Sunday, October 17, 2010


ALAN WONG reviews SARAH MARX FELDNER’s A Cook’s Journey to Japan (Tuttle Publishing, 2010) and interviews the cook about her long, heart-warming homecoming

SARAH MARX FELDNER spent some time as a pastry chef, has a master’s degree in the art of collecting recipes and food research, and from what I’ve read, has also tried her hands at many of the book’s dishes. Also, her mentor for the project and cookbook writer Elizabeth Andoh gushed at Feldner’s “passion for purpose” and “commitment to ‘doing it right’ (no haphazard shortcuts).”

More than just a repository of food terminology or recipes, A Cook’s Journey to Japan is as advertised: a record of Feldner’s personal culinary journey throughout Japan, the continuation of a love affair with the country that began when she first arrived to teach English. It’s like peeking into the kitchens of everyday Japanese, and by extension, their personalities, lives and culture.

Feldner calls the book “an act of desperation,” but it’s hardly a harried jumble of text and pictures. The author sticks with people from the smaller towns and rural areas, whom she finds more open, and willing to talk and share. The language speaks of her love for her adopted country—or did it adopt her? The characters she encountered seem to suggest the latter. The aunt of a friend, a friend of a said aunt, generous café owners and chefs, a gallant director of an information centre and his fisherman friend, and so on. She also braves such dangers as encountering an old man with “questionable” motives and getting stranded in paddy fields in the middle of nowhere. It is undoubtedly a labour of love.

The inclusive vibe of this culinary journal is somewhat upset by her goal of writing it for other Westerners like herself, scared stiff by more “foreign or difficult” ingredients and presentations found in other Japanese cookbooks. Even the recipes are organised according to how gwailos eat and cook. Curious Asian epicures might feel a bit left out, but that’s a minor hiccup. Already an old hand at Japanese cooking? This book might not be for you.

Home cooking may be less intimidating, but without knives, open flames and hot oil, you won’t accomplish much. Labelled pictures help a lot in introducing the tools and ingredients in Japanese home cooking. Learn how to slice and dice veggies (down to the millimetre in one instance), make real wasabi (grind the root in a slow circular motion with a sharkskin grater for best results), and how to make dashi (stock) and perfect sushi-style rice. The steps also serve as warm-ups for the recipes that follow, from snacks and salads to drinks and desserts.

Each recipe is well documented; for the more complicated ones, Sarahsan takes you gently by the hand and shows you how to do it, slipping a few tips and trivia about the ingredients, the dishes, and the terrible, terrible things that can happen if you screw up. Of course, the author and publisher won’t be responsible if you happened to use a bad fish, lop off a finger or burn your house down while giving this book a go.

There are other useful appendices as well. Got a party? Can’t think of a menu for a surprise dinner à la Take Home Chef? Some menu suggestions are available. Where’s this Iwaki she stayed in? Nonplussed about Nagano’s location? Lo, at the end of the book, a map of Japan. (Iwaki is somewhere north of Tokyo.)

Narrowing down the scope of cuisines and places to cover helps keep the book focused, so there really isn’t much room for improvement. The omission of unagi (eel) may have been deliberate as none of the ingredients mentioned require special handling (eel blood is toxic).

All in all, a nicely done visual feast and window into the lunchboxes of everyday Japanese, and a gift to anyone who wants to cook differently. Like most good cookbooks this is not one to read on an empty stomach. Even pictures of a simple rice-and-peas dish will send you rushing towards the nearest eatery, Japanese or otherwise.

Sarah Marx Feldner
Sarah Marx Feldner reveals ...

Why “100 Recipes,” other than the fact that it’s a nice round number? Are there any that couldn’t make it into the book? I was, for instance, disappointed when grilled unagi wasn’t there.
The total number of recipes in A Cook’s Journey to Japan is a result of how many recipes I collected while in Japan. I came home with roughly 130 to 150 recipes, which were then whittled down based on whether I remembered how to make the dish (in some situations my note-taking wasn’t the greatest), whether I was able to find the ingredients or an adequate substitute, or if the recipe didn’t get rave reviews from those tasting and testing it. Unagi is one of my favourite dishes! A recipe for eel was not included in the book as I was never in a situation where I had someone teach me how to prepare it.

You call this book “A Cook’s Journey,” but you’re a food writer and editor of a recipes website. Your biography says nothing of your time as a pastry chef in a professional kitchen. If such a view is as dim as it sounds, what is your definition of who or what a “cook” is?
While I have worked in the food industry and have spent time in restaurant kitchens, by no means do I consider myself a chef. This is especially true when it comes to Japanese food where it takes years of dedication and training to become a respected chef in Japan. A Cook’s Journey to Japan, on the other hand, is written from the perspective of an outsider looking in. I figured if a recipe or ingredient was new or confusing to me, it is quite possibly new and confusing to others as well. So I researched these “unknowns” in an attempt to understand them better, and then tried to explain what I learned as best as I could.

As you mentioned, this is a cookbook written by a Westerner for fellow Westerners. As an Asian reading this, it’s hard not to feel left out at times. Why did you take this particular angle?
I feel very fortunate that people around the world are interested in A Cook’s Journey to Japan. It was never my intention to make anyone feel left out! When I set out to write the cookbook, I intended it for a Western audience as I am a Westerner, so it was the perspective I was able to provide. It often seems that the culture and cuisine of Japan still remains elusive for many Westerners, and it was my goal to help make it less intimidating and more accessible for as many people as possible.

There’s been talk that people nowadays don’t want to cook, and those who do can’t seem to do it right. What have you observed based on your travels and work experience in this regard?
There will always be people who have no interest in food and cooking. And there will always be times when it’s easier to order takeout or heat up a frozen dinner. But on the whole, I don’t see one’s lack of interest in food or cooking as dire. On the contrary, food—in all its forms—is a very hot trend right now, and its increasing presence seems to be heightening people’s culinary awareness.

Is one’s food culture important, and how does it figure in one’s history and society?
I personally believe that food says a lot about who we are—everything from how we take care of our bodies (food as nutrition) to heirloom recipes passed down from generation to generation (food as culture). As I stated in the introduction to A Cook’s Journey to Japan, I believe recipes are so much more than just ingredients strung together. They’re about the culture they come from and the lives of the people who prepare them.

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine


Post a Comment

<< Home