Cookbook author and food writer Jane Lawson talks about her longtime love affair with Japanese culture and cuisine.
Catherine Osmond

15 Oct 2013 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2014 - 3:55 PM

What’s for dinner tonight, Jane?

My partner’s going out to a function so I think I’ll just have something light, like a miso soup with bits of vegies thrown in … daikon and some dried shiitake, maybe some noodles and chicken, too.


Do you cook Japanese a lot?

Yes, about half the time. I always feel great when I eat it.


You recently spent a year living in Kyoto before writing your cookbook Zenbu Zen. How did your love affair with Japan begin?

I learned Japanese in high school, and Mum took me and my brother to Japan when I was 15. Later, I worked for Japan Airlines and got back there on a regular basis. It’s quite addictive … you do fall in love with the place.


What do you like about Japanese food?

It’s a balance of texture, flavour, colour and cooking styles, and every meal consists of several different dishes. You might have a few nibbles of something deep-fried but also some lovely fresh greens with sesame dressing and maybe a little soup, rice and something grilled. It always looks good and it’s about good, simple ingredients.


Many of us find the idea of cooking “proper” Japanese daunting. What’s a good dish to start with?

Miso soup – you can add things like a little pork belly, vegies and daikon, and just simmer it away. It’s chock-full of great stuff and the flavour is really full but it’s quite low in fat.


What’s the ingredient you couldn’t do without?

Dashi (fish stock). I make it by buying bonito flakes and heating them with a piece of kombu seaweed … if you’re new to dashi, instant granules are fine.


So where do you buy your ingredients?

You can get the basic stuff like mirin, rice vinegar and soy in the supermarket, but for better quality and good range you need to go to a Japanese supermarket. I go to Tokyo Mart in Sydney. For fresh ingredients, like daikon and the herb shiso, Chinatown is good.


What do you like to cook when friends are coming over?

In Japan I learned to showcase vegetables – I’ll find different ways of presenting them along with a small amount of meat, like a beautiful piece of wagyu with fresh wasabi for grating over it. I like putting a range of dishes on the table and letting everyone serve themselves. I’m not trying to be too fancy.


What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever eaten in a Japanese meal?

Shiokara – the salt-fermented guts of fish or seafood, such as sea slugs. Really pungent and just the thought of it makes me feel queasy. One thing I thought I’d find challenging is fish sperm … it sounds horrible but basically it’s really good!


Zenbu Zen loosely translates as “everything is okay”. Is it?

Yes! But I think the message is that it doesn’t matter what happens, at the end of the day, everything will be okay … Zen’s not about being blissed out all the time; it’s about all the ups and downs and ins and outs and all the crazy stuff in between.


Jane Lawson is the author of Zenbu Zen: Finding Food, Culture and Balance in Kyoto (Murdoch Books, RRP $70). Read our Readable Feasts: Zenbu Zen cookbook review. More at