An interview with Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Food writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu swapped California for farm life in Saitama and hasn't looked back. She talks to us about her latest work, JAPAN: THe Cookbook — a compilation of recipes from across the islands

By Lauren Hoffman
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:03 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 13:09 BST


Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

How did you come to live in Japan?
In the early Eighties, I lived and worked in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Sushi became one of my great loves and the place where I went to soothe my soul. The communication with the sushi master, the piece-by-piece style of eating, the ultra-fresh raw fish: these were all elements that spoke to me deeply and appealed to the way I liked to eat. I went to Japan for a year, met a cute farmer boy, Tadaaki Hachisu, and never left.

Was it easy to adapt to Japanese food culture?
When I first came to Japan in 1988 I bought a TV to help me learn Japanese. I watched cooking and food-focused travel shows because they were visually interesting. And despite not understanding the words, I could get an idea of simple Japanese dishes to cook each night for my dinner. The ladies at the small neighbourhood market were tickled by my requests for unusual ingredients such as wheat gluten (fu), freeze-dried tofu (koya dofu), and dried gourd (kanpyo). I resolved not to eat Western food and gave up coffee for green tea. But I still wanted toast in the morning.

How would you define your experience as a Californian living in Japan?
In the early days of living in my husband's town of 15,000 people, small children would point and shout out loud 'gaijin!' (foreigner). Now no one seems to notice. The life that my husband and I built with our children eventually came to resemble the life I grew up with in a woodsy part of Atherton, California, brought up by intellectual, beatnik-type parents. Life in our Japanese farmhouse in Saitama was often messy, eclectic, and slightly overflowing. In that way, I had come home.

How has rural living shaped your experience of Japanese cuisine?
Back in the Eighties, I still didn't fully appreciate what it meant to eat seasonally or organically. The first time my husband gave me vegetables, it was a big bag of napa cabbage. I had a tiny refrigerator in my apartment and there was a limit to how much cabbage I might eat per day. When I protested at the amount, Tadaaki informed me: "When you have something you eat a lot of it!" It took me another several years to truly get the idea of creating menus using only what we had, or our friends had, in the fields. But I grew to realise how much more creative this limitation made me in my cooking and also how much better the food was.

Have you incorporated any American food traditions into family life?
I write Japanese cookbooks but I don't cook Japanese food everyday. These days I prepare simple meals but, back in the day, I often spent several hours cooking eastern Mediterranean, Mexican, Italian, French, Indian… We also invite friends for dinner on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day every year.

Your book features hundreds of traditional recipes. How did you go about researching these?
First, I split up the country into the areas where I had good chef contacts and, with the help of my assistant, wrote the chefs a long letter in Japanese asking for introductions to local foods and local grandmas cooking these foods. Ultimately, the book became a celebration of foods of a certain era: the 1970s and 1980s. I supplemented the ingredient-driven methods and recipes garnered from Kawaguchi and Watanabe with other foods culled from out-of-print books of that time. Extensive research and travel went into what eventually became 400 recipes. Though not my last, this book is almost like a life's work.

What store-cupboard staples are needed to make good Japanese food?
The initial ingredients needed are: soy sauce, miso, sea salt, rice vinegar, mirin, katsuobushi (smoked, fermented, sun-dried skipjack tuna), kombu (kelp), and sesame seeds. Rapeseed and sesame oil are also essential. Dried sea greens such as wakame and hijiki are useful for adding texture to dishes, and if available, salt-dried ume (sour 'plum') is a lovely way to add salty-sour-fruity notes to a dish. And pillowy Japanese tofu is essential.

How would you sum up the philosophy of Japanese cuisine?
I often cite the dichotomy of Japanese cuisine when asked this question: I love the wild fermented foods such as natto (soybeans), kusaya (fish), narazushi (rice and fish), as well as the delicately elegant flavours of tofu, sashimi, and clear fish broths. I also love that these two sides can, and do, appear in a traditional home-cooked or high-level restaurant meal. The most important thing to remember in preparing and tasting Japanese food is that less is more: subtlety is often the goal.

Japan: The Cookbook, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (£29.95, Phaidon)

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food


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