A few months ago, I sneaked away from my desk to see director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese film “Our Little Sister,” about three women who live together in their grandmother’s house in Kamakura; upon discovering they have a younger orphaned half-sibling, they take her in. More than making me long for sisters of my own, it compelled me to cook. The women constantly dine and prepare meals together. As I watched the oldest sister — and family cook — boil a pot of noodles, slide a tempura-battered slice of eggplant into a pan of bubbling hot oil or smilingly anticipate the salad she’d compose with Hokkaido potatoes newly arrived at the vegetable market, I thought, I would like to make those things.
It wasn’t an aspirational longing. This wasn’t like seeing “Big Night” and deciding to spend a weekend making a labor-intensive, gigantic, multi-layered, pasta-filled Italian timpano, or watching “Babette’s Feast” and getting the notion to re-create an elaborate dinner party that culminates in stuffed quails encased in puff pastry. What I observed on that screen was the kind of food I imagined I might fix for myself regularly if I lived in Japan: uncomplicated, relatively quick, nourishing dishes made with few ingredients.
The past few years saw an uptick in titles about that country’s cuisine that were more likely to appeal to the timpano types than to the Nigel Slater or Ina Garten crowd. More recently, though, contemporary cookbooks with recipes for Japanese food most of us can — and might be likely to — prepare have begun to reach the United States. I wondered whether, using them to guide me, I could cook the way “Our Little Sister” had inspired me to. I decided I’d challenge myself to do it for a week or so and see what happened.
First, though, I wanted to understand what constitutes home cooking in Japan. “Everyday Japanese home cooking tends to be simple and unfussy: often grilled or fried fish or one-pot dishes like soups, stews and curries to be eaten with rice and perhaps some vegetables,” replied London-based chef Tim Anderson, whose cookbook “Nanban: Japanese Soul Food” (Clarkson Potter) was published in 2015. There isn’t a lot of overlap between what you eat at restaurants and what you’d make for yourself. “Home cooks typically don’t have the skills, time or equipment to make classic Japanese dishes like sushi, ramen or even yakitori on a regular basis,” he said.
Some savory street foods are household regulars, culinary instructor Kimiko Barber told me. She also mentioned that most cooking in Japan is done with surface heat, negating the need for an oven. The Kobe native, who has called London home since 1972, says there’s no excuse for Westerners not to make the food of her homeland now that it has become so widespread and its ingredients easier to find. “Japanese cooking is, in fact, quite simple,” she says. “We try not to cook but to draw out ingredients’ natural tastes and flavors, rather like Italian cuisine, because we believe nature knows best.”
I started with what Anderson writes is “perhaps the very first thing you should learn”: dashi, the stock made with dried kelp (kombu), which has a high concentration of the glutamic acid our palates register as umami. You can intensify that savory impact with dried shiitake mushrooms and katsuoboshi, dried and fermented tuna (bonito) chunks shaved into tissue-paper-thin flakes. It’s the foundation of most soups and stews, and of many sauces. I followed his recipe, noticing he had another for braising the kelp once it had been used to flavor the stock. I tried that next, putting my dashi-spent mushrooms and bonito flakes in the pot with the chopped kombu and reducing it in a combination of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, rice vinegar and water until it became almost jammy. I stirred in sesame seeds and used it to garnish a fresh bowl of rice.
The next day, I picked up some Chinese chives for the egg-and-chive porridge in Barber’s “Cook Japanese at Home” (Kyle Books). I pulled the dashi out of my fridge; brought it to a boil with sake, soy sauce and salt; threw in my chives; then quickly simmered it all with leftover rice from the night before. At the very end, I drizzled in some beaten egg. It was just as “warming and reviving” as the recipe’s headnote had claimed.
A few evenings later, arriving home late and hungry, I rinsed the fresh clams I’d left to soak in saltwater and, adhering to the directions laid out by Maori Murota in “Tokyo Cult Recipes” (Harper Design, 2016), steamed them in a liquor of garlic, sake and soy sauce. Less than four minutes later, dinner was ready; I sprinkled the shellfish with scallions and spooned them, with their cooking liquid, over buttered toast instead of the expected rice.
As I was flipping through Murota’s cookbook, I saw a photo of glazed meatballs with a gooey yellow egg yolk spilling into them and I wanted to eat them, very badly. Like the clams, these tsukune had been placed in the chapter on pub-style izakaya food but seemed straightforward enough for the home kitchen. If you had told me I was going to love anything made with ground chicken as much as I loved these little scallion-and-ginger-flecked spheres coated in a caramelized salty-sweet sauce, I never would have believed you.
The next recipe blew my mind. It was Masaharu Morimoto’s Sake Shioyaki (Salt-Grilled Salmon) from his “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking” (Ecco, 2016). The only other ingredient, aside from the two mentioned in that title, is vegetable oil, and a minimal amount, at that. The Iron Chef includes an optional “magic trick” for neutralizing fishy flavor. It’s a quick (15-second) splish-splash in a sake-salt solution — and it should be mandatory. You then shower your salmon with more salt and refrigerate it for an hour. Rinse it, lightly oil a baking sheet, place the salmon on that and put it under the broiler for a few minutes. I don’t know if I’ll ever cook that fish another way again. I served it with Morimoto’s adapted version of kinpira, a stir-fry traditionally made with burdock and lotus roots. He swapped those out for parsnips and celery. It was a dead ringer for the original.
Anderson had touted his own Baked Sweet Potatoes With Yuzu Butter, and I was already on a roll, so why not frenetically whip the creamy fat with a jot of yuzu juice and soy sauce and chuck some yams in the oven? On the back streets of Japan, you’d see people roasting the tubers on hot stones and eating them just so. These yaki-imo are made at home, too. The chef gussied them up, but not by a lot. I plonked a rather generous amount of his compound butter onto my potatoes and giddily watched it melt into the starchy flesh.
At this point I realized that the “challenge” I’d set myself was far from that. Japanese home cooking is even easier than Western, technique-wise, and frequently calls for fewer ingredients, and ones you reuse repeatedly. They’re probably not at your corner store, but you can find them at local and online Asian markets, and via Amazon.com.
The last dish I prepared is, Barber says, one of the most popular family meals and “never found in restaurants.” Known simply as Beef and Potato (Niku-Jaga), it’s a humble simmer that dates to the late 1870s and was inspired by a British stew. The meat and potatoes are joined by onions and enhanced by sake, sugar, mirin, soy sauce and our old friend dashi. It turns out most people don’t render their stock; they use the instant formula. I see no reason to do it any differently, and my niku-jaga was so comforting and flavorful that I think I’ll stick with the powdered stuff from now on. Because I intend to continue making that stew and the rest of these dishes long after the next round of cookbooks has come and gone. Now I’m realizing that the only thing missing, after all, are those three sisters — or better yet, some of my own — to eat them with me.
Druckman is author of “Stir Sizzle Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet.” She will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.