Nancy Singleton Hachisu left California for Japan in 1988, fully intending to learn Japanese in one year and return to the States for graduate school. Instead, she fell in love with a Japanese organic farmer and now lives with her husband and three sons in their eighty-five-year-old traditional farmhouse. Hachisu has taught home cooking to Japanese housewives for over two decades and is the leader of a local Slow Food convivium. Hachisu’s first book, Japanese Farm Food (Andrews McMeel, 2013), was praised in The New York Times, The LA Times, and the London Times. It was selected by several well-respected US cooking magazines as one of the top cookbooks of 2012 and was featured in Food & Wine’s Best of the Best Cookbooks, Vol. 16. The French edition of Japanese Farm Food (Japon, la cuisine à la ferme, October 2013) includes a glowing preface by Joël Robuchon. Hachisu is currently working on her second book, Preserving with Koji and Salt: age-old Japanese techniques for the modern kitchen, to be published by Andrews McMeel in November 2014.
Fuji TV is documenting Hachisu’s cooking and relationships with local Japanese producers and artisans in a series of twenty-minute documentary segments that are aired monthly on a Sunday morning news program, Shinhodo 2001. The aim of these segments is to galvanize Japanese to take back their cultural food heritage in a time of crisis in which rice and soybean consumption is way down and home cooking has taken a major dive.
Lesley Wolff: Japanese Farm Food has become a sensation among food-conscious Americans and proponents of the Slow Food Movement. How does Slow Food differ between Japan and the US?
Nancy Singleton Hachisu: When asked what Slow Food means to me, my knee-jerk response is: It’s a group in Italy.
I first joined Slow Food in the late ’90s and at the time there was as yet no Slow Food Japan. I joined because the basic organizing principles or philosophies behind Slow Food were exactly how we were living our life in rural Japan. The idea of being connected to some like-minded global movement was comforting.
Over the intervening years, the vision of Carlo Petrini rippled out in ever widening circles as he created Terra Madre, more and more outreach to small producers through Ark of Taste or Presidia projects, and the more recent Youth Movement. During that period Slow Food International also encouraged (or mandated?) the forming of dedicated Slow Food organizations per country. Country to country, the focus of Slow Food shifts slightly (or drastically). I always think of Slow Food as a political organization with the local convivia acting as grass-roots advocates of (or celebratory outlets of) local foods.
In Japan, Slow Food is a colloquial buzzword that stands more for so-called organic, or quasi-homemade food or lifestyle than the actual organization. In fact, the term “slow” is overused in Japan to the point of having no connection with the original source. I recently ate at a restaurant in Tokyo that purported to serve slow food, though I’m not sure how “slow” winter tomatoes or avocados from Mexico are.
Slow Food was launched in Japan with much fanfare and was the media darling for a year or two before the fad moved on to LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) or some other trendy thing (as fads are wont to do in Japan). What remains today is a dedicated group of professors, advocates, and other sincere members trying to discover or celebrate traditional foods of Japan. At the grass-roots level there are less producers involved than in the U.S. because the producers have their hands full scrambling about making a living and don’t have a culture of socializing much.
I organize a few farm-to-table events a year through our local convivium, but continue Slow Food education every day by cooking local foods for the children at my school and going to the field with them once a week.
But Japanese Farm Food has given me a bigger voice and for that I am grateful.
LW: Can you describe a typical meal preparation in your kitchen? Do you prefer to work alone or in tandem with your family?
NSH: The question of the day in our house is (and has always been): “What’s for dinner tonight?” Our kids ask us, and my husband and I ask each other.
For the most part, I am the one who cooks dinner, but my husband Tadaaki cooks whenever he is in the mood, or whenever I am not. Before we had kids we cooked together, but now it is generally an either or scenario. When our sons were small, one parent took care of the babies and the other one cooked. During the middle years we homeschooled so the boys helped. Once they entered Japanese junior high it became more difficult to get them to participate in the nightly meal preparation because their lives were taken over by school and club, often arriving home around 8 p.m. Nowadays, I find working alone in the kitchen to be a peaceful occupation that soothes me and helps even out the starts and stops of the day. I look forward to puttering through the meal—especially if I am not looking at the clock desperately trying to finish dinner before 8 p.m.
LW: How do you practice Slow Food within the confines of your own home?
NSH: Hmmm…kind of a strange question. For me, Slow Food as a movement is now more about the saving of and promoting of small producer foods than a lifestyle choice.
We eat what we grow or what our friends grow or produce. We only eat in season. We only eat fish from the fish market or meat from the meat market. I do not shop at the supermarket. We eat very simply and we do not eat convenience foods. We do buy Italian or French olive oil, though…and foreign coffee.
LW: In the section “Trusting Your Instincts,” you write, “Learning to trust your instincts in cooking is the only way to get beyond the recipe.” In what ways do you hope your readers will move beyond the recipes you’ve presented in this book?
NSH: If people learn the basic technique or philosophy behind a recipe, they can intuit how to adjust or re-create with what they have at their fingertips. But it is important to really try and understand the important point of the recipe so not to lose the heart or soul of from where it came. Also you want to sort of envision how it will taste in your mouth to help you decide if you are looking for a soy sauce or miso taste for a dish…or perhaps just salt. I also occasionally like to use shottsuru (Japanese fish sauce) when the mood strikes. And you want to think of the balance of flavors in a meal: i.e. not too much of the same type of salt flavor (soy sauce, miso, shottsuru, or salt); or not too much of one type of food; i.e. stir-fried, deep-fried, boiled and refreshed, or raw. Be thoughtful.
LW: In the Foreword to Japanese Farm Food, Patricia Wells says that you call yourself an “impostor farmer.” This book (and Patricia Wells’ foreword) certainly demonstrates otherwise! What about your farming skills feels inauthentic?
NSH: When I am busy, the field suffers. The summer I was writing my book like a mad woman, I never had the time or energy to clear enough weeds on the field to plant my seedlings. I also should have planted seeds this spring before I left for the States since I will not be back in Japan until early May. But somehow I never had a spare moment between book-related obligations and end of the year events for my little school, Sunny-Side Up!
A real farmer would prioritize the seeds or the field.
LW: You have mentioned that in Japan you rarely go out to eat. How have you adapted to your current life on the road, which often means less control over the meals you eat and certainly less time in the kitchen?
NSH: I never do not know where I will eat my next meal.
Before I go to a new city, I scope out the eating possibilities, such as restaurants or small local markets. I am always looking for that simple taste of home and don’t like fussy menus. I recently ate at Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa and could eat there every night. But that kind of place is rare. If there is absolutely nothing else, I can eat peanuts and have a beer. (Though finding decent peanuts has become a struggle these days.)
Even in Japan I always have a plan when I leave the house. And whenever I have entrusted my Tokyo friends with deciding where we will have lunch or dinner, we have ended up eating a mediocre meal. I don’t like to leave things to chance because each meal is so important. I would rather not eat, than eat something blah (or bad!).
LW: Japanese Farm Food transcends the cookbook genre to become an ethnographic examination of rural Japanese life and foodways. What was your motivation for enriching these recipes with personal essay, photography, and ethnography?
NSH: You can’t really take food out of the context of life. For me food comes from the land, our efforts, our friends’ efforts, certainly, but it does not end there. I want to use ancient copper or iron pots or even modern enamel cast iron to cook my food. I am not interested in stainless steel bowls or plastic—hence the overflowing collection of 100-year-old mixing bowls and baskets on my kitchen floor. I’m lucky that my husband and sons are all potters, so we also have an extensive array of eclectic plates and bowls of all sizes. The foodstuffs, the cooking equipment, the serving vessels, all increase the deep enjoyment of cooking or eating any given meal. They bring warmth and comfort to my life.
LW: How has the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant shifted the relationship between the Japanese people and their land? What changes have you seen, if any, in the farming or consumption of edibles?
NSH: There is a national movement afoot in Japan to promote local areas. While I cannot say for certain that this is a response to the horror of what happened to the area around Fukushima, in some sense it could be. As a whole there is nothing anyone can do to fix the devastation wrecked by the earthquake or the resulting mental malaise. Physical reconstruction will take years, decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi, decades, and a whole swath of area will be uninhabitable indefinitely. The post-earthquake area of Tohoku is not fine. But no one talks about it and there are barely any blips in the news.
People continue to eat chemical-laden foods (preservatives, agricultural pesticides and fertilizers) despite the residual nuclear fall-out. I cannot understand passively accepting inferior (or unhealthy) food choices just because they are conveniently available. But then people might say I am obsessive about finding clean food produced by hands I know. And they would be right!
Other than not being able to eat mushrooms the year of the nuclear melt-down, our area mercifully escaped any discernable nuclear fall-out.
LW: Which do you think is more important: the foods we eat or the way in which we eat them?
NSH: The foods we eat.
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These are two of my original salad ideas—I like the idea of including the two of them for balance as one has only tomatoes and the other a mix of summer vegetables. I chose these recipes for Better’s autumn issue because the vegetables all go well into the fall. They are deceptively simple but completely delicious.
Tomato Wedges Drizzled with Soy Sauce (Serves 6)
INGREDIENTS: 4 to 6 medium-sized slightly underripe organic tomatoes / Organic rapeseed oil / Organic soy sauce / Organic rice vinegar / Several chives (or a couple of thin scallions), cut into fine rounds / 10 shiso leaves, cut into threads
PREPARATION: Right before serving your meal, core the tomatoes and slice into 6 thick wedges. Arrange 4 to 6 tomato wedges on individual plates (or in the corner of a larger dinner plate that you will use to serve the rest of your meal). Drizzle with a little oil, followed by soy sauce, and finish with a few drops of vinegar (this is a light dressing that just kisses the tomatoes and is not meant to drench them or overpower their innate tomato-ness). Sprinkle with the chopped chives and stew with the shiso threads. Serve immediately.
VARIATIONS: Substitute a firm, brightly flavored variety of cherry tomatoes and cut them in half before dressing. Also wonderful with Miso Vinaigrette (page 301 of Japanese Farm Food) spooned over the tomatoes. In this case, you may want to be more generous with the dressing—I would maybe even use a couple of teaspoons (or more) of dressing for 4 tomato wedges or 8 small cherry tomatoes.
Chopped Summer Salad with Miso (Serves 6)
INGREDIENTS: 1 medium red or orange tomato, cored / 1 Japanese cucumber, unpeeled / 4 small green peppers, cored and seeded / 2.5 ounces (75g) “cotton” or silk tofu / 1 tablespoon organic miso / 1 tablespoon organic rice vinegar / 2 tablespoons organic rapeseed oil / 6 shiso leaves, cut into fine threads
PREPARATION: Chop the tomato, cucumber, and green peppers into quarter-inch (6 mm) uniform dice and scrape each one into the same medium-sized bowl. Do not toss. Cut the tofu carefully into half-inch (12 mm) squares.
Muddle the miso with the vinegar and whisk in the oil. right before serving, toss the vegetables, then spoon onto individual plates (or onto a large dinner plate that you will use to serve the rest of your meal). Drizzle with the miso dressing, drop a few cubes of tofu on top, and strew with the shiso threads. Serve immediately.