This Housewife Rules More Than the Roost
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
TOKYO -- She's often called the Martha Stewart of Japan, but it's hard to spot the similarities when Harumi Kurihara chirps to her entourage, including a reporter, "Let's go drink!"
Sure, she reigns over a culinary and lifestyle empire that has millions of her country's housewives in thrall. But Kurihara, the most famous housewife of them all, has little difficulty letting her guard down -- especially since it never appeared to be up in the first place. So after a long afternoon of signing books for hundreds of fans at a mall near her alma mater, Seijo University, she makes a beeline for an izakaya, or pub. "Do you like wine or beer?" she asks haltingly, in what she calls her "schoolgirl's English."
"Yes," I say.
She laughs: "You will get on well with me."
Such easy charm surely helped transform Kurihara from the wife of a television anchor and mother of two into a brand that encompasses restaurants, housewares stores, a magazine and more than 20 cookbooks that have sold more than 7 million copies. (Not bad for someone who began working at age 36.) Her way with a recipe certainly hasn't hurt, either.
Now a startlingly young-looking 60, Kurihara didn't break into the Western market until 2004, when her first book in English, "Harumi's Japanese Cooking," won a worldwide prize. Last fall her second, the more intimate "Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking," debuted in the United States.
In both, she strikes an effortlessly elegant tone (more Nigella Lawson than Martha) that aims to prove that her country's glorious cuisine is within the reach of the average home cook -- even one who doesn't know bento from bonito.
It's an October morning, the day before the book signing, when Kurihara welcomes me into the airy, modern kitchen of the home she shares with her husband, Reiji. As three assistants bustle around her, she shows me how she makes fried chicken thighs in scallion sauce, displaying an acute understanding of the appeal of simplicity -- and a deftness with a cook's knife that would put many restaurant chefs to shame.
Wearing a thin gray sweater and jeans (and no trace of makeup), Kurihara lays out her ingredients, including the largest chicken thighs I've ever seen; it turns out that they're boneless versions of the leg-and-thigh combination, a cut rarely seen in U.S. supermarkets. While the chicken marinates, she stabs the negi (a large Japanese scallion, similar to a small leek) repeatedly with the tip of her knife, a technique that creates the smallest shreds once she moves to slicing.
Not surprisingly, Kurihara is also adept at using her long cooking chopsticks, which allow her to keep her hands safely free of the bubbling oil after she coats the chicken thighs in potato starch (better than cornstarch for crispness) and drops them in. The chopsticks are lighter, more delicate and easier to control than tongs: "They make me feel like I'm using my own fingers," she says.
On hand to help explain Kurihara's philosophy is her old friend Suzanne Hudson, a Brit who first convinced Kurihara that her food could resonate with a global audience. As director of projects for the London office of Fujisankei Communications International, an arm of Japan's largest media group, she saw Kurihara cook at an event in Scotland a decade ago. "I thought, this is great: simple, tasty, different, stylish," said Hudson, who happened to be visiting Kurihara when I was. "So I tried it out on my parents, and they loved it, and I thought, 'Aha! We could do a book here.' "
Kurihara pulls the chicken out periodically, letting it drip dry for a few seconds before returning it to the oil. Why? Because exposing it to the air helps the coating get crisper and keeps it from burning, she says, and because in those moments without the chicken, the oil can regain some of its heat.