By MACKIE JIMBO, Rafu Contributor
Sonoko Sakai wants you to slow down in the kitchen.
“A lot of people say they don’t have time to cook. But, we have to make time to cook,” Sakai said. In her new cookbook, “Japanese Home Cooking” (Roost Books), Sakai urges readers to do just that by embracing traditional Japanese ingredients, flavors, and techniques.
She eschews packaged dashi and industrial-made curry bricks, and instead provides simple, accessible recipes for homemade versions that taste infinitely better than their packaged counterparts and require only a little more time and effort to prepare.
Sakai’s upbringing in California and Japan, and her journey to becoming a revered cooking teacher, inform her approach in “Japanese Home Cooking.” Because her father worked for Japan Airlines, Sakai’s family moved around a lot in her early childhood years. She lived in New York City, Mexico City, San Francisco, Tokyo and Kamakura before settling in Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
Sakai attended Blair High School in Pasadena and found kinship with the Japanese American community. She often went with her mom to volunteer at Keiro, teaching residents how to make bento boxes. Sakai recalled that her mom had to be resourceful when cooking Japanese food, given the lack of readily accessible ingredients. “There was no Mitsuwa Market at the time,” Sakai said.
Sakai later pursued a career in film, working for over 20 years as a film seller and buyer for Japanese distributors. In 2008, she decided to leave the business after a film she produced flopped at the box office. “When the stock market collapsed, nobody went to the movies. It was a very dark period,” Sakai said.
She wanted to do something restorative and healing, and realized that thing, for her, was making noodles. She enrolled in a soba-making workshop in Japan on a whim, and from there, the rest is history.
In 2009, she began teaching Japanese cooking classes out of her home in Los Angeles. Today, Sakai teaches sold-out cooking classes all over the world. She has a devoted following that includes avid home cooks, Japanese food enthusiasts, and some of L.A.’s top chefs, including Niki Nakayama of n/naka, a two-Michelin star kaiseki restaurant.
When asked about her inspiration for “Japanese Home Cooking,” Sakai explained that she wanted to preserve the Japan that she remembered from her childhood. “I wanted to capture what is disappearing,” she said.
She has fond memories of cooking with her obaachama in Kamakura, going with her to pick up fresh fish from the local fishermen, and being immersed in old Japan. “I have perspective because I’m now my grandmother’s age when she entered the kitchen,” Sakai noted.
Sakai’s desire to preserve tradition is palpable in the first half of “Japanese Home Cooking,” which is devoted to building a Japanese pantry and presenting the fundamentals of Japanese cooking. Sakai provides recipes for staples that many (myself included) would normally buy from a supermarket, from dashi to tofu to udon and soba noodles. She also breaks down the five elements of Japanese cooking, or **gogyosetsu,** giving readers the foundation to compose harmonized and balanced Japanese meals at home.
But “Japanese Home Cooking” is not only about preserving tradition. Recipes such as Santa Maria-style tri-tip with five yakumi (aromatics and herbs) and soba salad with kabocha squash and toasted pepitas reflect Sakai’s life in California, combining Japanese ingredients and techniques with distinctly American flavors.
Sakai’s multicultural approach is especially apparent in her mochi waffles with fried chicken and maple yuzu kosho. The idea for mochi waffles came from her friend, renowned rice farmer Robin Koda of Koda Farms. “The mochi starts to melt into the waffle iron, and comes out crispy like senbei,” Sakai said.
Then, she and her students started to play around with fried chicken, settling on a chicken that is marinated in shoyu tare and deep-fried tatsuta-style, and topped with a maple yuzu kosho for a spicy-sweet kick.
In this way, “Japanese Home Cooking” is really about harmonizing the old Japanese culinary traditions with the diversity that Sakai and younger generations have encountered in America. “Preserving tradition is not good enough because people’s tastes and environment change,” Sakai observed. “I wanted to transcend or take these traditions to the next generation.”
With the next generation in mind, Sakai also showcases sustainability in “Japanese Home Cooking.” The book includes vignettes about artisans, growers, and chefs that share Sakai’s dedication to tradition and sustainability. L.A. readers, in particular, will be interested in the vignette featuring chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama of n/naka.
Two years ago, Sakai received a message from the n/naka chefs asking if they could participate in Sakai’s soba workshop. “I thought to myself, this is the famous n/naka!,” Sakai remarked, referring to n/naka’s two-Michelin stars and “Chef’s Table” episode. “I told them that I’m really a home cook and asked if they wanted this type of experience, to learn to make noodles in my house. And they said, ‘Of course we do!’” After taking Sakai’s class, the Nakayamas invited Sakai to prepare soba noodles for n/naka’s New Year’s kaiseki meal, which Sakai has done for the last two years.
For “Japanese Home Cooking,” Sakai asked the n/naka chefs to give her a lesson on filleting and slicing fish for sashimi. The Nakayamas agreed, and made sure to bring locally caught, sustainable fish sourced from another artisan profiled in “Japanese Home Cooking,” Seiichi Yokota of Yokose Seafood.
“I didn’t want to work with tuna or other fish that are not sustainable,” Sakai noted. “We’re in a very delicate time right now. And it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to unagi and so many of the fish.”
Sakai’s answer to this problem is to eat locally caught fish whenever possible, in yet another nod to adapting Japanese cooking for the future. “This is not just about Japanese cooking,” Sakai mused. “This is home cooking in a sustainable way. I want people to think about other things, like the environment. So in my small way, I do what I can.”
Follow Mackie Jimbo on Instagram (@gourmetmackie) for updates on where she’s eating in L.A. and beyond. You can also reach her at [email protected]
Sonoko Sakai will host the following events in L.A. to celebrate the release of “Japanese Home Cooking”:
Nov. 19: Conversation with Evan Kleiman, host of “Good Food” on KCRW, and book-signing at Now Serving, 7 p.m.
Nov. 20: Pickle workshop, dinner and book signing at Porridge and Puffs, 6:30-9:30 p.m., tickets required
Nov. 21: Book-inspired soba dinner at MTN, 7 p.m.
Nov. 23: Book-signing and soba workshop at Poketo at The ROW, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., tickets required
Nov. 24: Book-signing and homemade plum wine tasting at Tortoise General Store, 1-3 p.m.
Dec. 7: Make Your Own Toshikoshi Soba at the Japanese American National Museum, 10 a.m.-12 noon, tickets required
Dec. 7: Book-signing and curry-tasting at the Japanese American National Museum, 2-3:30 p.m., RSVP required
Dec. 11: Book-signing at Proof Bakery, time TBA
Visit https://www.roostbooks.com/japanesehomecookingtour/ for ticketing and event details.
Photos by RICK POON