I landed in the country more than a decade ago knowing nothing at all. I couldn’t speak the language, hadn’t tried the food except for a few lunchtime visits to the local sushi train back in Adelaide (which, in retrospect is not even remotely close to Japanese sushi), and I had never even visited Japan before arriving there for my first job interview.
That I ended up there was the result of a series of serendipitous events. I’d been about to accept a job with an American law firm in Beijing and it was a natural choice. I had family there and could actually speak Mandarin. But at the eleventh hour I got a call from a friend in London who had just been working in Tokyo for a few weeks. He knew I was interested in moving to Asia and he had recommended me for a job there. A couple of interviews later and I was on my way to live in Japan. This is all to say that when I first arrived to start my life there, I was a blank slate.
I still remember by colleagues laughing when I first tried to bow, complete with two hands steepled at my chest like a Buddhist monk. “We don’t actually do that”, they quickly corrected me. They were very understanding but I still felt very stupid.
Cooking was one of my first challenges. I have always loved to cook but trying to recreate the dishes I cooked in Australia – a mix of Western food and Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and other Asian cuisine – using Japanese produce in a Japanese kitchen was ridiculous (and expensive). It soon became obvious to me that in order to survive in Japan I was going to have to learn Japanese cuisine.
The first step was the most obvious – eating. I ate Japanese food at every turn, from all over the country and in every different style. Even having cooked Asian food all my life, Japanese was a big learning curve. Sushi and sashimi was something I had tolerated in Australia, where the choices used to be limited to one kind of tuna and a bit of salmon (or an odd chicken schnitzel or peking duck roll here and there), but in Japan it was a revelation. I wasn’t always successful. Having grown up on Chinese and Southeast Asian noodles soups I must confess I found ramen a bit oily and stingy at first (only one slice of pork?!), but over time it has now become a dangerous obsession.
The next step was to learn the theory. I bought every English language Japanese cookbook I could find. Most were dire and had been adapted and Westernised until the food in them was barely Japanese cuisine at all, but there were a few really good English language books that helped me immensely. Even so, it wasn’t until I learned to read Japanese and could buy Japanese cookbooks that I really started to understand what it was that made the cuisine tick.
The differences in ingredients was one thing, but understanding the different methods of cutting, seasoning and applying heat have completely changed the way I approach food.
Over the next decade learning about Japanese cuisine was to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I learned formal cuisine from chef friends, and home cooking from my wife’s family. I learned about sake and shochu with my colleagues, and made new friends eating out at restaurants and cooking in their homes.
The funny thing was, the more I learned about Japanese food the more I began to enjoy it. And the more I enjoyed it the more I wanted to learn. Beyond just “good” and “bad”, understanding the nuance behind one of the world’s most delicate cuisines was a daily fascination. It was knowledge that made the food more exciting, and that in turn made my life in Japan more exciting as well.
Whatever your ambitions are with Japanese cuisine – whether they be to cook for your family, to impress your friends with authentic sushi, or just to add a new dish to your repertoire, I can only but encourage you to learn more about Japanese food. It will change not just the ways you cook and eat, but the ways you think and live as well. I came to see Japan through its food, and both in cuisine and culture, it is a fascinating place.