I start thinking about what my next recipe to tackle will be. No longer can I eat at a Japanese restaurant without trying to deconstruct the ingredients of the food I eat and how it was prepared. Sometimes, to the surprise of my fellow dinner guests, I may ask the waiter and/or chef all sorts of questions about the food, and tell them about my pursuits.
WHY DID I CHOOSE TO SPECIALIZE IN JAPANESE CUISINE?
I’m not completely sure why I chose to master cooking Japanese cuisine versus other ones. Growing up, I was periodically exposed to selected elements of Japanese culture. For example, one of my father’s largest clients was a Japanese corporation, and all of my siblings and I worked for this business at one time or another. At an early age, I also started practicing Karate, Kendo, and Judo. That being said, I’ve never visited Japan nor have I learned the language.
But my turn to cooking Japanese food began with a strong desire to improve my cooking ability in general, and then a decision to specialize. The choice of which type of cuisine I wanted to master was mostly motivated not by burning passion, but by a process of elimination of other cuisines.
Nonetheless, I don’t feel the need to become a master in preparing the full breadth of Japanese food. Although I enjoy eating Izakaya (Japanese street food), as well as sushi and sashimi (cold raw fish), I prefer cooking “Washoku,” also known as Japanese home cooking. These dishes are more traditional and frequently more complicated to make than what you will find in your typical Japanese restaurant. The complexity is a welcome challenge, and I enjoy overcoming the difficult recipes I encounter.
Most importantly I like learning how to perfect Japanese cooking because it values many of the same things I do: attention to detail, dedication, handwork, quality ingredients, precision, and presentation.
HOW DID I LEARN TO COOK JAPANESE FOOD?
Like most people I surfed the web looking for appropriate recipes. First, I started with those that were easiest to reproduce, then as my knowledge and skills improved, I tried more challenging recipes.
Over time, I studied influential Japanese cookbooks, watched online videos, attended a handful of workshops, and asked lots of questions. When I didn’t understand something and considered it to be important, I continued asking. In order to spur my motivation, I also started an Instagram page, @_gaijinchef.
WHAT BENEFITS HAS COOKING JAPANESE FOOD GIVEN ME?
Learning about and mastering how to cook Japanese food has provided me with a number of benefits.
First, I feel proud and confident in my skills when someone who appreciates good food tells me that they enjoy what I cook.
Second, it has given me immediate gratification to know that I could master a skill that I thought was largely unattainable for me.
Third, it has enabled me to appreciate other kinds of cuisine. In addition to trying to dissect Japanese dishes, I also attempt to parse out the elements from a variety of Asian cuisines (e.g., Burmese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai, etc.), as well as Indian and South American food.
Fourth, by cooking Japanese food on a regular basis, the burden of making decisions about what to eat and who is going to prepare is more equally shared in the family.
Fifth, it’s a welcome break from my disproportionate daily cerebral existence. As an academic, I spend the majority of my working day at a desk, on a computer, reading, writing, responding to e-mail, and teaching. This work is sedentary and mostly predictable.
And finally, just like sleep and physical exercise, cooking and mastering Japanese food, provides me with a sense of balance. I have become less focused on my professional life, and more about quality of life. It enables me to get perspective.
SOME SIMPLE TIPS I’VE LEARNED BY COOKING JAPANESE FOOD
In general, I have been able to master the basics of Japanese cooking pretty quickly, but developing expertise takes time and patience.
Here is my general advise to those wishing to learn how to cook Japanese food.
Start with appropriate raw ingredients. It’s important to begin with fresh, raw, and ingredients unique to the cuisine. Although a prospective Japanese chef can initially get by with many of the items that are sold in a well-stocked health food store, like Whole Foods, you really need access to an Asian market, or better still a Japanese market.
If you can’t immediately find the unique ingredients, either patiently search for them or explore suitable alternatives. In Washington, DC (where I live) I have access to one Japanese market, otherwise I have to make do with the limited offerings at Whole Foods. I occasionally take a trip to the deep suburbs of Rockville to visit Mariachi Market, one of the best Japanese grocery stores in the DMV area. If I visit New York City, I frequently stop by one of the many Japanese markets located there, and stock up on essentials.
Ask qualified experts who work in the field for their insights. Do not assume that you know all the answers to the challenges that you encounter, or can figure them out on your own. More specifically, people who have been working for a long time in the retail stores, markets and restaurants you frequent often have relevant opinions on ingredients and alternatives. Otherwise, numerous social media sites exist where you can ask people with experience in the field of Japanese cuisine.
Practice mis en place. Lay out in front of you all the food, ingredients, and utensils that you are going to use in the recipe. Try to cut the items that need cutting in the preferred manner before you start cooking. Don’t cut as you go along.
When designing and preparing a meal, appreciate the importance of sequencing, timing, and pairing. In other words, consider which part of the meal needs to be done first and which dish goes well with what. Certain parts of a meal need to be made first, others later. The issue of timing is also significant; think about different courses and the timelines entailed by them. Always think about the big picture.
Don’t under- or overcook the food. Understand the minimal viable conditions required to make your food enjoyable.
Understand that although fidelity to a recipe and taste are important qualities in making Japanese food, presentation is equally important. Strive for balance in texture and color. The food must be arranged nicely on the plate (i.e., plating). Think about what types of plates, bowls, etc., work best.
Don’t be afraid of breaking rules and becoming creative. Experiment with new types of food (e.g., vegetables, soups, meat, fish, seafood, seaweed, etc.).
Take notes on the recipes you prepare, and strive to make the recipe your own. This approach particularly applies to the amounts of ingredients, components (and their alternatives), and sequencing.
Likewise, although Japanese food primarily consists of frying, blanching, roasting, grilling, etc., it’s also important to experiment, try different ways of preparation than you normally do.
What is the moral or lesson to take away from this story?
As we get stuck in our lives and routines, our leisure-time hobbies and engagements run the risk of being completely discarded.
Sometimes it’s wise to spend a significant amount of time pursuing an interest or passion other than your profession.
Like it did for me, cooking Japanese food, may enable you to step away from your main professional pursuits, learn a new skill, and perhaps give you alternative perspectives on your work and life.
Life isn’t simply all about paying the bills, or pursuing a career pursuits. Sometimes it’s about having fun, and in my case, this has been achieved through learning about and improving my ability to cook Japanese cuisine.
Photo credit: Jeffrey Ian Ross
Black Cod cooked in sake, soy, & dashi
Modified from Morimoto’s original recipe