Washoku is an Authoritative Guide to Japanese Cooking

This cookbook brings Kenji back to his childhood, and translates Japanese recipes for an English-speaking audience.

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Translating a foreign cuisine for an English-speaking audience is a difficult balancing act between accessibility and authenticity. It requires a writer to be intimately familiar not just with the cuisine they're writing about, but also with the limitations and expectations of their readers. The next few books in this series of reviews are from writers who I think manage to walk this tightrope exceptionally well.

The first is Elizabeth Andoh, an American writer who has lived in Japan for over 50 years now. She's been releasing books on Japanese cuisine since the '80s, but her finest work is Washoku, a 2005 tome on Japanese home cooking. I love the book. My Japanese grandmother lived in our apartment building on the floor below us while I was growing up, and was a good Japanese home cook. Flipping through the pages of Washoku always brings me back to her living room, where she'd eat while watching Japanese soap operas, the smell of soy sauce, smoky dashi, and vinegar in the air.

If all you know of Japanese cuisine is sushi, ramen, and teriyaki, there's no better way to find out the kinds of things Japanese people really eat at home than this book.

"Washoku, literally the 'harmony of food,'" Andoh writes in her introduction, "is a way of thinking about what we eat and how it can nourish us. The term describes both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit." The first 90 pages of the book are taken up with explaining a bit of the philosophy of washoku, along with detailed sections on basic Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients. These range from a guide to noodle varieties to a lengthy discourse on kombu (giant sea kelp) and katsuobushi (shaved smoked and dried bonito)—the two ingredients in a classic dashi, an ocean-y stock that is the soul of Japanese cooking.

Speaking of dashi, you'll find that it comes up again and again in the book. Tiny whole fried smelts are served with a vinegary and spicy dashi sauce (wakasagi no nanban-zuké). Eggs are seasoned with it for Tokyo-style rolled omelettes (atsu tamago yaki). Pumpkin gets simmered in it along with ground chicken and scallions. It's literally everywhere. Cook from this book for any extended period of time, and you'll come to realize what I did: Dashi is super stuff. It's made from only two ingredients (plus water); it takes only about 15 minutes to make, start to finish (even less if you use powdered dashi); it can be made in large batches; and the depth of flavor it brings to the table is spectacular. It's one of those ingredients that aren't too assertive on their own, but are wonderful for bringing out and complementing the flavors of other ingredients. The flavor-to-work ratio and versatility of dashi are through the roof, and Andoh's book will show you dozens of different uses for the stuff.

If there is one area where the book is a little lacking, it's in sheer quantity of recipes. The book feels like it should be as complete as it is authoritative, but it offers only a few recipes in each of its sections. Fifteen recipes for fish. Ten recipes for meat and poultry. Folks who like to jump straight into the recipes section and see what they can make with what's on hand will have a little trouble in this regard. Still, the introduction to each recipe section and the numerous notes and tutorials sprinkled throughout the pages should offer enough guidance to allow you to improvise once you've mastered Andoh's basics.

You can buy Washoku here.