The art of traditional Japanese preserving

Nancy Singleton HachisuNancy Singleton Hachisu moved from California to Japan in 1988, intending to stay for a year, learn Japanese, and return to the United States. Instead, she fell in love with a farmer, the culture, and the food, and has made the country her home. Nancy's first cookbook, Japanese Farm Food, offered readers a unique window into life on a Japanese farm through simple recipes cooked from family fields, and received glowing reviews. She has now followed up with a second book, Preserving the Japanese Way. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the book and visit the World Calendar of Cookbook Events to view details of her book tour.)  Nancy answered several questions about her new book and her experience living in Japan:



How did an American come to be an expert on traditional Japanese cooking?

I don't like to bandy about the "expert" term and do not claim to be an expert in traditional Japanese cooking. As in everything, this is a continual life learning process. While my knowledge of traditional Japanese cooking probably is broader than most ordinary Japanese, there is so much more to learn from venturing out to local areas and I look forward to gleaning some new pieces of information or experiencing unfamiliar tastes each time I go. (That said, I have been cooking since I was a child, and living in Japan on an organic farm for 27 years, so acquiring experience and expertise in Japanese food was inevitable.)

How much regional variation is there in Japanese preserving and how much traveling did you do for research?

While there are plenty of standard preserves made all over the archipelago, local areas also have their own special twists or preparations. These local variations are usually, though not always, a function of a specific geography (i.e. seaside vs. mountainside) and weather (snow country vs. balmy southern islands). Indigenous ingredients also come into play when looking at the differing types of preserves around Japan.

I organized Preserving the Japanese Way around preserving media, and the visits that I made for the book were to makers of key ingredients. My goal in this book was to introduce and applaud the artisanal makers for creating the beautiful traditional products that allow us to create delicious, authentic Japanese food.

Do you feel that the traditional preserving methods in Japan are dying out or is there a resurgence in artisanal food production as there is in the USA?

Along with the loss of farm-centered family life, there has been a huge drop in the amount of traditional preserves being made at home in the last 30 years. That said, the DIY movement has been gaining momentum in Japan recently so there is hope for a return to preserving as a way of life.

How much preserving do people do at home and how much do they buy their preserves from producers?

I could not give you a percentage, but the majority of Japanese buy their pickles. That is for sure. And probably 99% of the pickles sold commercially (including those ones in barrels in the department store basements) contain MSG and preservatives. According to my son (who works in marketing research), a pop research source (quasi-reliable) cites that 21.8% of people who eat pickles more than once a month make them from scratch, and another 21.8% make them from an instant pickling solution.

For me, these statistics are extremely depressing. They tell us that people do not eat many pickles (once an obligatory dish at every meal), and that many people are relying on a completely unnecessary pickling solution to make mindlessly simple morning pickles. And of course this still does not address the percentage of people doing actual preserving, not just quick pickling.

What is koji and how is it used?

Koji is a spore that can be harvested wild, but most likely is bought from one of a few spore labs in Japan. Koji is the spore that is used to inoculate the grains involved in producing sake, shochu, amazake, mirin, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and miso. The process for inoculating the various grains is fairly similar and usually involves a warm, humid, hermetic environment.

Rice koji is partially steamed rice that has been inoculated with koji spores and then air dried before packing. For the home preserver, you will need rice koji to making shio koji and shoyu koji (a simple operation that takes 7 to 10 days, stirring once a day, and keeps in the fridge for a year), as well as homemade miso (simpler than you would think). Rice koji is readily available from internet sources-miso makers and macrobiotic mail order companies are a good place to start.

What are some of the most unusual foods (to Western palates) you found preserved?

The range of long-preserved fish--especially those preserved in rice bran can be challenging to the uninitiated. And I am not particularly fond of sweet soy sauce-preserved sea creatures such as sazae (turbo shell). But the first thing that a Japanese will ask a foreigner is "Can you eat natto (fermented soy beans)?" Granted, natto is funky and slimy, but good natto is very tasty. Tokyoites will be the first to acknowledge, however, that they cannot buy top quality natto (and other soybean products such as tofu) at run-of-the-mill supermarkets-they have to go out of their way to find an upscale market. In our small locale, we are extremely fortunate to have a fantastic organic soy sauce, miso, tofu, natto, and pickle company: Yamaki Jozo. And I thank every day for them being here.

What are your own favorite preserves at home?

I am most enamored with rice bran pickles, salt-preserved napa cabbage, takuan (half-dried daikon pickles), and umeboshi (salted, dried sour plums). But day-to-day, a quick souse or salting makes for crisp and flavorful "morning pickles" that can be incorporated into any meal or just munched down with drinks. 

When writing the book, how much did you have to amend recipes due to the difficulty of getting Japanese ingredients? Do you include any online resources for ingredients?

I did not amend any recipes because I do not believe it is difficult to get Japanese ingredients. The worldwide web makes everything accessible, and yes, I included online resources in the back of the book. The only caveat is that high quality Japanese ingredients are sometimes difficult to find. The good news here is that there are efforts afoot to change this situation, so don't lose heart. 

The photography in your last book, Japanese Farm Food, was gorgeous.  Have you used the same photographer this time?

Yes! His name is Kenji Miura. But about 100 photos were contributed from other sources, including: Fredrika Stjarne (Food & Wine), Kenji Wakasugi, Masatoshi Uenaka, Kenta Izumi, Asako Harigaya, Tetsuya Uragami, Saori Abe, and me (!). The photo credits are listed on the very last page of the book.

I understand that Phaidon has selected you to write Japan: The Cookbook in their country bibles series.  This is a huge acknowledgment of your expertise.  When will the book be published?

Thank you, I was extremely honored when they approached me and I am very excited to be working on this huge project. Starting in March this year, I have already been visiting local areas around Japan for searching out the most delicious dishes to include in this "Japan bible of food." I hand in the manuscript and photos Spring 2017 and the book will be published Spring 2018.

1 Comment

  • petitlaf  on  8/12/2015 at 2:07 PM

    Those plums are not even proper for pickling, care to explain that?

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