Elizabeth Andoh’s Tohoku cookbook

When devastating earthquakes struck Japan in 1995 and 2011, Elizabeth Andoh helped the nation recover in the best way she could. By cooking.

Andoh is an American who has lived in Japan for more than 40 years. In that time, she has run a cooking school, written several cookbooks, and arguably become the world’s leading English-language authority on Japanese food.

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed much of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving many others suddenly homeless, Andoh went to work in a takidashi soup kitchen to help feed the survivors.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake was followed by tsunami that ravaged the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region, she set about researching and writing a cookbook of traditional Tohoku recipes to raise money to help with recovery efforts. Today (Feb. 28) is the release date for the book, titled “Kibo: Brimming with Hope.” (See details on buying it here.)

Earlier in the month, she held a promotional event for the book, which I attended. I tasted the sample of Tohoku treats photographed below (and also sipped a few different types of Tohoku sake) while listening to Andoh explain her project.

Tastes of Tohoku, from left: Salmon rice topped with salmon roe, kamaboko fish sausage with a tiny bottle of soy sauce, walnut-miso shiso leaf rolls, fall fruits in pine nut tofu sauce, vinegared chrysanthemum and enoki mushroom salad

“What I remember most from [my Kobe] experience was not the first few weeks, not even the first few months,” she said. “It was five years later, it was 10 years later, and there was still so much that hadn’t come together. And for me, [considering] the enormity of what had happened in March [2011], I knew that the world would respond, Japan would respond, to emergency needs and that if I were going to do anything it was going to be more long-term.”

“When the reality of the nuclear accident became real, I knew that for longer than my lifetime we were going to have huge segments of the population permanently displaced. And then what would happen to Tohoku culture? It would all disappear; it would get morphed … into something possibly unrecognizable … I was concerned about someone getting in there and preserving the food culture,” she said.

In Kibo, Andoh set out to “chronicle, if you will, and preserve, put on the record, what Tohoku food culture was.” The $3.99 e-book contains 20 recipes that she hopes will enable readers to “recreate Tohoku food outside of the region,” using ingredients that are locally available wherever they happen to live.

Andoh is receiving no money for her work, and most of the proceeds of the book will be channelled through an online charity clearinghouse called Global Giving to a project called Michinoku Shigoto, which you can read about in English here or in Japanese here.

“What they do is they sponsor fellows, young people with skills and enthusiasm and energy to go up into the Tohoku and make business. It’s less about trying to salvage something that existed prior to the disaster than it is all about start-ups and things that make sense now,” Andoh said.

But enough nuts and bolts. How is the food?

Some of it, such as the salmon rice, is stick-to-your ribs country cooking, as you’d expect from a region known mainly for farming and fishing. And some of it is more self-evidently gourmet, such as the exquisite little dabs of walnut miso wrapped in shiso leaves and pan-toasted on sesame oil. Also toward that end of the spectrum is the fall fruit in pine nut tofu sauce, which the book suggests serving in a hollowed-out persimmon.

Having test-driven two of the recipes at home so far, I can report that the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the results have been excellent. One dish I at which I tried my hand was the pork soup with “pinched noodles” that reminded me of the dumplings that are sometimes boiled with chicken in southern U.S. cooking. The photo below shows how it came out for me:

The other dish I made seemed like a bit more of a gamble, but it paid off. This was kamaboko fish sausage, something I have often eaten in Japan but never imagined I would be able to make at home.

The main ingredient is of course fish (I used cod), and the recipe calls for only five more items: salt, sugar, sake, cornstarch (I used katakuriko) and an egg white. All you have to do is combine them in a food processor – albeit in a very particular order – and then shape the resulting substance into little patties and grill them.

Andoh said in her presentation, “The amount of salt that’s added is a little alarming, and the timing of it is bizarre. Trust me on it, it’s got to be [done] exactly as it’s written…and the reason why when you look on the labels [of commercially prepared kamaboko] you see so much sugar in the fish sausage is to counteract the amount of salt. It’s 2 percent by weight, salt that you need to get a certain kind of chemical reaction to take place [with the protein of the fish] … There’s an instant when all of a sudden it comes together and it’s suddenly kamaboko.”

And sure enough, when I was blending the fish with the salt, there suddenly came a point when – in the space of about one second – the mixture transformed from a gloopy paste spread around the sides of the container into a smooth foam gathered in the center.

This foam is grilled in the “Kibo” recipe, but it has various uses in Japanese cuisine and can also be boiled or fried. I cooked mine in two batches, one in a toaster oven and one in the fish-grilling drawer of my Japanese stove. As you can see from the photo, my results were not beautiful…

…but they did taste good, and they had what Andoh describes in the book as “a certain degree of danryoku, or springiness, a texture that remains largely unappreciated in Western food culture.” If you’re not already familiar with kamaboko, think of each piece as a chewy bite of fish meringue pie. (I mean that as a good thing.)

The recipes (many with photos, including illustrations of techniques) take up just over half of the book. The rest is filled out with extensive notes on ingredients, a chapter on Tohoku sakes by Yukari Sakamoto, a chapter on a Miyagi Prefecture family getting their restaurant up and running again by Hiroko Sasaki, and a chapter on displaced Fukushima farmers by my coworker Jane Kitagawa.

These writers did all their work for a good cause, but Andoh admitted, “In the meanwhile, very selfishly, I discovered all sorts of wonderful things to eat, and people doing interesting things.”

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