Of all the culinary changes that have taken hold in the UK in the past 20 years, the adoption of Japanese food has been the most unexpected. Perhaps the trend started in 1992 with Alan Yau’s Wagamama, where British diners were introduced to slurping noodles from a bowl. Or was it in 1994, when Moshi Moshi established sushi conveyor belts? Maybe it was in about 2000, when supermarkets began selling prepacked sushi as the new sandwich.
But while all of these played a part in transforming sushi and noodles from niche to known, few in the UK have eaten anything other than popular adaptations of one or two Japanese dishes. There is little awareness of the rich traditions and specialised techniques of Japanese cuisine. For this, the ultimate source is a 500-page hardback book, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji.
Published in 1980 in the US, the book laid bare “the secrets of the simple yet complex art of Japanese cooking” for “the first time”. Nearly 40 years after publication, it is still widely regarded as the definitive guide for western readers.
Its author, Tsuji, was born in 1933, the son of a baker. Described by food writer Paul Levy as the “chief foodie of Japan”, Tsuji had a degree in French literature and worked as a journalist before training as a cook in Japan and France. In 1960 he returned home and took over his father-in-law’s domestic cookery school in Osaka. Under his direction, the “Ecole Technique Hôtelière Tsuji” taught Japanese, French and Chinese haute cuisine to generations of would-be chefs. By 1983 the school had 150 teachers, and when Tsuji died in 1993 there were 4,500 students and 17 sites, including two in France.
Tsuji set out to counter the fact that “most people in the west think of Japanese cooking as something so utterly foreign to their way of life”. He invited MFK Fisher— chief foodie of America — to write the book’s introduction. Fisher visited Tsuji’s school in 1978 with her sister to see “what was happening in a chancy modern field of east-west eating”. She describes Tsuji as a wunderkind and éminence grise in the art of teaching young Japanese cooks their food heritage. A global gastronome for some 50 years, Fisher declared after two weeks with Tsuji that she “would gladly turn my back on western food and live on Japanese ryori for the rest of my life”.
Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art is a substantial cookery book — there are 220 recipes — but it is also a love letter to Japanese food and culture. According to Tsuji, the national cuisine was born of austerity, at a time when “impoverished but cultivated court nobles learnt to delight in the offerings of each changing season”. As a result, seasonality, “the pristine freshness of materials” and “the beauty of presentation” remain the core principles. Tsuji assures the reader that making Japanese food “is rather like playing the piano”. As long as the rules are followed, exercises completed and fingering is correct, “you can put a little rubato into your Chopin, varying the tempo to suit your own artistic inclination”.
The main body of Japanese Cooking comprises two sections — the first introduces the key concepts of Japanese dining and basic methods of food preparation, while the second is a collection of recipes. There are 16 pages of colour plates. Aware that ingredients might be hard to find in 1980s America, the book includes an appendix of “Oriental Food Shops and Sources”. New Yorkers had 37 shops to choose from, while the residents of South Dakota had just one.
In Japan, explains Tsjui, “the whole meal is a symphony of carefully orchestrated flavour, colour, texture and seasonal appropriateness”. Chapter titles include “Ingredients”, “Utensils”, “Selecting and Cutting Fish”, “Grilling” and “Steaming”.
Detailed, precise and thorough, Japanese Cooking is as much reference book as cookery book. Unfamiliar ingredients such as agar-agar, kinome (young leaves of prickly ash used as an aromatic garnish) and trefoil (a member of the parsley family) are described; four pages are dedicated to unravelling the qualities of bean curd (tofu), 31 pages to techniques and recipes for yakimono (grilling and pan frying), and 10 pages to nimono (simmering).
There are some usual suspects — yakitori and tempura, for example — but the vast majority of recipes seldom feature in the Japanese western repertoire. More’s the pity: butter-fried clams, sake-steamed abalone, grilled mushrooms with ponzu sauce and crushed burdock with sesame dressing sound mouth-watering. This food requires time, care and patience to execute. Take steam-simmered octopus (tako yawaraka-ni), which calls for the octopus to be tenderised by rubbing it with grated radish, steaming it in stock and resting it for eight hours.
Tsuji wrote Japanese Cooking to preserve, share and celebrate the richness of his national cuisine. Since its publication, a number of things have changed. The popularity of Japanese food is now well established — in the UK sashimi is no longer regarded as “almost bordering on the barbaric” — and according to market research, one in five adults now enjoys eating Japanese food. In 2013 the cuisine was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Nevertheless, Tsuji’s culinary bible is a sobering reminder of how little the west still knows about Japanese food — and a tempting invitation to change this.
A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji, 1980
Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published