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Books that delve into Japanese cuisine beyond the popular restaurant dishes like sushi and miso soup are few and far between. And in that sense, this book does not disappoint.
Shimbo's recipes are a joy, introducing over 200 wonderful dishes from the Japanese culinary repertoire to Western readers. Agedashi tofu (crisp tofu cubes in tempura sauce), negima-nabe (tuna and leek hotpot), multiple variations on fresh ramen and yakitori skewered chicken, the unusual gyuniku no misozuke (miso-marinated steak), usuyaki senbei (homemade rice crackers), mitsumame (chilled gelatin in syrup), along with modern Japanified Western standards like ebifurai (fried shrimp in a crisp breading), omu raisu (rice-filled omelet), and kurimu korokke (creamy croquettes) are all here. Each recipe is prefaced with a tale about its origin or the author's childhood memories, and clear instructions make preparation of "exotic, foreign" specialties easy.
Less successful are some of Shimbo's unique concoctions: soybean hummus (why?), eel burgers, "creamed" soup made of carrots, celery, garlic, miso, and soy milk. But these misfires, thankfully, can be easily overlooked.
Another of the book's strengths is the author's deep investigation into ingredients.
Shimbo, a native of Japan who teaches frequently at major cooking schools in the United States and Europe, took years to write this book, visiting artisanal food producers across Japan to gather first-hand information about how products are grown and manufactured. Her research is a goldmine for devotees of Japanese food. I've been cooking Japanese food for 25+ years, and am Japanese Food Host at BellaOnline.com, yet only from this book, for instance, did I learn that the plant from which konnyaku--a gelatinous cake used in hotpots and simmered dishes--is made, is related to taro! The plant's name is usually translated into English as "devil's tongue root," which doesn't give a clue to what it really is. To anyone familiar with taro through Hawaiian food, Chinese food, or even taro potato chips, a taro connection makes a lot of sense, given konnyaku's typical speckled gray appearance. It was like a light bulb going on for me.
Each ingredient is described thoroughly with "what to look for" and "storage" sections explaining how to choose top-quality ingredients and keep them in peak condition. I'm especially impressed by Shimbo's clarifications of the differences among types of miso, noodles, and sake.
But the book has two real weaknesses: its lack of photographs and its basic disorganization.
Although line drawings illustrate a few unusual ingredients and cooking techniques difficult to explain in words, there are no photographs of finished dishes--a glaring omission for a cuisine that places so much emphasis on presentation. Okay, I can live with that, as some of my favorite older Japanese cookbooks are sparsely illustrated.
What bothers me more is the book's organization--or lack thereof. I've owned this book for a month now, and still can't find my way around or quickly locate particular recipes. The first part of the book contains several sections that intersperse descriptions of ingredients with recipes that use them. The second half follows a more standard cookbook order of Appetizers, Soups, Vegetable Dishes, Sushi, Rice and Noodle Dishes, Main Dishes and Desserts. This places a recipe entitled "Classic Creamy Sesame-Vinegar Dressing with Broccoli" (Shimbo's variation of the traditional spinach in sesame seed dressing) in the ingredients section under "G" for goma, the Japanese word for sesame seeds.
Moreover, due to the book's equally peculiar indexing, this recipe cannot be located by looking up "broccoli, "goma," or even "classic," but is indexed as "creamy sesame-vinegar dressing with broccoli" and "sesame-vinegar dressing, creamy, with broccoli." So, even if you know a recipe's exact title, it often is not listed that way in the index. I find myself frustratingly leafing through the book time and time again to find a recipe I know is hiding somewhere.
Still, the pluses in this book greatly outweigh the minuses. This is one of the best Japanese cookbooks available in English today.