The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook
by Katsuyo Kobayashi
Published by Kodansha International
104 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Think Japanese cooking. What comes to mind? Bright colors, precise and beautiful presentation, texture as an aesthetic component and tastes that combine to reflect the care that's gone into bringing the dish this far. All of these are things that, for one reason or another, the Western chef has come to think of as difficult and complicated. How can something be so lovely if it is not slaved over? How can anything with so many ingredients and so carefully presented not be difficult to do? Add in a few ingredients not commonly found in most Western larders (miso, mirin and dashi, to name just a few) and you have a recipe for apprehensiveness.
The truth is quite another matter. That which is simple in appearance is, in fact, probably simple to create. Also, the best of Japanese cooking requires little preparation or cooking time, making it perfect for meal preparation in busy households everywhere.
There are other things that come to mind when Japanese food is mentioned: sushi and sukiyaki being just two of them. But, as most people would guess, man does not live by raw fish and shared soup pots alone. There are many other meals that find their way to the Japanese table. The trick is really just to find out what the heck they are.
Iron chef Katsuyo Kobayashi goes a long way to demystifying both angles in The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook. With recipes made up entirely of ingredients relatively easy to find in the West, Kobayashi gives us Japanese home cooking for everyone. Each recipe includes preparation time and calories per serving as well as the requisite ingredients and step-by-step instructions.
As Kobayashi notes in her introduction, "influences from Asia and Europe have been adapted to the Japanese palate, and made an integral part of the national cuisine." And thus, in The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook you'll come across recipes for Japanese-Style Hamburgers, Crabmeat Omelette with Sweet-and-Sour Sauce and Japanese-Style Egg Drop Soup along with the more traditional Mabo-dofu Chili Tofu, Miso Soup with Short-Necked Clams and Toasted Onigiri Rice Balls. The resulting book includes recipes suitable for almost any palate. The emphasis is on simplicity -- there's that Quick and Easy in the title, after all -- and speed. Most of the recipes in the book go from prep to table in under half an hour, with the lion's share of these requiring even less time than that.
As is typical of English language Japanese cookbooks produced in Japan, The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook boasts dreary typography and clear but monochromatic photographs. Think about a 1970s design sensibility -- mainstream, not avant-garde --and you'll be close. This doesn't detract from the book's usefulness, however and might even add to its charm. After all, there is only so much cutting edge out of focus food photography one can look at before one's eyes begin to blur. There's none of that in The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook and the book is none the poorer.
Author Kobayashi is, in fact, a frequent competitor and sometime winner of the famous Iron Chef competitions. A Tokyo restaurant and café owner, she is also billed as "Japan's favorite television cooking personality" and is the author of over 140 books. Which, I guess, accounts for her fluidity and obvious knowledge in The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook. There are certainly prettier Japanese cookbooks out there and likely thicker ones, as well. But The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook can have you cooking Japanese home-style meals faster than you can say Banbanji Chilled Sesame Chicken. | January 2001
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.