In her latest book Harumi Kurihama offers a fresh perspective on making and sharing new flavours of fine cuisine from Japan. Exuding an aura of calm, she has the confidence of a homemaker who takes pride in creating wonderful food for everyday living. She is known for bringing together the best of her culinary traditions with world cuisine. Her recipes have elegance and flair to tempt the tastes of an international palette.
In my encounters with the traditions of Japanese cooking, I have learnt that Japan is a nation that treasures and performs true culinary arts. Even in everyday life Japanese cooking is culture is exacting and often uncompromising about flavour.
For the otaku community, there is a plethora of media that opens the door into the Japanese kitchen. Anime often feature themes of food, sequences of meals, preparation and dining. Characters relish the sensual properties of food and extol the quality, flavours and experience of cooking and eating.
Manga offers us morsels such as Yakitate Japan!! , Kitchen Princess and the extensive saga of Oishinbo – a narrative that follows the quest for the "Ultimate Menu". I personally savour the fusion of fiction and narrative with cooking drama, it piques my curiosity and creativity, making me want to put on my apron and get cooking! (It's great that reviewing the book has given me another great excuse to be busy in the kitchen).
In Everyday Japanese cooking it is Harumi's hope that our affinity with preparing Continental dishes such as plates of pasta will become as familiar to us as her own home recipes. While as an avid enthusiast of Japanese food, flavours and its benefits, I really appreciate Harumi's vision of the unity of our cultures through cooking, there is still quite a leap to take the plunge into the Japanese hot pot for many people.
Ingredients can be hard to source. While a good bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce can be bought almost anywhere, the thick kelp konbu and bonito fish flakes are a somewhat harder to source and are certainly not staples of everyone's local convenient shopping areas. Daishi, the stock that forms the foundation of almost all Japanese meals (and is in turn as fundamental to making meals as rice), relies on these ingredients as the basis for many wonderful meals.
With recipes reviews, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, so I set to work skimming and selecting the contents to create a combination of colours and flavours that would complete a balanced and beautiful meal for my diners that evening (my hapless parents on this occasion). Tailored to their tastes, I selected two dishes for my challenge. As seafood fans, the light and petite Salmon and Prawn Fishcakes seemed like a winning choice, which I served alongside the warming and slightly decadent take on a basic British dish Mashed Potato with a Japanese Style Mushroom Sauce. Not a million miles away from the flavours of a good fish pie but with Harumi's special seasonings and presentation.
To prepare myself, I decided to take trip to Piccadilly Circus, my most local hub for sourcing Japanese cooking ingredients. It's not great hardship as I love to cook and enjoy Japanese food myself. I'm often to be found scouring the shelves of the Japan Centre and frequenting the little gems along Brewer Street such as Arigatou and the excellent and often frugal Rice Wine Shop. I left armed with my ingredients for making a good batch of traditional dashi stock (in addition to the vegetarian components for an alternative take on the stock – an excellent guide can be found here: http://www.justhungry.com/vegetarian-dashi-japanese-stock).
Making the dashi is, indeed, very easy. You can buy packets of premade granules, (of both bonito and veggie kelp variety) but for all the minimal effort it is to prepare and for the rewards of flavour you receive from sticking to the tradition it's worth the while. If you're nifty with freezing, you can also have ready made dashi in your freezer if ever you have too much to ready you for the next recipe.
The fishcakes themselves were a breeze, especially with the aid of a food processor. The condiments a little fresh sliced ginger (that for my parents, I altered to a smaller side serving of fresh grated ginger) and a dressing of Harumi's ponzu soy - a citrus infused sauce. The recipe made mini cakes, pretty pink morsels, perfectly petite to tempt diners into another portion!
Harumi makes her mark on a commonplace British comfort food by adding a dash of double cream to whip the fluffy freshly mashed potato into soft flowing peaks. The Japanese sauce, made with mushrooms, dashi, spring onions was thickened with potato starch (which acts like cornflower to make a glisteningly smooth consistency when added) gave a dark and full bodied contrast to the creamy potatoes and was much like a gravy.
A success? Or a catastrophic culinary culture shock? On the first mouthfuls, the little fishcakes only received a modified rapture... until I insisted on passing my parents the bottle of ponzu soy sauce I'd lovingly prepared for them to drizzle over their dishes. It was then that the dish came alive and the ordinary flavours became decidedly different and delicious. Soy sauce is used more as a marinade less as a tabletop seasoning here, so guidance and a little faith in Harumi's know-how was what made difference to this great dinner dish.
I found that timing and preparation was easy, stress and strain free and the recipe directions crystal clear (this is a very important thing, especially for beginners or in unfamiliar territory).
The book itself is visually welcoming, with warm photography of Harumi hands on and of her beautiful plates of food.
Success is dependent your own trust in Harumi's knack to turn around everyday meals with her finesse and flavour, bringing new sweet and savoury seasonings to your table. Readers shouldn't be alarmed by the lists of ingredients or feel that they are confined by the recipes. Home cooking is about finding inspiration, not adhering to rigid rules. The book is something I would certainly recommend for curious and competent cooks, ones who are willing to experiment and expand their horizons at mealtimes. There are some very easy and delicious ways of revitalising vegetables with recipes that get the most out of glorious greens and find new ways creating perfect pickles and side dishes.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may struggle to find something that you can create from Harumi's menu but I would urge interested readers to explore the potential and adapt the recipes to make something to suit your own tastes and needs. Cooking is a flexible art and is after all, about exploring the possibilities and discovering new ways to enjoy eating.