From her many years living in Kyoto, Jane Lawson brings us these beautiful and authentic recipes in her book "Zenbu Zen", a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and cuisine.
Yasmin Newman

29 Aug 2013 - 3:25 PM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2014 - 1:45 PM

Why buy it?

Food writer Jane Lawson was living the dream as a high-profile book publisher – or so it seemed. Beneath the surface, stress, poor diet and an unrealistic workload were taking their toll. She needed to make a change – and quickly.

So began a restorative trip to the mystic Japanese city of Kyoto, where a culture of food, life by seasons and daily meditation offers a pathway to "everything is Zen" or Zenbu Zen, the title of the book. 

Throughout the chapters, divided by the four months of her visit, Lawson gives an almost daily account of her time in Japan. While the detail offers one-of-a-kind insight into a fascinating culture traditionally difficult for foreigners to penetrate, for some, the narration may be overwrought.

The recipes, however, are not to be missed. Here, Lawson’s eye for detail comes into play and she has gone to excruciating lengths to outline every nuance, from traditional ingredients and technique to historical and cultural context. Take tonkatsu, for example, a dish most Australians would be familiar with; Lawon’s authentic recipe for its accompanying sauce is made with over 17 ingredients.

This is a regional food compendium accompanied with beautiful photography in a large format book.



Traditional Japanese cookery ranges from simple to highly refined and the dishes here reflect this trait, but even on the basic side, this book is aimed at enthusiastic cooks. As a starting point, you’ll need to go to a Japanese food shop for the many specialised ingredients.


Must-cook recipe

Kara-age (Japanese-style fried chicken). "This unusual version includes burdock root (optional) in the coating and an addictive sweet and tangy sauce."


Most surprising dish

Nama yuba (fresh soy milk skin). "It may not sound all that inviting and it takes some patience to make a batch, but it is worth making – if only once, to experience this unusual treat."


Kitchen wisdom

"Dashi is the single most important element required to cook authentic Japanese cuisine. Almost every dish has a foundation of dashi, in one of its guises. Three basic ingredients – katsuobushi (smoked dried bonito flakes), kombu (kelp) and water – are used."


Ideal for

Japanophiles (Lawson is a self-described one), recipe- and technique-driven cooks, armchair travellers, cookbook and/or reference collectors.


Recipe and images from Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson, published by Murdoch Books $69.99.