Interested in Deepening Your Experience of Japanese Cuisine? Meet Elizabeth Andoh.

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If you love Japanese food but think it too mysterious and intimidating to cook at home, or if you just want to deepen your knowledge of this sophisticated cuisine, Elizabeth Andoh is someone you’ll want to get to know. Andoh, born into an American family of doctors, went to Japan on a fellowship in the late sixties, fell in love with the food and culture and married into a Japanese family. Having formally studied Japanese language and cooking, she is the author of five cookbooks. For thirty years she was Gourmet magazine’s correspondent in Japan, and is widely regarded as the go-to English language authority on Japanese food. If there are any books better than Washoku (from 2005), and Kansha (published last year) to give you a grounding in Japanese cuisine, I don’t know what they would be. Published by Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press, both are handsome books, with spare, but beautifully composed, naturally lit photographs by Leigh Beisch. While each book contains one hundred or more carefully written and well tested recipes, Andoh’s approach is not only to transmit recipes, but to lead the reader step-by-step to an understanding of cooking which is so practical and insightful that it will be useful no matter what style of cooking you pursue.

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Washoku, which she translates as “harmony of food,” opens with an explanation of the traditional ways of food preparation in Japan, including the ancient five “principles” which have long been an important underpinning of Japanese thought. Want to make sure your meal is balanced?  Does it include five colors, five flavors, five cooking methods?  She points out that these rules aren’t meant to be interpreted rigidly, but they do give you a viewpoint from which to evaluate your cooking and your thinking.She includes a detailed explanation of the Japanese pantry including beans, flour, fish, herbs, miso, mushrooms, pickles, noodles, rice, tea and much more.  This section alone is worth the price of the book. Recipe sections cover everything from stocks to noodles, to meat and poultry, to tofu and eggs, as well as dessert. All the recipes have  been tested by home cooks outside of Japan, and Andoh says she weeded out the ones that inspired the least enthusiasm. While this book is written for omnivores, it is so heavy with vegetarian recipes that I think vegans and vegetarians will also find it both informative and useful.

Of Kansha, her most recent book, the reverse is true, I think.  While all the recipes are vegan, omnivores will find a lot of inspiration here as well. She explains that kansha signifies “appreciation,” a word which “acknowledges both nature’s bounty and the efforts and ingenuity of people who transform that abundance into marvelous food.” Historically, this cuisine is related to shojin ryori, the Buddhist temple vegetarian cooking which dates to the 12th century. If the tradition is old, the execution seems contemporary, corresponding perfectly to our renewed interest in fresh, seasonal and local food. About 70% of the recipes are traditional, with the remainder created recently, but following the same principles.  Although the recipes may seem spartan to Americans used to reading recipes overstuffed with rich ingredients, I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from Andoh’s clean,  no-waste approach. Recipes which caught my eye include: warm and spicy cabbage slaw, gingery enoki mushrooms with carrots, creamy sesame pudding, vegetables pickled in rice bran, and–to be honest–so many more. I’d have to say in both books the dessert section is the weakest, probably because desserts were not traditionally part of a Japanese meal. Andoh’s books are good reads, even if you never intend to cook from them. Her approach of keeping it economical, simple and honest translates as well to life outside the kitchen as it does to what happens within. A companion website to Kansha is here, and the Washoku site is here.

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Kansha features spare but beautiful photography by Leigh Beisch, and handmade pottery by a number of craftspersons. The cover, top above, illustrates varied preparations from a single daikon.

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