Life

Chef Kimiko Barber on a quest to 'demystify' Japanese cooking

Intimidated by the thought of cooking Japanese meals at home? Kimiko Barber talks to Ella Walker about why we should all give it a go.

Kimiko Barber
Ella Walker

THE cherry blossom has always had its petal-hunting pilgrims, but Japan is really having a moment right now. The country is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, and is hosting the Olympics this summer in Tokyo.

Back in the West, meanwhile, Japanese cuisine is arguably more prevalent than ever. "I never dreamt of seeing takeaway sushi," says cook and food writer Kimiko Barber, who has watched the slow diffusion of Japan into the cultural food stream, adding with a laugh:

"They're not that good, compared to what you can get in Japan – but that's not fair."

Barber was born in Kobe and moved to England in the early-70s as a 15-year-old. "I really ought to thank the dreadful school food which spurred me on to cook," she says. "It was absolutely dire. After the first term, I went back to Japan for Christmas and New Year. I stood in front of my mother and she didn't recognise me because I'd lost so much weight."

Despite later being side-tracked for a while by an investment banking career, Barber had always loved food, having been inspired by three of her grandmothers, each influenced by their homes in Kobe, Kyoto and Shikoku.

Barber ended up giving banking the slip and wrote a practical guide to making sushi before going on to write a slew of cookbooks – she is now celebrating her latest, Japanese In 7.

A nifty manual for straightforward Japanese dishes, each recipe uses just seven ingredients or fewer, alongside a basic larder of Japanese ingredients. It means you can get in from a long day and cobble dinner together without much bother, and without relying on that takeout sushi.

The key, explains Barber, is that what gives any dish its "identity or nationality – its seasoning". And there are roughly five "very, very Japanese" seasoning ingredients that can be used to easily add a "Japanesey taste or flavouring". They are: miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and rice vinegar, all of which are available in most supermarkets.

If you have those in the house, you're pretty much set. Just add fresh, everyday ingredients: "Chicken breast is chicken breast, whether you buy it in Japan or here in Waitrose," says Barber, who is intent on demystifying Japanese food for home cooks.

"To some extent, I blame the Japanese cuisine's beautiful, artful presentations, which may be rather intimidating for the normal cook," she says, "but it doesn't have to be. As long as you don't just throw it on the plate."

She often encounters people who say, 'Oh I love Japanese food', and then immediately add, 'But I can't cook it'.

"Compared to Chinese or Indian food, it really hasn't penetrated into home kitchens," notes Barber. "That's what I'm trying to – not change, that's a big word – but to encourage people."

So while a traditional Japanese meal would ordinarily consist of rice, soup and a few tiny dishes, all served in small or bite-sized portions designed to be eaten with chopsticks, no one is going to tell you off for dispensing with the individual bowls and grabbing a fork.

"We're all busy, and it shouldn't be stressful," says Barber magnanimously. "[Just] put everything on the plate, you don't have to cut it up, and also don't start thinking, 'Oh god, I've got to make this, I've got to make that, and two more side dishes'. Don't. Just take one recipe, one dish and serve it with potatoes if you want to!

"Don't feel you have to come up with a complete menu or multiple dishes. Or start with salad with a Japanese dressing – that's easier enough to do."

Even making one miso soup as a starter is something to be proud of if you've never attempted it before. Why overwhelm yourself? It's your dinner, and cutting corners is totally allowed (miso soup and dashi sachets are widely available for instance – "I have them," says Barber).

"There isn't a set-in-stone definition of any cuisine, it's very organic and should move on and be adjusted to reflect the time and the tastes of the people who are using, cooking and eating it," says Barber, explaining that many of the most familiar Japanese dishes have been tinkered with or borrowed from elsewhere.

Like tempura, for instance, which actually originates in Portugal; sushi, which is generally thought of as super-fresh but was originally a fermented slow food using preservation techniques; and chicken katsu curry – "that's a relatively new dish".

What you will need to jump on a flight for though is truly wonderful tofu. "You can get it here, but it's nothing like what you can get in Japan," says Barber, putting it down to Japan's soft water.

When she's not lamenting hard water or running cookery sessions, Barber can be found at her weekend place in north Oxfordshire, where she keeps bees.

"I'm completely obsessed with my honeybees," she says. "I bought two mini colonies and then caught two swarms, so now I've got four hives and they've all got names".

:: Japanese In 7 by Kimiko Barber, photography by Emma Lee, is published by Kyle Books, priced £17.99. Available February 20.

:: HOW TO MAKE MOON UDON

Ingredients (Serves 2):

200g dried udon noodles

300ml all-purpose noodle sauce

2tbsp mirin

4 slices of kamaboko, fish paste cake (optional)

2 very fresh eggs

1 spring onion, finely chopped to garnish

Shichimi- togarashi (seven-spice chilli powder) to serve (optional)

Method:

1. Cook the noodles and portion between two warmed bowls. Keep warm. Preheating the bowls is particularly important for this recipe as you need all the retained heat to semi-cook the eggs.

2. Meanwhile, heat the noodle sauce and mirin in a saucepan with 400ml of water to just below boiling. Pour half a ladleful of hot broth over each noodle mound and keep the rest on a simmer.

3. If including kamaboko, arrange two slices at the side of the noodles. With the back of a ladle, make a hollowed nest in the centre of the noodles. Crack an egg and gently place the whole egg in the nest and ladle the remaining broth around it, then immediately cover each bowl with cling film to 'poach' the egg for one minute. The egg white should turn opaque white from the heat of the broth, but if you prefer the egg more cooked, microwave (800W) for 10-12 seconds.

4. Remove the cling film, garnish with the chopped spring onion and a sprinkle of shichimi-togarashi, if liked, and serve immediately.

:: HOW TO MAKE KYOTO TIRAMISU

Ingredients (Serves 8-10):

4 eggs, separated

150g caster sugar

300g mascarpone cheese

1tbsp matcha (green tea powder) plus extra for dusting

36 small sponge finger biscuits

300g sweet adzuki bean paste

3tbsp sake

Method:

1. Whisk the egg whites in a large, clean stainless steel or copper mixing bowl using an electric hand whisk, until soft peaks form.

2. In a separate large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar using an electric hand whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy and leaves a ribbon trail when dropped from the whisk. Add the mascarpone and blend until the mixture is smooth. Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.

3. Sift the matcha into a medium-sized bowl and whisk in 200ml of warm water, little by little. Dip half the biscuits, enough to cover the base of a 6-7cm deep, 25cm square dish (about 2l capacity), into the tea - they should be fairly well soaked but not so much that they break up. Arrange in a tightly packed layer in the base of the dish.

4. Mix the adzuki bean paste with the sake to soften. Spread half the bean paste mixture over the biscuit layer as evenly as possible using the back of a spoon. Then spread half the mascarpone mixture over the adzuki layer. Add another layer of soaked biscuits and then another layer of the remaining adzuki bean paste and mascarpone, smoothing the top layer neatly. Put about a teaspoon of matcha in a small sieve and dust over the top just before serving.

5. Serve in small portions as this is a very rich dessert.

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