WHAT MAKES a cuisine "alien" is not the national origin of its dishes, however erotic, but rather the inability of the cook to project what the dishes will be like -- how they will taste and look when they are completed. Peruvian or French or Polish food may be exotic to a person who has never met an empanada or choucroute garni or bigos, but not alien. Reasonable recipes for these dishes are to be had, the techniques used to make them are likely to be in the cook's repertoire and the ingredients are both familiar and easily found. So the results can be anticipated with reasonable accuracy.
Gaining familiarity with a cuisine can, of course, cause it to lose its alien quality. The Chinese is the most obvious such example. A decade ago it would have been unusual to find a wok in a kitchen; today it would be unusual to find a kitchen without a wok. Stir frying has become as common as broiling, and a cook need go no further than the local supermarket to stock up on Szechuan peppercorns and wood ears.
The cuisine of Japan, while it has become less mysterious, still tends to be viewed as alien. It is eaten primarily in restaurants and rarely at home, with the exception of tempura and sukiyaki, both dishes with Western connections. The Japanese learned to love tempura in the late 16th century, when Portuguese and Spanish missionaries showed them how to dip their fish in a batter and deep fry it. And we have learned to love tempura so much that instant batters are widely marketed, although they are incredibly east to make from scratch.
Westerners are also comfortable cooking sukiyaki, a one-pot dish that can be made in an acceptable version with nothing more exotic than vegetables, paper-thin slices of good quality beef, soy sauce and a little sake. Sukiyaki became common in Japan only after the 1860s, with an influx of Western diplomats and businessmen. Not satisfied with eating only fish, Japan's primary source of protein, the foreigners demanded beef, which had heretofore been interdicted by Buddhist dietary laws. The Japanese tasted of the forbidden fruit and liked it well enough to modify those laws.
One cause of our apprehension about cooking Japanese food at home can be found, I believe, in the lack up till now of a solid literature of excellent Japanese cookbooks in English. The Time-Life Foods of the World volume on Japan made a serious contribution a decade ago, but not available until now were books of the caliber of Irene Kuo's Key to Chinese Cooking, which probably did as much for that cuisine as Julia Child's books have done for French cooking.
With the recent publication of four books on Japanese food, this void has been filled -- at least by three of them. The best is Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji, a handsomely produced book that is big in volume and in concept. An introduction by M. F. K. Fisher, whose imprimatur is not lightly given, establishes a basis for our understanding. She writes with her usual brilliance about the inextricable connection between Japanese food and aesthetics, religion, tradition and history and then proceeds to defuse any anxiety this may cause a Westerner by pointing out both differences and similarities in our cultures. She presents the concept of "less is more" not as ancient Oriental wisdom that can have no meaning for us but in terms of Escoffier's advice to his apprentices to "Stay simple! Cook simply!" She begins by wondering whether "traditional Japanese cookery can should have a useful part of our own way of eating." By the time she is finished, we have answered in the affirmative.
Shizuo Tsuji is a distinguished culinary expert whose knowledge of French haute cuisine and experience as a teacher have surely contributed to the clarity and intelligence of his book. The rules are laid down in the preface. Food must be fresh or dried, never frozen. Quality must be of the best. Natural goodness is the key. Presentation should be beautiful. How can we doubt it when he tells us that the master French chefs brought back a good deal of Japan to the mouvelle cuisine. And how familiar are his worries that a growing Japanese addiction to fast foods poses a threat to traditional cooking.
Tsuji has divided his book into two parts. In the first, entire chapters are devoted to various basic cooking techniques as well as to such subjects as the components of a Japanese meal, the correct way to slice fish for sushi and sashimi and how to pickle vegetables. Relatively simple recipes illustrate these techniques in part one. In the second part, the reader is graduated into more elaborate recipes, for which part one has prepared us. Tsuji also has written an invaluable chapter on Japanese ingredients, including information on which are available in this country and possible substitutions. The color photographs of foods and place settings are glorious and line drawings illustrating techniques are instructive.
At Home with Japanese Cooking was written by Elizabeth Andoh, an American who married a Japanese and studied for years at a leading classical cooking school in Japan. Now a teacher of Japanese cooking, she too deals with specific techniques and with various categories of food. Her suggestions of recipes that work with American food are interesting, particularly for those who may not want too begin by making an entire Japanese meal. Her book is not as all-inclusive as Tsuji's although it sells for the same price. But this is an excellent piece of work that has a place in any serious cookbook collection. It is unfortunate for Andoh that both books were published at the same time.
While it is not a cookbook, Japanese Garnishes: The Ancient Art of Mukimono by Yukiko and Bob Haydock belongs on the kitchen shelf, and not necessarily among the books on Oriental food. These witty Japanese garnishes would give charm to platters of any kind of food. The instructions are so clear and easy to follow that I, whose talent for fancy work is nonexistent, succeeded in making among other wonders, a waterlily of an onion, a chicken of an egg and a rose of a tomato. It's like playing grown-up paper dolls.
The fourth book, Japanese Cooking now by Joan Itoh, also an American married to a Japanese, is superficial, unsatisfactory and gushy. It claims to be aimed at the American cook, but not one that I have met. Nor do I trust her recipes: she tells us to "pop" medium-size shrimp into salted boiling water for six minutes, until the hard-rubber stage is reached, perhaps, and to steam fish fillets for 40 minutes, or, until the soggy-mess stage is reached? This is the sort of book that can give Japanese food a bad name. The temptation to succumb to its claims of simplicity should be resisted.