By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Before long, Kurihara is letting the chicken cool while she makes the quick sauce (stir-fried negi and chili pepper mixed with soy sauce, sherry, rice vinegar and sugar), then slices the chicken and puts it in a rough-hewn black ceramic dish. Kurihara's house is filled with thousands of dishes, many of her own design, and many for sale in her housewares shops and through her quarterly magazine. She has one walk-in closet just for them. It's all part of the Japanese dedication to the art of pottery, in which bowls and plates chosen for their contrasting shapes, sizes, colors and textures are carefully arranged with just a small amount of food in each. It makes for a stunning tablescape -- and tedious cleanup, no doubt.
The next day, when I meet Kurihara & Co. for the book signing at Seijo Corty mall, her fans are seated in folding chairs in a cordoned-off section. They are called up precisely, row by row. They're all polite and hushed, and bowing abounds. The most common questions, says Hudson: How do you stay so young-looking, and how do you handle leftovers? Kurihara's answers: Stay young by making time every day just for yourself (Kurihara's favorite is the early morning), and avoid leftovers by thinking about cooking the other way around, by working from what you already have.
As quiet as the audience members are, when I ask some of them about Kurihara, their giddiness rises to the surface. Yoshie Sato, 53, came from Odawara City, about an hour away, mainly in the hope that some of Kurihara's vitality might rub off. "She gives me a lot of energy when I shake her hands," says Sato, whose chin-length hair and clothing seem to imitate Kurihara's. "I was overwhelmed and actually started to cry."
In a city where by far the most crowded parts of department stores are the basement-level food emporiums, it's not surprising that one of the most famous food experts inspires such devotion -- what Hudson calls "Harumi mania." But it has been an adjustment for Kurihara. Most women of her generation have never worked outside the home, and even after all she has accomplished, she still proudly thinks of herself as shufu, or housewife, not as sensei, or teacher. "You never get used to that," she says.
Kurihara does seem to be coming to terms with the fact that her personality sells, though; in 2006 she changed her 11-year-old magazine's name from Suteki Recipes ("Lovely Recipes") to, simply, Haru-mi. And she reconciles the housewife and businesswoman in her in part by keeping her family involved in the business; her husband is chairman of her company, and her son, Shinpei, is a managing director overseeing 12 restaurants and 49 shops.
The book signing is for a new Japanese-language cookbook (whose title translates somewhat awkwardly as "My Taste Using Lots of Vegetables"), and on this day Kurihara is wearing another of her designs. The Martha comparison is hard to avoid, because it's a shawl. But unlike Stewart's crocheted-in-prison poncho, this knit sweater has bell-shaped sleeves and a silhouette that would be fashionable on someone half Kurihara's age or younger.
Later, at the izakaya in the bustling Shibuya neighborhood, Kurihara says she is more comfortable talking to her fans in casual settings, such as signings, than at more formal presentations. "I don't like lectures," even in Japanese, she says. "I don't do them much. It makes me nervous."
As her worldwide popularity has grown, so has the need for her to improve her English. She practices or studies every day, and at the restaurant, in between sips of sake and shochu (a distilled alcohol, this one flavored with the herb shiso), she writes down phrase after phrase that she hears from others at the table, including Hudson and her own English teacher, professor Hiroko Nishikage. The pressure's on: Kurihara has started filming an English-language cooking show for NHK World TV, the international channel of Japan's public television company. (In the Washington area, "Your Japanese Kitchen" can be seen at 4:15 p.m. Tuesdays and 9:15 p.m. Wednesdays on cable channel MHz 6.)
"She is my best student," Nishikage says. "A-straight."
About 8 p.m., Kurihara has a little sneezing fit -- a signal that "I've had too much to drink," she says. Japan's hardest-working shufu has an early morning ahead of her. As she has for decades, she will rise at 5 to make offerings to the family shrine, feed the cat, water the garden and quietly make breakfast while her husband makes tea.
Hudson drops her British accent and says, in fluent Japanese, "That's why I'm not married." It gets a big laugh .
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.