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This week I was lucky enough to catch up with chef and author, Nancy Singleton Hachisu about living in Japan as an American, going back to basics with Slow Food and making ramen from scratch (scroll down for recipe).
Having each lived in Japan, we can safely say we’re a group of Japanophiles who reluctantly returned home. What made you stay in Japan?
In truth, I never would have stayed in Japan had I not married a Japanese farmer. I was an AFS exchange student in Brussels for 10 months in high school and the experience had a profound affect on me and my life choices. I lost myself a bit as we were encouraged to immerse ourselves totally into the Belgian culture. But through this experience, I learned that I did value my own country and my own identity as an American.
I only intended to stay one year in Japan but soon realised it would take two to really gain any traction on language acquisition. But ultimately the plan was derailed by a handsome Japanese farmer. It was him, not the country, that motivated my decision to stay.
“For good, or for worse,
Japan is deeply and truly my home”
Now, I cannot see myself ever living elsewhere. For good, or for worse, Japan is deeply and truly my home. It is not just because we live in an 85-year-old farmhouse and I am able to have a wide voice about artisanal Japanese foods in Japan and the world. Somehow Japan snuck up on me and I feel almost more at home when I am out and about here than when I am in the United States. I know the times, and no one bothers me.
Also, there aren’t crazy people screaming on the streets like you find in US urban centres. Scary.
Do you have a favourite place?
For years, my go-to destination in Japan was the town of Hida-Takayama in Toyama prefecture on the Sea of Japan because I love antiques, traditional architecture, morning markets, and good food. Finding all of these in one place is harder than one might think in Japan. But for the last seven years or so, my heart and soul have been captured by the Noto Peninsula.
Similar to Hida-Takayama, Noto has the sea and the mountains, as well as arable land for growing rice and vegetables. It is also surrounded by the Sea of Japan. On the first drive I took from the Noto airport to where we were staying, I was overwhelmed by the countryside. I had never seen a locale in Japan that had stayed so true to traditional architecture and building materials. Even smaller new houses were constructed of dark wooden beams, white-washed diatomaceous earth, and iridescent roof tiles. There were very few pre-fab dwellings marring the landscape.
The people of the Noto Peninsula are genuine, welcoming, and dedicated to their crafts. I have gone back many times in the intervening years and have introduced both Japanese and U.S. media to my favourite spots. Because of my books, I visit artisanal producers all over Japan and have found a similar sense of home and place in Shodoshima—the “olive oil island”—and go back there almost as much as Noto. It is hard not to feel fickle! And no less captivating, warm, and fascinating are Iwate and Kagoshima prefectures—both of which I have visited multiple times.
“I grew up on a woodsy back lot in Atherton, CA during the 60s.
We were a motley crew of six, with liberal parents and a messy,
Did you come from a farming background in the US?
Not at all. I grew up on a woodsy back lot in Atherton, CA during the 60s. We were a motley crew of six, with liberal parents and a messy, eclectic life. We planted vegetables with my father sometimes, but it always seemed a bit haphazard.
When our children were small I contributed as much as I was able in the growing of our family food, but that help was episodic. As the children became more self-sufficient, they helped, and I ramped up my own efforts. I tried hard to plant seeds and sow the seedlings and tend the plants as they began bearing “fruit.”
But now writing books has taken over my life and I have to accept that I do not have time to devote to the field. Also, I travel enough to make it impossible to have that consistent stewardship needed for growing things. I have made peace with this.
Do the cooking classes you run have a focus? Are they to Japanese people or expats?
Originally my cooking classes were for Japanese and mainly the menus were culled from food of the world. As I got busy with home-schooling my sons, running my immersion English school, and writing, I let the classes at my house slip away and only did classes occasionally in Tokyo (for Japanese). Nowadays I teach classes abroad or occasionally at my home when a group makes a particularly thoughtful appeal.
“Although many people say there is no bad food in Tokyo,
I heartily disagree”
What food recommendations would you make to first time visitors to Japan?
Ramen of course is a slam dunk—try to find a small shop that looks like they have a steady stream of customers. Avoid the plethora of chain shops.
Research online and make a plan if possible. Although many people say there is no bad food in Tokyo, I heartily disagree. Compared to other urban cities, by and large, Japan does do food made from mediocre ingredients quite well, but once you’ve been here a while you can tell the difference.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to find great food, you just need to put some time into plotting your course. My biggest recommendation is to find a great soba restaurant which also serves other dishes such as fish, tempura, and sashimi. If you are fortunate enough to find one as excellent of our local shop: Soba Ra, then you will be very fortunate indeed.
Slow Food is really gaining momentum here, are there ways we can contribute – both at home and in Japan?
Up until ten years go, I was heavily involved in Slow Food. I read about the Slow Food International (in Bra, Italy) and felt compelled to reach out and join the group because I wanted to connect with like-minded people in the outside world.
Slow Food urged me to start my own convivium (local group), and I did. I began attending the Salone del Gusto and became a delegate at Terra Madre, each edition until 2012 when my first book was published. Something had to give.
I tried to stay involved in Japan, but it was difficult to travel to meetings and hard to ask people to pay dues—the concept of dues was not in the wheelhouse of my local farming friends. Finally, I had to drop out officially from Slow Food Japan but remain dedicated to the principles and have the utmost respect for the global efforts of Slow Food.
Joining your local Slow Food convivium is the first step. I connected with Slow Food groups on my travels and forged many friendships with people who felt and activated for food in the same way as I. Having this bond is invigorating.
You mentioned that the book has been a labour of love, taking three years to write. Having written two other books, what was it that spurred you on?
Food, reading, writing, and learning languages have been my passions since I was a child. As an adult, I always intended to write cookbooks, it just took some time to get to the place in my life where I was able. I taught monthly cooking classes but also was running an English immersion school and home-schooling our three sons with my husband.
From the time my oldest son was a baby, I took semi-yearly trips to the U.S. to see family, but as soon as my youngest was turning 1 years old, I began to take my sons to France and Italy when we had the wherewithal. Through those trips and my association with Slow Food, I became more solidly placed in the world of food. It was from this jumping off point that I approached securing an agent and eventually my first publisher.
“I feel compelled to tell what I feel is the side of Japan that I know:
honest, authentic, full of heart, delicious.”
Why do I write books? Because I feel compelled to tell what I feel is the side of Japan that I know: honest, authentic, full of heart, delicious. Part of why I write is to engender pride among Japanese for their incredible food culture, that sadly, is slipping.
Convenience foods, preservatives and MSG, chemical-treated vegetables: this is the daily fare for most Japanese. But as a small island nation, the tide can turn on a dime. That is the beauty and power of the Japanese media and that is why I keep at it. Also, there is so much to love about Japanese food culture and I hope for the people of the world to experience the true artisanal products and preparations of Japan.
Is there anything you miss about American food?
Not much…. Maybe charcuterie such as ham or fresh sausages…the gamut of Mexican chillies (though I keep a stock in my larder) …heritage beans from Rancho Gordo in California…heritage vegetables… organic fruit! And creamy, flavourful avocados from California. I crave those.
If you had to choose one favourite Japanese dish, what would it be?
Sashimi. My favourite soba chef creates beautifully balanced, colourful plates of sashimi—always on a gorgeous plate. With a small flask of elegant sake, I am in heaven!
Nancy Singleton Hachisu – Ramen recipe
In Japan, there are ramen shops in every town. Here is a home-style ramen recipe for those who want to try making their own at home.
Preparation time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 2 hours 15 minutes
For the broth:
- 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (1 1/2 lb/675g total)
- 2 small carrots, cut into 1 1/4 -inch (3cm) lengths
- 7oz (200g) small negi or fat scallions (spring onions), cut into 1 1/4 inch (3cm) lengths)
- 1 3/4-inch (2cm) piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
- 2 tablespoons gold sesame oil
For the noodles
- 2 cups (10 1/2 ox/300g) best-quality unbleached all-purpose (plain) flour, plus more for sprinkling
- 2 tablespoons gold sesame oil
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
For the salt flavorings (choose one)
- Brown rice miso
- Soy sauce
- Fine sea salt
For the toppings
- 7 oz (200g) komatsuna [Japanese mustard greens]. bok choy, or spinach, blanched, squeezed, and chopped
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped negi or scallions (spring onions)
- 3 eggs, at room temperature, boiled for 8 minutes, refreshed, peeled, and halved lengthwise
- 1 sheet nori, cut into sixths
- Rayu [chilli oil] optional
- Yuzu kosho [chilli paste], optional
- Shichimi togarashi [seven-spice powder], optional
Make the broth:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 deferes faranheit (230C/Gas mark 8)
In a large bowl, toss the chicken, carrots, negi, and ginger with the salt. Rub with the sesame oil and dump onto a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 35 minutes until nicely browned.
Scrape the roasted chicken and vegetables into a large heavy pot and add 4 quarts (4 liters) cold water. Bring almost to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 1 hour.
Scoop out the chicken thighs and shred the meat off the bones into a medium bowl. Wet the chicken meat with a small scoop of broth. Return the bones to the pot and continue simmering the broth, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain into a clean medium pot and discard the bones and vegetables.
Meanwhile, make the noodles:
Place the flour in a large bowl and drizzle in the sesame oik. Mix with your fingers until pebbly. Make a well and break in the whole eggs and yoks. Mix with your fingers until the eggs and flour are incorporated, but the dough is still a bit crumbly. Turn out onto a work surface and knead until smooth and pliable, about 5 minutes. Let ht edough rest for at least 30 minutes.
Roll the dough out using a seimeki [noodle-rolling machine] or Italian pasta machine. Then cut the dough into thin noodles 1/8 inch (3mm) wide. Cut those noodles into 9-inch (22cm) lengths with a pizza cutter. Sprinkle the noodles generously with flour and toss the flour into the noodles, to help prevent sticking, but keep the noodles aligned.
Fill a large pot three-quarters full of water and bring to a boil over a high heat.
Bring the broth to a simmer over medium-high heat and adjust to a bare simmer. Prepare 6 large donburi [deep soup bowls]. Measure in one salt flavoring of choice per bowl: 2 tablespoons miso, 4 teaspoons soy sauce, or 3/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk 4 tablespoons broth into each bowl to emulsify the flavoring.
Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. While the noodles are cooking, add about 1 1/2 cups (12 fl oz/350 ml) broth into each bowl and whisk to combine with the flavoring liquid. Drain the noodles and divide the noodles among the bowls. Working quickly (so the broth does not cool), keeping each ingredient inits own area, add 2 heaping tablespoons greens, 1/2 tablespoon negi, an egg half, and a small piece of nori. If desired, add spice with rayu (for soy sauce ramen), yuzu kosho (for salt ramen) or shichimi togarashi (for miso ramen).
This recipe is from Nancy’s beautiful new tome, Japan: The Cookbook, published by Phaidon.
When you’re not in the mood to cook, we think it looks equally good on a coffee table as your kitchen!
For more recipes, and foodie inspiration from Asia, check out our Food & Drink page.