There's a word in Japanese, subarashii (?????), that means "splendid" or "magnificent", a fitting word to describe Nancy Singleton Hachisu's stunning cookbook Japanese Farm Food.
From the moment you pick up this book and touch its indigo cloth spine, and feel the heft of almost 400 pages, you know there is something magical inside.
Open the book and far from being disappointed, you are awed by the gentle beauty of the photos, the layout, of everything.
This is a beautifully crafted work, clearly a labor of love, and reflective of a life rich in love, community, hard work, and great food.
I met Nancy a few years ago at a food blogging camp in Mexico. I quickly realized that this woman with wild blond hair, strong opinions, and a quick mind, was obsessed with a passion for food and cooking.
She had cooked her way through Julia's Mastering, and most of Diana Kennedy's books too. She was a blond white girl from Atherton, California, a fellow Stanford grad, who had left California for Japan decades ago, fallen in love with a tall and handsome Japanese farmer, and settled in rural Japan to raise a family.
I had the great pleasure of visiting Nancy and her husband Tadaaki this last spring, on their organic farm a couple hours outside of Tokyo. Nancy took us around to meet local farmers, fishmongers, and craftsmen.
Every day she and Tadaaki prepared for us beautiful meals with produce from her garden and eggs from their farm. I watched and helped where I could as she and Tadaaki made sukiyaki (a hot pot meal with beef and greens), grilled tofu pouches with ginger and scallions, greens with dashi, and more.
I've lost track of all the dishes we had, but here they all are, in this wonderful book, because the food in Japanese Farm Food really is how Nancy and her family eat every day.
Many people find Japanese cooking intimidating. Having spent a year living in Kyoto and having often enjoyed the haute cuisine of Kyoto kaiseki, I can see why. Too many special ingredients. Too many special kitchen tools. Too much time!
What struck me as I first read through the recipes of Nancy's book was that almost everything in it is completely do-able for the American home cook. You might need a few special ingredients, like miso, but they're not hard to find.
Nancy includes a glossary for all of the Japanese produce, and detailed explanations of the pantry items and knives and tools she uses. The recipes come with suggestions for variations.
And in the spirit of Michael Ruhlman, Nancy provides useful ratios for the recipes, when you need to scale up or down depending on how much produce you have.
One of the easiest recipes in the book is for something that was for me a "why-didn't-I-think-of-this" moment—ripe tomato wedges drizzled with soy sauce, vegetable oil, and rice vinegar, topped with scallions. Of course! Soy sauce is very salty and tomatoes love salt.
I also really enjoyed making the stir-fried celery match sticks with chili peppers, soy sauce, and sesame oil. So simple, the ingredients are already in my fridge and pantry, and so so good. And then there's Nancy's Japanese eggplant with ginger and miso, which I've been making at least once a week since my eggplant plant started producing.
Each chapter is filled with recipes that are just calling to be made and enjoyed. But the book is so much more than a cookbook. Throughout the book are beautiful photographs by photographer Kenji Miura of Nancy's century old farm house, the surrounding countryside, and her family and friends. She collects antique Japanese textiles and bowls, whose images beg to be touched.
The book is peppered with stories of her family and the Japanese farmers she's come to know. Like a Miyazaki film, Japanese Farm Food is entrancing. It would be a cherished addition to anyone's cookbook collection.
By the way, Nancy is currently on book tour, and will be visiting cities on the west coast and east coast from now until the end of October. She has a PDF of her book tour schedule which she links to at her website, Indigo Days.
Sharing Lessons from a Farm in Japan - review by David Tanis in the New York Times
Cookbook of the Week: Japanese Farm Food Is Even Better Than Sushi Rice review by LAWeekly
Review of Japanese Farm Food - by Ideas in Food
The Art of Maintaining and Being Maintained by a Japanese Farm - Review in Biographile
Japanese Farm Food, A Book Review - by Amber Stott of Awake at the Whisk