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February 28, 2016

Five Best Books on the Japanese Cuisine

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
Shizuo Tsuji (1933-93) was the founder of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, today still Japan's most prestigious institution for training professional chefs, so you can be certain that this "Renaissance man of Japanese and world gastronomy" knows what he is talking about! Although "Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art" is a cookbook containing recipes, it is also much more. The author first discusses the essence of Japanese cooking, with its emphasis on simplicity, seasonal freshness and beauty of presentation; next he introduces ingredients and utensils; and after that follow 20 chapters presenting all the basic Japanese food techniques, such as making basic stock (dashi), making soups, slicing and serving sashimi, grilling, simmering, deep-frying, steaming, one-pot cooking, making pickles, sushi, noodles, etc. This is followed by a second part containing 130 carefully selected recipes, which together with the 90 recipes already contained in the first part, help you to build up a repertory ranging from the basic everyday "soup and three dishes" formula to preparing gala dinners. This book is truly the Bible of Japanese Cuisine!

A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients & Culture by Richard Hosking
Not so much a dictionary as an encyclopedia, as Japanese food terms are not only defined in English, but also copiously annotated and explained, making this book a good overall introduction to the Japanese cuisine. That quality is enhanced by the 17 appendices which focus on important elements of Japanese cuisine, from explanations how sake is made, or miso, to articles on umami and sushi.

World Food Japan by John Frederick Ashburne
Excellent, concise introduction to Japanese food and drink, from ingredients to types of restaurants, and from regional dishes to seasonal foods. Foodies should carry this with them to Japan, together with Hosking's Dictionary of Japanese Food (Tsuji's book is a bot too heavy, but be sure to read it before leaving your home).

Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
With "Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity" Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has written one the best books about Japanese food culture I know. It is much more than the title says: this essay is not only about modern cuisine, that is to say how the Japanese came to eat meat and other outlandish dishes, but much more importantly, it reveals how Japanese food as such was defined. Like many other “typically Japanese” cultural experiences, washoku, the “traditional” Japanese cuisine was only devised in the late 19th - 20th century, after Japan opened its gates to the world. Take rice, which is still considered as an almost sacred, Ur-Japanese basic food: in pre-modern times rice was only eaten by a few percent of the population, the upper classes, the rest – including those who cultivated it – could not afford it. Farmers paid their taxes in rice and only in very good years could they eat some of it, mixed with other grains and vegetables – and that was not the present-day white rice.
Read my complete review on Japan Navigator.

Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor
Absorbing ethnographic study of Tsukiji in Tokyo, the world's largest seafood market. A jewel of a book that explains the complex social institutions behind Tsukiji's hundreds of morning auctions. Bester portrays Tsukiji's rich internal culture, its central place in Japanese cuisine and the mercantile traditions that have shaped it since the 17th c. Bester shows how the fish market is a combination of (free) marketplace and binding customs that inhibit total competition (much like Japan's economy at large). In this way, Bester in fact provides a powerful analysis of the everyday workings of Japanese culture. "Tsukiji, the Fish Market at the Center of the World" is an academic book, but with a twist, for in an appendix the author provides a tourist guide to Tsukiji as well.
You have perhaps heard that the fish market will move to a new location in November this year, but don't worry, it will remain "Tsukiji."
When you are interested in Japanese food and drink, please also see my blog Japanese Food and Sake Dictionary.