Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Do Japanese Know about Cooking?

Don’t you think that while it is normal for us to cook Indian, Thai, Chinese, French or Italian food at home, we, meaning the people somewhere in continental Europe, very rarely try to make Japanese food…? And if we do, it will most likely be some approximations of sushi or miso? Even when we eat Japanese food in restaurants in Europe, it will most probably be nigiri and maki with the repeated toppings, or perhaps tempura. Who, among you, cook Japanese food at home?

Well, that’s the opinion of Michael Booth. I believe that guy is quite all right. If the name of this food writer does not ring a bell, I remind you that I introduced his previous book on my blog - the one about French cooking. Already a few months ago I found out that in 2009 he had published another book about Japanese cooking. I did not have, however, the occasion to buy this book titled “Sushi and Beyond – what the Japanese Know about Cooking” and to go through it. According to the Guardian’s review, “worried about his own expanding Western waistline, Booth decided to travel across Japan, discovering methodically, greedily the secrets of its national cuisine”. He took his family with him (they insisted on that), but apparently his more important fellow-traveler was a legendary Shizuo Tsuji's seminal Japanese cook book: A Simple Art. The trip included the region of Tokyo, then Hokkaido and Sapporo, Kyoto on Honshu, Kobe, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa. He did not only visit the most renowned foodie places in Japan, but also met chefs and artisanal producers of Japanese specialties, tried authentic – often the best authentic Japanese food, the food that is going “much beyond sushi”. In sum, Michael made a thorough investigation of Japanese food, trying to understand the mystery of longevity and the good health condition of older Japanese – in a nation, which according, to many people and the Japanese themselves, is the most obsessed with eating healthy, local and fresh food in the World.

Booth, using a witty language, began “to appreciate Japanese philosophy and the delicate pageantry of its cuisine”. What he realized as the main difference between European and Japanese cooks, was the attitude to food products. While in France, for example, “chefs want to change the ingredients they cook, putting their individual mark on them, in Japan the ingredients are considered a gift from God that should not be altered too much. "In other words, in Japan, chefs work with what God provides, in France the chefs think they are God."

As regards me, I also was always afraid of preparing Japanese food at home. I have never tried to do sushi, thinking that there were a lot of people doing this better than me. I have, however, some books about Japanese cooking. I have never used them in practice. I always thought that it was too mysterious to me, especially as regards the ingredients (despite the fact that here, in Paris, they are quite easily accessible).

If you want to find out:
·         Why customers in food stores in Japan wave their mobile phones to a curious looking bar code;
·         How many restaurants are in Tokyo, what is the best Japanese restaurant, how to get there and who was crying there;
·         What sumo wrestlers eat for lunch to be so fat (and these are not hamburgers);
·         how many food shows are organized in Japan and which American stars visit the most famous food shows;
·         Who invented MSG, is MSG really bad for us and what is the link between MSG and umami;
·         What is the role of bonito fish in Japanese cooking;
·         Why you can eat the whole wasabi root at one shot;
·         What is hanging from the ceiling in Taruichi restaurant, famed for its whale meat dishes;
·         Where one can eat extraordinary ramen soup and fresh, raw crabs – “so sensuous to the point of perversion”;
·         What are the culinary differences between the regions of Japan;
·         What is the most exquisite recipe book and why;
·         How nagashi-somen taste –  wheat noodles which are dropped into fast-flowing mountain rivers and self-served straight from the river;
·         Why the consumption of sake declines in Japan?
·         What are the origins of sushi (you will be surprised);
·         How genuine tofu should taste and why local artisan tofu makers have been going out of business;
·         What is the World’s most fascinating food city (and it is not Paris);
·         Why miso soup should be served at the end of a meal;
·         Whether Kobu cows indeed drink beer, listen to music and have a massage, and why, at least theoretically, the Japanese did not eat meat for ages;
·         Where the World’s greatest organic soy sauce is made and how much costs 10-year-old soya sauce?
·         What are the best Japanese cooking schools and how much time it takes to become a chef in Japan;
·         Where to find the best ramen soup?
·         How does the poisoning fish called “fugu” taste;
·         What are the myths and truths about eternity of the Okinawans,
·         Whether it is possible that Japanese salt lowers blood pressure;

Then just decide to spend 10 Euro and buy Michael’s book. I assure that you will read it in two or three evenings; it is easy to read, witty and funny, and full of reliable information; and despite what was written in the Guardian – that “the extraneous material blurs the book's focus, giving it a casualness which undermines the profundity of Booth's journey. Like good soya sauce, Sushi and Beyond needed a longer distillation period to achieve its true potential” – maybe, yes; but the book is excellent to me.

Right after I finished the book, I felt a bit anxious. I know that there are many restaurants in Paris serving Japanese food (actually around 350). Most of them serve in general sushi, sashimi, yakitori, teriyaki and miso soup. That’s why I went for a walk to the 1st and 2nd arrondissement. Do you know the Opera neighborhood in Paris, quite close to the Seine river?

This is where one can find numerous authentic stores with Japanese ingredients imported straight from Japan. There are also restaurants, serving something more than sushi and sashimi. Apparently, a “little Tokyo”, albeit not officially, exists in Paris. Rue St-Anne and rue des Petits Champs are especially “stuffed” with Japanese food.  One will find there tens of restaurants serving for example, variations of ramen, and gyoza – Japanese dumplings.

Basic Japanese ingredients for home cooks may also be found in the Chinese quarter (which is in the 13th arrondissement), in particular in the huge Tang Frères grocery store, but the Opera neighborhood may be definitely described as a Japanese quarter.

The “Kioko Grocery Store” is located 46 rue des Petits Champs. I have heard that the shop is one of the oldest Japanese food stores in Paris. They sell everything what is needed for basic Japanese cooking, meaning various types of noodles, Japanese soya sauce, sea-weeds, rice, mirin, sake, bonito flakes, wasabi powder, rice and so on. When I visited the shop, about 70% of the customers where Japanese. The staff was nice and helpful; however I was not allowed to take pictures (which I did anyway, but from the outside, through the window). In a small Juji-Ya, rue St-Anne, the Japanese staff was even nicer. I could take pictures, maybe because they do not sell so many products. The largest grocery store with Japanese (and Korean) food products - K-Mart, which opened quite recently, is located 6-8 Rue St-Anne. It is also a bit cheaper than Kioko and Juji-Ya.  Aside from products such as various types of rice, noodles, sauce soya, rice vinegars, mirin, sakes, beers, dried fish, you will find there a large selection of vegetables and fruits, as well as a counter with freshly cut fresh fish and thin slices of meat. The choice of fresh miso, tofu, shizo leaves and sesame, various types of Japanese and Korean mushrooms is large.  The store offers a wide range of frozen foods, like for example,  green soya beans or gyoza – Japanese dumplings, Japanese caviar, korokke (Japanese croquets). Additionally, there is a restaurant serving hot dishes. 

Grocery stores are one thing. There also is a wide range of tiny Japanese restaurants, serving various foods other than sushi. A lot of these places are packed during lunch time, as they offer nutritious and simple food for reasonable prices.

I recommend visiting, for example, “Higuma” located rue St-Anne. Be careful, however, not to go there at lunch time as the restaurant is awfully packed and that you probably will have to spend 15 minutes (or even more) waiting outside. Once you get there, you can enjoy excellent bowls of burning hot noodles, ramen, gyoza and many other dishes. I met there a very nice Parisian, Thierry, who apparently comes here for lunch nearly every day; he was familiar with waiters and cooks and knew the menu by heart. The interior design is simple but there is a one appealing thing: an open kitchen with counter seats. Fortunately, I was seated with Thierry at such a counter (as we came for lunch alone), so I could enjoy a direct view of chefs cooking ramen soup, Yakisoba, rice, gyoza and so on. The food is not pretentious and is served at very reasonable prices (between 5 and 10 euro). If you do not find any place there, it is not a problem: there are other tiny restaurants, in neighboring buildings, which are also packed.


Nina said...

Twoja recenzja jest bardzo zachęcająca, lubię takie ksiązki

Atria C. said...

I am not very into Japanesee cuisine, nevertheless it is always nice to read a little more about a culinary world, though;)

Greetings from Cracov!

Magdalena said...

Nino, Atria:

Autora i jego książki polecam; mam nadzieję, że zostaną przetłumaczone na język polski. Swoją drogą wkrótce na jednym z polskich portali powinna ukazać się wzbogacona wersja recenzji i przechadzki, specjalnie dla polskich czytelników - jestem w trakcie opracowywania polskiej wersji tekstu i Was o tym poinformuję. Pozdrawiam !

AniaPP said...

It is my first comment on your blog that I´ve started to read for some weeks.
My only experience of eating Japanese food is really small because there are not many good quality restaurants in Lisbon (what I learnt from one Japanese aquaintance) and secondly my husband is not big fan. I used to read for many years the blog of one Japanese expatriate "Just hungry" and did many of her recipes. I have more experience with Korean cuisine as almost two years ago we visited South Korea for three weeks and I really loved their food . I know that both cuisines are quite different but some principles are the same ( very fresh food, lots of vegetables, tofu, pickles). I still have to do kimchi that I`m very passionate for:)
As for the books that you mention I already read the one of Naomi Moriyama and I completely agree with her as for Japanese diet.
Al last I want to congragulate you on your blog!!! It is a pleasure to read and look.
Greetings from Portugal
AniaPP (I am Polish, of course)

My Little Expat Kitchen said...

Hi Magdalena. I rarely cook Japanese at home even though I love it and when I do, I usually cook sushi or a noodle soup. I know there's so much more to Japanese cooking than that but sometimes there's just no time to discover the intricacies of this type of cuisine.
Thanks for introducing this book to me. I will consider buying it. It sounds really interesting.
Nice to be here again.

Unknown said...

Hi Magdalena, A happy be-lated New Year's wish for a wonderful new year!
I have been meaning to get over here to visit your blog but time keeps getting away from me.
I love eating everywhere I go and Paris is one of my favorite eating cities. However, I would probably not go out for Japanese food in Paris unless I lived there. I however do eat Japanese food here in San Francisco, especially Sushi which is probably my favorite. After reading your post I think that I may need to be more adventuresome and try some other dishes:-)

Mary Bergfeld said...

I am familiar with Japanese cooking because I did long term contract work with a Japanese Company before my retirement and was exposed to it daily. I found your post fascinating and your photos are wonderful. Yhou asked some questions regarding the shrimp chowder. If youhave access to in shell shrimp - fresh or frozen - you'll have no problems with this chowder. It is thinner than most but it has a lovely flavor. The shrimp shells are necessary to add the proper brininess to the chowder base. I'm so glad you stopped by. I hope you'll visit often Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

Mary Bergfeld said...

Magdalena, I'm back again. Posole is a much more hearty soup than the shrimp chowder. It has a thickness that falls somewhere between a stew and a soup. We have a celebrity chef here who refers to the consistency as a stoup. The rolls and the brownies are really delicious. I hope you'll be able to try them both. My best...Mary

Hania-Kasia said...

Zdjęcia na Twoim blogu są wspaniałe - pięknie przedstawiasz polską kuchnię. Pozdrawiam!

Delishhh said...

Very interesting post. I think i agree with you but i must be the exception. I lived in South Korea for 5 years and while i was there i went few times to Japan. So i not only cook a lot of Korean but also Japanese, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food. Some of the easy Japanese dishes i make are Yakisoba, Sukiyaki and Udon noodle soups. Those are all very easy and you should try it out. My favorite is probably Sukiyaki. Some of the other ones i make and love is Shabu Shabu which is almost like a Japanese fondue. And another one of my favorites is Agedashi Tofu with some spicy sauce. I am not a big tofu fan but this dish i love. Another easy one is Tempura. Those are probably some of the more easier Japanese dishes for you to try out. If you want to get more complicated then you start making your own noodles, miso paste, fish cakes etc. I live right next to a few Asian stores to i can get lots of different fish cakes, udon noodles which is great. Good luck and love to read about your adventure.

alexandra-sikora said...


fromBAtoParis said...


Your blog is one of the reasons why I should have an I-pad !! to be able to read your posts while travelling, or at the hair-dresser's instead of browsing stupid magazines for women !! Thanks for so much interesting material !!


I always love to learn about different cultures and cuisines. My closest friend just got back from spending two years in Japan so she has shared a lot with me.

quinoamatorka said...

Magda, jak zwykle z wielką przyjemnością przeczytałam post na Twoim blogu. Mam kilka książek o kuchni japońskiej, w tym dwie polskich autorek z bardzo szerokim tłem historyczno-kulturowo-socjologicznym (nie zawierają przepisów): Magdaleny Tomaszewskiej-Bolałek "Tradycje kulinarne Japonii" oraz oraz ładnie wydaną książkę Iwony Kordzińskiej-Nawrockiej "Japońska kultura kulinarna". Zanim opętała mnie kuchnia indyjska, najbardziej kręciła mnie właśnie prosta i wyrafinowana kuchnia japońska. Wszystkim zainteresowanym tematem polecam też uroczą książeczkę Ewy Kamler "Japonia daleka czy bliska".

wykrywacz smaku said...

Bardzo interesujący artykuł i recenzja!Zapraszamy do podzielenia się talentem fotograficznym i kulinarnym na nowym portalu :)

Magdalena said...

In Polish:

AniuPP, skoro jesteś Polką, to pozwalam sobie odpowiedzieć po polsku: dziękuję za odwiedziny na blogu i miło mi, że podoba Ci się. Moje doświadczenie z kuchnią japońską (poza sushi, tempurą itp) jest znikome. Co prawda jest w Paryżu jak się okazuje sporo dobrych restauracji, o których wspomniałam w poście, ale sama się sobie dziwię dlaczego dopiero tak późno je odkryłam. Pewnie dlatego, że również nie miałam przekonania do kuchni japońskiej. Nawet książka Naomi Moriyama, którą kupiłam jakieś trzy lata temu, stała zakurzona – przeczytałam ją dopiero jakieś dwa – trzy tygodnie temu. Podobnie o kuchni koreańskiem mam blade pojęcie – parę razy byłam tutaj w resturacji koreańskiej, ale to za dużo, by mówić o jej znajomości. Przez długi czas gotowałam natomiast bardzo dużo tajszczyzny - czas to zmienić. Pozdrawiam.

Magdalena said...

Magda, I must tell that I became a “specialist” in dashi, variations of miso soup and some salads with noodles. I do not have enough time to experiment more, but maybe it will change one day.
Patty, thanks ! I was very busy for a couple of months. Not only I do not publish so often, but I did not have time to visit other blogs. It is true that in the U.S. – California and the NYC there exists millions of Japanese restaurants with very good food, not only sushi. Here in Europe is much worse, in general. In Poland there are sushi bars, they are more and more popular, but I cannot point out any other Japanese restaurant like those one I mentioned in my post.
Mary, so you are lucky then . Thanks for your explanations about posole.

Delishhh, How great ! I cook actually quite a lot of Thai food, sometimes Chinese, but that’s it. You were lucky that you could spend those 5 years in Asia and got familiar with culinary traditions of those fascinating countries. Thanks for more ideas and information ! Take care !

fromBAtoParis, A SPICY PERSPECTIVE thanks girls for warm comments :) Kind regards

Magdalena said...

Quinoamatorko: Już pisałam na Twoim blogu, że bardzo dziękuję za podanie tytułów tych książek. Mam nadzieję, że uda mi się do nich dotrzeć i przeczytać. Pozdrawiam serdecznie !

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