Hiroko Shimbo has been teaching Japanese cooking in her native Tokyo, New York, Spain, and England for 15 years, which has given her new opportunities in the restaurant industry as Americans become ever more captivated with the food of her culture. She was the culinary consultant for Taneko Japanese Tavern , which opened earlier this month in Phoenix . She is the author of “The Japanese Kitchen,” an accessible volume introducing readers to the basics of the cuisine, and “The Sushi Experience,” published this month, which takes sushi-lovers from the simplest hand rolls to complex nigiri-zushi — raw fish on finger-size beds of rice — the real test of a sushi chef. Along with step-by-step photographs, Shimbo explains how to cut fish yourself.
We spoke by phone from her kitchen-office in New York, where she lives with her husband, James “Buzz” Beitchman , a telecommunications expert. Shimbo thinks Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their taste for sushi and sashimi and now want authentic dishes. There is a large repertoire of home-style sushi made for picnics, lunch boxes, and celebrations. Start with the basics and build up your skills, she advises, because information and confidence are key.
Q. What it was like growing up in your mother’s kitchen?
A. My mother’s kitchen was a wonderful busy, busy place. My father was a physician. His clinic was attached to our house. We had patients staying at the clinic so my mother always cooked a large amount of food both for the patients and then delicious dinners for our family. My sisters and I were always hanging around in the kitchen. We were raised with delicious food. We naturally developed a love to cook and eat.
Q. Did you help your mother?
A. Not when we were small, though we did carry the trays to the patients. When we grew up we helped quite a lot. But with my two sisters and mother in the kitchen, it became quite aggressive! Many women!
Q. Americans read that Japanese businessmen come home late after an evening out with co-workers and expect a hot meal. Did your mother have dinner waiting for your father?
A. My father was always there so my mother made breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He was a very lucky guy. But yes, most of my friends’ husbands come home and eat with their families only once or twice a week. It is a very common pattern. I think the younger generation is changing. When the Japanese economy slumped in 1990, the companies cut back on entertainment budgets, so businessmen had to eat at home more often.
Q. We hear the complaints that younger Japanese women don’t cook anymore. What are they serving their families?
A. It is true. They are feeding their families prepared foods bought at the supermarkets and food courts. Many buy frozen food they reheat at home. It is very disappointing.
Q. When we hear “food court” we think of cafeteria-style places in shopping malls. In Japan, though, these refer to boutique-style stalls on the lower floor of Japanese department stores.
A. While the presentation is wonderful and the taste is actually pretty good, prepared food contains quite a lot of additives so I don’t buy them no matter how appealing it looks. It isn’t everyday food.
Q. Can ordinary people afford this?
A. Yes, prepared food can be reasonable. You can choose the more expensive food in the boutiques or those sold at 7- Eleven or other convenience stores.
Q. How did you begin teaching Japanese cuisine?
A. I was a Japanese language teacher, but teaching language is teaching everything, from how to bow, culture, history, food. Language is based on these pillars. One day a student said, “Why don’t you teach us how to cook a Japanese meal?”
Q. Did you teach from your own experience or go to culinary school?
A. Mostly from my own home training. Like most Japanese ladies, after graduating from university, looking for a future husband, I went to a cooking school. But I learned nothing at that cooking school. In Japan, students don’t ask questions. We just receive whatever they teach us. I was living in Japan and had an American husband, and had many foreign students. They asked me how to make miso, how to make sake, how to make rice vinegar. I couldn’t answer these very basic questions. I was frustrated, so I started to contact artisans and manufacturers and learned from them.
Q. How did you learn how to make sushi?
A. I attended the Tokyo Sushi Academy. It sounds like the military. The president started this school in 2002. They offer expensive and intensive sushi training for one month. One month is so brief, but every day starts with cooking sushi rice and filleting fish. We also learn to make nigiri-zushi, the rice ball with a slice of sashimi on top.
After that I did research on all aspects of sushi — tradition, history, culture, and recipes. This included interviews with sushi chefs, rice farmers, wasabi growers, knife makers, wholesalers, and fish mongers.
Because I was raised with real sushi, I was initially quite disappointed to see how sushi evolved in America. People started with unconventional sushi, like California roll [avocado, crab and cucumber] to suit the American palate. Then came sushi with mayonnaise dressings. However, sushi chefs can be more creative here. This is now even popular in Japan.
Q. Who is the audience you have in mind for “The Sushi Experience?”
A. Raw fish lovers and those who are not so keen on it — which makes everyone! I want people to know that sushi is not just raw fish. Fifty percent of the recipes are made with vegetables, cured fish, seafood and omelet.
Q. Many skilled Japanese sushi chefs seem quite skeptical that non-Japanese can prepare this food. What do you think?
A. I agree in part. Take the Japanese chef who trained in Italy. They can cook pretty good Italian food but they haven’t been raised as Italians. Food is not just preparation. The Japanese are very stiff in their mind-set that somehow a non- Japanese can master the Japanese language, or that a non-Japanese cannot really understand the Japanese mentality. These attitudes are too extreme. However, when it comes to sushi preparation, especially nigiri-zushi, there are so many things that you need to know about the fish, the specific way to make rice. It really takes long years of training.
Q. There is an impression in Japan that America has no food culture beyond hamburgers and fast food. Having lived in the United States, what is your impression?
A. Oversized! This is a country where things are always changing because of the addition of new immigrants. This has had a big influence on American food. One thing I don’t like here is the concept that bigger is better and quality is not much of a concern. When people ask for larger sizes, food loses its quality.
Q. What do you think of the concept of an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet?
A. That is awful. I don’t know what kind of sushi they offer, mostly rolls. When it comes to raw fish, it is expensive and if there is any place that says “All-you-can-eat raw fish sushi,” I just doubt the quality of the fish. Certain expensive fish cannot be offered so generously.
Q. What advice do you have for Americans eating at a Japanese restaurant?
A. In Japan, restaurants are highly specialized. Here the Japanese restaurants aren’t. Everything is on the menu like yakitori, tempura, teriyaki, katsu [fried foods], and noodles. But the Japanese food boom has finally arrived. In New York City and on the West Coast there are more authentic Japanese restaurants which serve more unusual dishes. Try what you haven’t tried before.
Hiroko Shimbo will be at Boston University’s Seminars in Food, Wine, and the Arts on Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. The fee is $65, which includes tastings and a copy of her new book. Call 617-353-9852.