The Simple Art of Japanese Home Cooking

February 5, 2020 Updated: February 9, 2020
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Yes, you can make Japanese food at home—just start with a bowl of miso soup. 

That’s the advice of Japanese-American cooking teacher and author Sonoko Sakai, who begins every morning with the nourishing broth, long considered a kind of everyday elixir.

More specifically, start with dashi, the fragrant, umami-packed stock that forms the base of miso soup—as well as the foundation of Japanese cuisine as a whole. It’s essential to hundreds of other dishes, from noodle soups and simmered stews to chilled salads and pan-fried okonomiyaki.

And yet the most popular version, bonito and kombu dashi, takes only three ingredients (one being water) and 15 minutes on the stovetop to make. “It’s the easiest, and you’ll appreciate it forever,” Sakai said.

That’s why dashi is the first lesson in her new cookbook, “Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors.” The book is a deep-dive into fundamental ingredients, techniques, and recipes of Japanese cooking, especially aimed at demystifying it for a Western audience.

Essentially, as Sakai illustrates, if you can steep tea, you can make dashi. And if you can make dashi, you’re well on your way to unlocking the delicious world of Japanese home cooking.

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Ingredients for dashi. (Rick Poon)

Simplicity and Balance

For American home cooks, Sakai, who is based in Los Angeles, has found that Japanese cooking is often shrouded “in a veil of misunderstanding or myth.” It conjures images of complicated restaurant-style fare—perfect, gleaming bites of nigiri, or the intricate, artwork-in-miniature courses of a kaiseki meal—a realm limited to professional chefs with years of training. 

But few Japanese families are recreating such dishes at home. Instead, they might be grilling a piece of fresh salmon to serve with vinegared pickles, tossing a medley of vegetables and tofu into a clay donabe for a one-pot meal, or simmering together a comforting stovetop curry to drape over steamed rice. 

Such are the kinds of simple, everyday dishes that Sakai champions, and always finds herself coming back to in her own kitchen. Her reasoning is also simple: “It just makes me feel better.” 

“Japanese food is so healthy and natural, and it’s not too fussy and it’s not heavy,” Sakai said. Above all, it emphasizes fresh, high-quality, seasonal ingredients, whether rice or a pristine piece of fish, treated with respect and seasoned with restraint. 

“It’s especially about balance, and it has variety,” Sakai continued, qualities that she traces back to the theory of five elements, one of many ancient Chinese ideas woven into Japanese culture.

The theory is a way of viewing the interactions and relationships in our world in groups of interconnected fives. From the planets to our internal organs to the food we eat, “you’re not looking at just one thing, but a group of things to find harmony,” Sakai explained.

Applied to cooking, that translates into the idea that a well-balanced meal is made by grouping together different ingredients and dishes, so as to include five flavors, five colors, and five methods of preparation—all to be cooked and eaten using all five senses. 

A good illustration is the traditional Japanese set meal of ichiju sansai, meaning literally “one soup, three dishes.” It consists of one soup; typically one protein and two vegetable dishes; a bowl of steamed rice; and a small plate of seasonal pickles—a variety of complementary parts, coming together in harmony.

Your homemade Japanese meal need not follow that template exactly, but Sakai encourages home cooks to keep the underlying principle in the back of their minds. “A meal should be like a symphony,” she writes, “with all elements in harmony and working together to form a beautiful whole.”

sonoko making soba (noodles and dumplings)
Sonoko Sakai, author and cooking teacher, makes fresh soba noodles. (Rick Poon)

Back to Basics

Composing that symphony starts with understanding the instruments. Sakai thus points to the first chapter of her book, “The Japanese Pantry”—which takes up a good third of its pages—as the most important. 

There, with patience and painstaking detail, she walks through staples like rice, the heart of most Japanese meals; dried goods like kombu (edible kelp) and bonito flakes (wispy shavings of dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna), the umami-rich duo behind that fundamental dashi; and a host of fermented seasonings, like soy sauce, sake, mirin, and miso, that form the backbone of Japanese flavors, from simple to complex.

She also includes recipes for from-scratch versions of more commonly store-bought staples: soba noodles, drawing from her apprenticeship with a master in Tokyo; instant curry blocks, made from a mix of 12 different spices; and even miso paste, which will take you six months to ferment from soybeans. 

It’s Sakai’s way of honoring Japan’s storied food-making traditions, and pushing back against the convenience food that “has just taken over,” she said. Even homemade dashi, so core to the cuisine, has become less common in Japanese households, replaced by packages of instant powder—many of which contain added chemicals.

“When you have processed foods, that means there are so many additives and preservatives and you don’t really know how fresh it is, you don’t know what you’re getting,” Sakai said. 

She fondly recalls living in Kamakura, Japan, with her grandmother while growing up, when they would go together to the coast at dawn to buy fish fresh from the fisherman’s net. On the way back, they might’ve picked up just-milled rice from the neighborhood rice miller, or just-pressed tofu from the town tofu maker. “Those were magical times, because artisans were part of my life,” she said.

As an adult, Sakai continued to meet and learn from inspiring food artisans across California and Japan, from wild seaweed harvesters to the ninth-generation owner of a traditional Japanese grocery shop. Many of their stories and lessons are sprinkled throughout her book.

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“Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors” by Sonoko Sakai (Roost Books, $40).

“I’m trying to go back in time, to try to restore that practice of cooking from scratch, because I think it’s really important,” Sakai said.

She sees hope in the growing wave of young people attending her cooking workshops, which have covered topics such as homemade soba, tofu, and even hoshigaki, dried persimmons painstakingly made over weeks or months of air-drying and regular hand-massaging. “I think there’s kind of an awakening, a recognition that maybe we need to slow down a little bit, and try not to be so fast and greedy,” Sakai said.

The antidote to the stresses of our rushed, spread-too-thin modern lives? “Spend a little more time in the kitchen, is what I say.”

That can start with just 15 extra minutes, a fresh pot of dashi, and a bowl of miso soup.

RECIPE: Bonito and Kombu Dashi

RECIPE: Shoyu Tare (Soy Sauce-Based Seasoning)

RECIPE: Soba Noodles