Gaining proficiency in Japanese cooking requires a little more than following recipe directions. You need the whole learning cycle of practice, reflection, conceptualization and experimentation — learning phases that recipes can help you with, but on their own won’t make you a better cook. For that, you need the intimacy of a well-written Japanese cookbook.
Japanese cookbooks written by proven masters are more than a collection of recipes. Through the use of personal anecdotes, practical experience and the communication of ideals, well-written Japanese cookbooks read like a personal letter, in a way holding the reader’s hand as s/he ventures into the daunting world of washoku, or the culture of Japanese cookery and the dishes that come from it. That said, it’s easy to get lost in the thousands of Japanese cookbooks out there. To make your journey to umami euphoria a bit easier, we’ve assembled our top five favorites.
1. “Japanese Soul Cooking“ by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat
Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat wrote, “Japanese Soul Cooking,” for an American audience just entering the domain of Japanese cuisine. Instead of inundating the reader with extended lists of specialty ingredients and exposition on how Japanese cuisine differs from Western cuisine, the authors examine what washoku means to them — a heartfelt homage to the comfort foods of a cuisine all-too-often relegated, at least to the Western audience, to maki rolls and sashimi.
2. “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” by Shizuo Tsuji
Originally published in 1980, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art,” is to washoku what Julia Child’s, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is to French cuisine: a love story of sorts, one that distills the essence of cuisine to its finest, most salient points, creating a timeless masterpiece still heavily read years later.
Although the West’s appreciation of Japanese cuisine has changed dramatically since the book’s initial publication — who could reasonably argue that sushi and ramen aren’t as integral a part of American cuisine as French fries, pizza and burgers — its core tenets of harmony, balance and holistic aestheticism has not.
Tsuji adorns the pages with over 500 drawing. Not only that, he supplies it with over 230 recipes with detailed descriptions of techniques, equipment, ingredients and masterful advice. The anniversary edition (2012) includes an introduction by M.F.K. Fisher, a foreword by Ruth Reichl and eight pages of new color images.
3. “Everyday Harumi: Simple Japanese Food for Family and Friends” by Harumi Kurihara
Harumi Kurihara is a veritable Japanese culinary institution. With 137 books in print as of 2017, over 4,000 original recipes, 61 brand stores, 13 restaurants and cafes and numerous television shows, you could say Kurihara has had some success in the culinary lifestyle. Some even call her the Martha Stewart of Japan. But more aptly, you could say Martha Stewart is the Harumi Kurihara of America.
Kurihara’s book is for the adventurous home cook who wants to start learning Japanese cooking straight away. She breaks down the complexity of Japanese cuisine into easy-to-follow language. With this book, you can have a Japanese-style meal on your table tonight. Everyday Harumi includes over 60 recipes, such as Japanese burgers (tsukune), tofu “steak” and miso-marinated beef.
4. “The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go” and “The Just Bento Cookbook 2: Make-Ahead, Easy, Healthy Lunches to Go” by Makiko Itoh
If you’ve ever searched for a Japanese recipe online, chances are you’ve seen Just Hungry. It’s a blog by Makiko Itoh that focuses on Japanese food and home cooking. You might have seen her work in The Guardian, Food and Wine, The Japan Times and other publications and websites.
Itoh outlined her washoku wisdom into two books just as readable and enjoyable as her storied website. Everything Itoh does in the kitchen exemplifies economy, and few things exemplify economy of space and purpose more so than bento. Book one walks you through 25 bento menus and over 150 recipes. It also comes with a special section on adapting non-Japanese food to the bento aesthetic. Book two follows a similar format as book one, but puts an extra focus on low-carb, vegan and vegetarian selections.
If you love ramen but haven’t heard of Ivan Orkin, his book, “Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint” is a great place to start. Ivan’s personal story — and how he ended up owning and operating Tokyo’s number one ramen ya — would be deemed too fantastical if it were fiction.
Born in Syosset, New York, Orkin moved to Japan to teach English as a second language right out of college. Then ramen frenzy took over. Ivan trained under Japanese masters until he earned the title himself. Eventually, he opened the famous Ivan Ramen in Tokyo, which he ran until late 2015. Then, he turned it over to his longtime business partner and chef Hisao Matsumoto to focus on the expansion of his enterprise in the States.
Orkin’s book includes pieces of his journey to ramen nirvana. It has an array of recipes, including his signature shio ramen and some of his most treasured ramen variations.