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Sonoko Sakai, left, is the author of Japanese Home Cooking.
Japanese Home Cooking by Sonoko Sakai.
Chilled soba noodles with walnut dipping sauce from Japanese Home Cooking.
Our cookbook of the week is Japanese Home Cooking by teacher, noodle maker and grain activist Sonoko Sakai. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Chilled soba noodles with walnut dipping sauce , okonomiyaki (“as you like it”) pancakes with bonito flakes , and Japanese chicken curry with relish of the seven lucky gods .
“When you start putting your hands in flour, your sense of time and space changes,” writes Sonoko Sakai in Japanese Home Cooking (Roost Books, 2019). “You slow down.”
For the California-based cooking teacher and author, an appreciation of the downshift inherent in working with dough came a decade ago, when she started making noodles from scratch. A pursuit that began as a means of satisfying “a persistent, chronic kind of hunger” for the kind of noodles she couldn’t find in the U.S. became a desire to educate others about the value of heritage grains.
“As home cooks, we’re all part of the planet and we’re the ones who decide what we’re feeding our families. We’re the core of all things,” says Sakai. “That has become my main mission. I make buckwheat noodles — soba noodles — because buckwheat is an underappreciated plant in this country, and also in Canada where it’s used mostly as a cover crop.”
Prior to devoting herself to grain activism and teaching Japanese cooking, Sakai worked in film. She explains that she has always admired people who work with their hands. But it was while producing a movie in a small village in Nagano, Japan that her respect for artisans took on new meaning, and ultimately propelled her career in a different direction.
A carpenter working on Silk — the 2008 Canada/Italy/Japan co-production starring Keira Knightley — invited Sakai to his house for soba noodles. His 83-year-old mother had undertaken every step of the process, from growing the buckwheat to grinding the grain into flour using a stone mill, and crafting the noodles by hand.
“She even caught the koi in the pond to make the fish dish. The pickles were also made with the vegetables that she grew. It was all within her means and sustainable, and the idea that in contrast, my life was about bringing snow equipment from Canada and getting all these exotic birds from different zoos in Japan,” Sakai recalls, laughing. “When I was watching her do this I thought, we all have to go back to being a little bit closer to nature. I have to say, that was one of the reasons I wanted to somehow get my hands in buckwheat.”
Sakai features recipes for several different kinds of homemade noodles in Japanese Home Cooking — including soba — but the book, her third, encompasses a wealth of techniques and recipes beginning with the pantry (dashi, seaweeds, pickles and ferments), and concluding with more involved okazu (dishes), sweets and beverages. For context, she includes essays profiling some of the producers in California and Japan who have inspired her cooking, including Robin Koda of Koda Farms and Alex Weiser of the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project.
In writing the book, she also drew on the experiences of three generations of women in her family: her maternal grandmother Hatsuko Ishikawa; her mother Akiko Kondo, who was the first member of her family to move overseas; and herself, having been born in New York and lived in cities such as San Francisco, Mexico City and Tokyo.
“Rather than just trying to convey a very authentic culinary culture, I wanted to share what we can do as a Japanese cook in a very diversified world … I wanted to write about my grandmother’s practices because I didn’t want to forget — I think it was very important for me to preserve her ways and Japanese traditions. And then my mother, who was so flexible and adaptable — she was a lot more for being a little bit more convenient like using frozen foods and things like that. But then I looked at both, and I want to be right in the middle,” Sakai laughs. “So I got to benefit by their results.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020