Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art,
By Shizuo Tsuji, Kodansha International, 507 pp., $45
When “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” first came out 25 years ago, sushi was exotic, teriyaki was the sauce, and miso soup was for the macrobiotic crowd. No one who frequented the few Japanese restaurants in American cities could have predicted what would happen in just over two decades.
The late Shizuo Tsuji mastered Japanese cuisine, then French. He started the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka in 1960 to train chefs, and it remains one of the well-respected cooking schools in Japan. He wrote this encyclopedic book to share the “essence and spirit” of his native cuisine. In this 25th anniversary edition, the content is the same as the original. There is a foreword by the late food writer M.F.K. Fisher and a preface by Tsuji, both of which are from the first volume, as well as a new foreword by Gourmet magazine’s Ruth Reichl, and a preface by Tsuji’s son, Yoshiki.
Yoshiki Tsuji considered an extensive revision of the book, but in the end rejected it, he writes. He still sees this as an “almost perfect Japanese Cooking 101,” and he is right. It is to Japanese cooking what “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is to French cuisine.
“Japanese Cooking” is divided into two parts. The first offers detailed chapters on ingredients, a deconstruction of the Japanese meal, equipment, and techniques. Each cooking method — among them steaming (mushimono), simmering (nimono), and grilling (yakimono) — has its own chapter, with a few recipes to illustrate each technique. The explanation on simmering, for instance, discusses the round wood covers that go inside pots to maintain the shape of the food and help the seasonings become absorbed. Tsuji suggests using an aluminum pie plate for this if cooks don’t have multiple wooden covers the way Japanese kitchens do.
The second part is divided again by cooking techniques and categories such as noodles, sashimi, and rice dishes, along with recipes that reflect them. In some instances, you need to refer back to the first part of the book, where Tsuji offers exhaustive explanations on how to salt a fish or bone a chicken thigh or make a particular sesame dressing. Line drawings throughout take you, step by step, through unfamiliar territory.
Though not much of what’s here is new — only eight pages of color photographs have been added. What is remarkable is how many of these recipes are now in Americans’ everyday lives. Edamame, the fresh soy beans, are a favorite snack. We can find local sushi bars and order uni (sea urchin) and toro (tuna), and the ingredients for seaweed salad are at many supermarkets. Pages of ingredient sources, in fact, listed state by state in the original, don’t exist in this new release.
I bought the first “Japanese Cooking,” and it anchors a collection that now fills several shelves. Even with many choices, the book still remains my go-to for reference and classic recipes. When Tsuji called his volume “a simple art,” you have to realize that a single shrimp floating in a clear fragrant broth, garnished with a sliver of lemon rind, looks easy enough. But the shrimp has been somehow folded onto itself, the clarity of the broth seems unattainable, and coaxing just the right amount of fragrance from the lemon rind is a lesson in restraint.
But we have decades to master all this.