Washoku: Elizabeth Andoh
It’s a lovely spring morning, and I’m trying to hold the Japanese omelet pan just right. I can’t seem to get the hang of it, until Elizabeth Andoh guides my hand with her own, giving me the right angle, timing and touch as I attempt to make my first proper tamagoyaki (sometimes called dashimaki), that juicy, savory and sweet fluffy miracle, the Japanese rolled omelet. It’s not that I’ve never tried before, but without a proper tamagoyaki pan¹, and more importantly, the right technique, success was elusive and all my previous attempts were disastrous.
Andoh, who is widely regarded as the leading English-language expert on washoku (Japanese cuisine) is a patient but no-nonsense teacher. Her students call her sensei (honorific title for teacher), and I do as well. She invited me on behalf of Savory Japan to experience a private cooking session at her cooking school, A Taste of Culture. We also wanted to meet in person, as I was a member of her advisory council for her cookbook on vegetarian food, Kansha.
But as Elizabeth takes her hand away and I try another layer, getting the pan to the right level of sizzling heat, shaking it to prevent sticking, holding the pan off the heat and then rolling the creamy egg batter upwards with nothing more than a pair of cooking chopsticks, I have to wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of it. The result is less than perfect (though not a disaster), and I watch as sensei takes the pan and flips the omelet on a sudare (bamboo rolling mat), rolls it into a cylinder and then deftly forms it into the shape of a hyotan (gourd) by pinching the middle with a pair of chopsticks held in place by two rubber bands. How clever, I think. She’s managed to save my pathetic attempt with some attractive camouflage. I never would have thought of that!
But we have little time for reflection. Andoh is an extremely busy sensei, with a book deal in the works and international calls to make and an appointment for later that day. We are in the middle of my lesson, an intense two-and-a-half hours jam-packed full of technique, background, history, linguistics, culture and even chemistry. In other words, a cooking lesson with Elizabeth Andoh is not likely to be your normal, run-of-the-mill lesson. This is no Food Channel show, and is too intense and packed with information to pass as entertainment. No, sensei’s lessons are for serious students of washoku.
Andoh has lived in Japan, her adopted home, for over 40 years. After marrying into a traditional Japanese family (complete with mother-in-law), she quickly learned to adapt. Drawing from her own experiences of successfully navigating a different culture, language and culinary tradition, she has devoted her life to helping other expats – and by extension, Japanese food enthusiasts – the world over. Now, in many ways, she is very much at home here, deeply entrenched in the culture and regarded as a culinary expert, speaking at cultural and food industry symposiums and events, writing papers and conducting research about all aspects of Japanese food. But she still has the drive and intellectual curiosity of a native New Yorker, and this makes for a fascinating combination. I can think of no one better qualified to spread the benefits and wisdom of washoku to the world. Her 2005 cookbook, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press), is one of my prized possessions, and continues to inspire. Her recipes for soy-braised hijiki and carrots and gomoku mame ni (simmered soybeans and vegetables) are the type of home-style dishes that bring Japanese grandmothers to mind and not found in most cookbooks. Washoku is about as authentic and complete as any book on any cuisine: a perfect, thorough but easy-to-follow discourse on the subject. It’s easily my favorite Japanese cookbook, and I refer to it as a classic on Savory Japan’s recommended reading page.
Andoh is also a living example of the health benefits of washoku. I do the math as she gives many hints about her age, yet I can’t help but see her as someone still in the territory of middle age. She has the bone structure, energy and carriage of someone in her 40s, which she attributes to her daily diet of a multitude of beneficial Japanese staples, including miso soup and mineral and calcium-rich wakame, hijiki and chirimen.
Although the tamagoyaki is the main course, we started the lesson with dashi, which we need for not only the soup, but the omelet itself, as well as a remarkable sauce for Manganji peppers. Dashi is the secret ingredient for all of these, lending umami (the fifth taste) to everything it graces. Despite a fair level of familiarity, I learned so much in that 15 minutes that it made my head spin. Andoh explained the different types of kelp (kombu, in Japanese), ma kombu, hidaka, rishiri and rausu, their origins, regional popularity, and even the kombu trade route and its role in shaping the culinary style of kanto vs. kansai taste. She also shared time-saving hints, such as preparing a few days’ worth of dashi and having it ready in a glass jar in the fridge.
Since Andoh’s first Japanese home was in rural Shikoku in the 60s, where water was pulled from a well and the electric rice cooker was yet to be ubiquitous, many of her techniques are traditional, authentic and some would say, old-fashioned. We pull a few pickles out of Andoh’s nuka pickle jar, a simple brown, heavy ceramic container with a tight-fitting lid. Very few modern Japanese have the time or patience to preserve pickles in nuka (rice bran) because it must be turned several times a day to oxygenate the mix to keep it from spoiling. Sadly, with nuka pickles available in vacuum-sealed packages at supermarkets, the lovely old-fashioned pungent and rich aroma of nuka is no longer a part of the modern Japanese home. However, for purists like Andoh who extol the virtues of nuka’s nutritional value, (the vitamin B that is removed from rice when polished is absorbed by the pickling vegetables) this tradition is alive and well.
Busy as she is, Andoh is extremely organized, and this is the secret to her success. Her pantry is a dream to navigate, and the ingredients for our lesson are labeled and scaled down for three (including my husband, my helper and cameraman). All students of A Taste of Culture also receive a thoughtful starter pack, complete with kombu, katsuobushi, a piece of sarashi cloth (plain white cotton to properly strain the dashi), as well as the recipes. She believes anyone can make healthy and traditional meals with some careful planning and organization. This comment gives me needed encouragement, as I’m more of an improviser in the kitchen and in life, and badly in need of organizational skills. My husband, in turn, is so excited that I would later have to talk him out of buying a pickle jar for our home in Chicago. I know my own capacity for improvement, and maintaining a pickle jar is, quite frankly, out of my reach.
As authentic as everything we’re preparing is, Andoh always suggests alternatives. For the roasted Manganji peppers with creamy miso dressing, she suggests poblano peppers, which have the requisite heat, and we make quick vinegar pickles out of ordinary red radishes. But certain things are irreplaceable (and I would even suggest, worth crossing the ocean for) and one of these is fresh sansho (peppercorn) pods. Elizabeth shows me how she makes tsukudani out of the spent kombu and these delightfully fragrant, spicy and tongue-numbing green pods. The result is an intensely flavored delicacy worthy of being served at the most exclusive of kaiseki restaurants. Now, this, I think to myself, I can do.²
We are now ready to plate our meal, and for this, Andoh leads us to the other side of the kitchen and slides open the doors of her tableware cupboard. Taking out a lacquer tray and setting out a few dishes of various colors and shapes, she explains the placement of the traditional washoku setting (the rice bowl is always on the left, and turned upside down before the rice is served) and invites us to play with different combinations of ceramic and lacquer dishes and bowls. For her own setting, she chooses a seasonal chopstick rest and classic blue and white. My husband chooses somber tones, while I go for color. We learn about plating, including attractive placement of food (for instance, taking care to either arrange pepper strips in a mountain-like mound in the middle of a bowl, or stacking them neatly horizontally.)
We sit down to enjoy our feast and long-awaited chat, for as you can imagine, Andoh is fascinating. I never expected to learn so much in such a short amount of time. That she was willing to spend so much time with us is a testament to her generosity and nurturing sensei nature. In sharing just some of her methods with readers of Savory Japan, I hope it will encourage others to take a class with Andoh as well. It’s worth scheduling your trip to Japan around, because the depth of understanding you’ll gain here is priceless.
1: Determined to continue my tamagoyaki tutelage, I ordered a beautiful hand-made copper pan at Aritsugu after the lesson. Unfortunately, I was told that they are so much in demand that it would take six months to receive, so my quest to make a perfect omelet continues.
2: Before departing Kyoto, we purchased fresh sansho pods at the Nishiki market, carefully sealed them in multiple layers of plastic wrap, and smuggled them home. I parboiled and quickly froze them, so we can enjoy this incomparable taste throughout the year. I’m not a law breaker, but the risk was worth it.