The cherry blossom has always had its petal-hunting pilgrims, but Japan is really having a moment right now. The country is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, and is seemingly the ultimate sporting destination, hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
Back in the West, meanwhile, Japanese cuisine is arguably more prevalent than ever. “I never dreamt of seeing takeaway sushi,” says cook and food writer Kimiko Barber, who has watched the slow diffusion of Japan into the cultural food stream, adding with a laugh: “They’re not that good, compared to what you can get in Japan – but that’s not fair.”
Barber was born in Kobe and moved to England in the early-Seventies as a 15-year-old. “I really ought to thank the dreadful school food which spurred me on to cook,” she says. “It was absolutely dire. After the first term, I went back to Japan for Christmas and New Year. I stood in front of my mother and she didn’t recognise me because I’d lost so much weight.”
Despite later being side-tracked for a while by an investment banking career, Barber had always loved food, having been inspired by three of her grandmothers, each influenced by their homes in Kobe, Kyoto and Shikoku.
Barber ended up giving banking the slip and wrote a practical guide to making sushi before going on to write a slew of cookbooks – she is now celebrating her latest, Japanese In 7.
A nifty manual for straightforward Japanese dishes, each recipe uses just seven ingredients or fewer, alongside a basic larder of Japanese ingredients. It means you can get in from a long day and cobble dinner together without much bother, and without relying on that takeout sushi (however revolutionary it may be).
The key, explains Barber, is that what gives any dish its “identity or nationality – its seasoning”. And there are roughly five “very, very Japanese” seasoning ingredients that can be used to easily add a “Japanesey taste or flavouring”. They are: miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and rice vinegar. If you have those in the house – and they handily don’t need to be refrigerated, keep for quite a long time, and are found almost everywhere in supermarkets – you’re pretty much set.
Just add fresh, everyday ingredients: “Chicken breast is chicken breast, whether you buy it in Japan or here in Waitrose,” says Barber, who is intent on demystifying Japanese food for home cooks.
“To some extent, I blame the Japanese cuisine’s beautiful, artful presentations, which may be rather intimidating for the normal cook,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be. As long as you don’t just throw it on the plate…”
She often encounters people who say, ‘Oh I love Japanese food’, and then immediately add, ‘But I can’t cook it’. “Compared to Chinese or Indian food, British people really don’t have the colonial history with Japan, and so it really hasn’t penetrated into home kitchens,” notes Barber. “That’s what I’m trying to – not change, that’s a big word – but to encourage people.”
So while a traditional Japanese meal would ordinarily consist of rice, soup and a few tiny dishes, all served in small or bite-sized portions designed to be eaten with chopsticks, no one is going to tell you off for dispensing with the individual bowls and grabbing a fork.
“We’re all busy, and it shouldn’t be stressful,” says Barber magnanimously. “[Just] put everything on the plate, you don’t have to cut it up, and also don’t start thinking, ‘Oh god, I’ve got to make this, I’ve got to make that, and two more side dishes’. Don’t. Just take one recipe, one dish and serve it with potatoes if you want to!
“Don’t feel you have to come up with a complete menu or multiple dishes. Or start with salad with a Japanese dressing – that’s easier enough to do.”
Even making one miso soup as a starter is something to be proud of if you’ve never attempted it before. Why overwhelm yourself? It’s your dinner, and cutting corners is totally allowed (miso soup and dashi sachets are widely available for instance – “I have them,” says Barber).
“There isn’t a set-in-stone definition of any cuisine, it’s very organic and should move on and be adjusted to reflect the time and the tastes of the people who are using, cooking and eating it,” says Barber, explaining that many of the most familiar Japanese dishes have been tinkered with or borrowed from elsewhere.
Like tempura, for instance, which actually originates in Portugal; sushi, which is generally thought of as super-fresh but was originally a fermented slow food using preservation techniques; and chicken katsu curry – “that’s a relatively new dish”.
What you will need to jump on a flight for though is truly wonderful tofu. “You can get it here, but it’s nothing like what you can get in Japan,” says Barber, putting it down to Japan’s soft water.
When she’s not lamenting hard water or running cookery sessions, Barber can be found at her weekend place in north Oxfordshire, where she keeps bees (“I’m completely obsessed with my honeybees,” she says, quite literally a-buzz. “I bought two mini colonies and then caught two swarms, so now I’ve got four hives and they’ve all got names”), or working on her next book, drawn from her experiences spent following the daily routines of trainee monks at a Japanese temple – think no phones, no talking, hours of meditation and getting up at dawn.
“It’s not meant to be fun,” says Barber with a laugh, “but I felt really peaceful.” And we could all do with a little more peace, especially if it involves a swift Japanese dinner.
Japanese In 7 by Kimiko Barber, photography by Emma Lee, is published by Kyle Books, priced £17.99. Available February 20.