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O japońskiej kuchni od kuchni - Rozmowa z Miyuki Suyari Wyróżniony

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Przez pierwsze tygodnie w Tokio chodzę głodna. Ceny warzyw i owoców (które dotąd zajadałam kilogramami) odstraszają. W nastawionych na ekspatów supermarketach National Azabu bulwa selera kosztuje 2000 jenów, a (jedno!) jabłko – 250. Przy domu mamy też sklep najtańszej bodaj w Tokio sieci Hanamasa, ale tu z kolei większość proponowanych produktów jest mi zupełnie nieznana. Ciągle zaliczam kulinarne wpadki. Jajka, które próbuję wbić do ciasta naleśnikowego są już ugotowane. Dodana do sałatki czerwona fasolka z puszki okazuje się słodka jak ulepek. Wszystko zmienia się, gdy trafiam na Miyuki Suyari, wychowaną w USA Japonkę, która w swoim tokijskim mieszkaniu wprowadza cudzoziemców w tajniki japońskiej kuchni…

1. Miyuki san lepsze mniejsze

Anna Jassem: You are not a chef by training and have lived and worked all over the world. What led you to start teaching Japanese cooking in Japan?

Miyuki Suyari: I have always loved to cook. When I was 9, I baked my first cake for St. Patrick's Day at my school in Anchorage Alaska (where my family lived for 7 years), using a Betty Crocker Cake Mix. Then I got this really fantastic cookbook for Christmas from my father - “Great Dishes of the World in Colour”. (picks up a worn-out book from the pile at the floor) That’s how I have started cooking. It was the only book I had, so I would randomly choose whatever dish and that is what we would have that day. By the time I was 12, I would prepare full-course dinners for my family, as both my parents were working.


Did you dream of becoming a chef back then?

Not really, after university I started working for Sony in Japan. As part of my job, I went on business trips all around the world. Our foreign distributors would take me to the local Japanese restaurants, many of which served something very different from the authentic Japanese food: sushi without vinegar, California rolls with only cucumber inside or shabu-shabu with very thick slices of meat. This gave me the idea to try teaching to foreigners what the real Japanese cuisine is.


And when did the opportunity arise?

When we went to London for 4 years because of my husband’s job, I started teaching sushi making to my neighbours. It was a great discovery for them because all they had known before was the dry and cold sushi from the supermarket cold section. I decided to expand on this experience when we returned to Japan. Simply Oishii Cooking Classes kicked off in September 2014. So far, it has been a fantastic experience, bringing together my passions for cooking and meeting new people. It also allows me to work from home and thus spend more time with my two sons.


What makes your cooking classes different from other courses available in Tokyo? 3. Miyuki san mniejsze

The main difference, I think, is that I try to cater more to foreigners living in Tokyo rather than tourists, who would typically learn just one famous Japanese dish like sushi or gyoza. Of course I do sushi and gyoza classes too but my aim is to give my students a more solid understanding of Japanese cuisine.

Also, I try to use the same ingredients that I use for my family - organic, additives and preservative free – and am very conscious of where they come from, whether it is a vegetable, seafood or meat.

Finally, the fact that the course takes place at my home means that I’m quite flexible and can accommodate different requests. For instance, I’m happy to provide alternatives to meat, as you know yourself. Nowadays, there are couple of cooking schools in Tokyo that teach Japanese cooking to big crowds of students in a classroom-type of setting. Obviously, in such situation the student has little say on the menu…


Indeed, it’s a totally different approach than having people over in your own living room.

I call my students guests to my house. I try to provide them with an omotenashi [Japanese hospitality] experience and teach them not only about Japanese cooking but Japan and its culture as such. Actually, three ladies, who have done an intensive cooking course with me, have just asked me for a dedicated class on Japanese etiquette, e.g. on how to return a favour or host a dinner.


And what is your most popular class?

An intensive course that consists of five classes, which progressively teach the basics of Japanese home cooking, from dashi (fish soup stock) to banno sauce (a versatile sweet sauce) to differentkinds of miso and tofu. It also includes a supermarket tour, as I am aware of how overwhelmed newcomers to Japan may feel by all the unfamiliar products, labelled in Kanji. To further help foreigners find their way in Japanese supermarkets, I have also created a Tokyo Grocery Shopping Guide on my website.

2.produkty 300 4. potrawa 300

What kinds of students are coming to your school?

I think I have already had all the nationalities. The American and British students are probably most numerous. After one of my French-speaking Canadian students wrote an article on my class, I have also had lots of French students. Quite a few Eastern Europeans and Asian students also…


Am I your first Polish student?

Actually I did have one Polish student, living in Tokyo for a couple of years, join a few of my classes.


What part of the cooking class do your students like the most?

Maybe you could tell me? (laughing)


To me, the biggest eye-opener was the supermarket tour. Being able to finally tell full milk from skim, margarine from butter and raw eggs from boiled ones has saved me lots of unpleasant surprises! And it gave me the courage to start using local, seasonal ingredients instead of their Western equivalents, thus increasing the variety of our diet and reducing costs. I have also loved the class on miso, which I had known very little about before. I was completely unaware of all its different varieties and the fact that you can use them in so many ways, beyond just miso soup.

Yes, and the same goes for tofu. Even for most Japanese people, its use is a big unknown. They eat it ashiyayakko[cold tofu with garnish] or add it to their miso soup or nabe [hotpot], and that’s it. To try and spread tofu knowledge to people, the National Tofu Association has created the system known as the Certified Tofu Meister. That’s how I have learnt more about tofu myself.


What do you see as the essence of Japanese cuisine?

It is all about harmony. This comes from the old Chinese Yin-Yang theory, the notion that you have to balance one element with another. And in Japan everything is counted in five: you have five flavours (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami), five colours (white, black, red, green and yellow) etc. So for instance in a bento box, you should try to put at least two colours, in addition to white, to ensure balance. We also pay a lot of attention to detail, even things such as the way of cutting food to make it more pleasant for the mouth.


You are also familiar with Western cooking and even teach Western dishes to the Japanese. What is the main difference between these culinary traditions?

In general, Japanese cooking uses fewer ingredients in one dish. We will choose one or two seasonal ingredients and make them the stars of the whole culinary project, using minimum extras to make them stand out. For instance, in autumn we grill sanma [pacific saury] and serve it with a splash of sudachi [citrus fruit] juice, and in winter we will stew buri [yellow tail] with daikon [radish] in dashi seasoned with soy sauce. This contrasts with Western cuisine, where you mix a lot of ingredients (e.g. to make a stew) or cover fish with a cream sauce. Also, we typically cook for a shorter time, to preserve the taste of the ingredients. For instance, the best way to enjoy nabe is to cook each ingredient one by one, as each has a slightly different cooking time.


And yourself, which cuisine do you like the most?

(laughing) Now that I teach Japanese cooking, I should say Japanese, but I really like all kind of cuisines: French, Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian... But it’s true that it’s the Japanese food that is a comfort food for me.


What type of Japanese food did you miss most when you lived outside Japan?

Probably sushi and sashimi that is of really good quality. Staples like soy sauce, sake, rice vinegar etc. are available almost everywhere even if they are not of top quality and much more expensive than in Japan. And definitely, wherever we lived, we would always cook Japanese sticky rice.


The Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world and obesity is almost non-existent. Many say that it’s the diet that explains Japanese longevity and you hear a lot about the health benefits of super-foods such as shiitake mushrooms or seaweed. At the same time, I was quite astonished to see how much sugar is used in savoury dishes. The salt content also seems to be quite high due to the use of soy sauce or miso. So finally: healthy or not so much?

It’s true that we do use a lot of sugar in cooking but on the other hand we don't eat desserts after meals. In the UK, kids are always told to eat their dinner or else they will not get their pudding. And our sweets are less sweet that in the West, nothing like the American sweeter-than-sugar cakes. So I think that overall we do not consumer more sugar. As for high salt intake, it is – at least partly – balanced by eating potassium-rich foods, which help neutralise sodium’s negative effects. We are in general very health-conscious people. We will eat a banana after ramen or add potatoes to miso soup to neutralise salt intake. Also, recent studies show that fermented products such as miso reduce blood pressure, which explains why, on average, Japanese have lower blood pressure than other nationalities that consume the same amount of salt. I’ve also learned recently that the umami from the dashi helps to reduce appetite, preventing over-eating.

We are also no great meat eaters. Traditionally, until around a hundred years ago, the Japanese would eat only fish because Buddhist monks were vegetarian. Experts say that the Japanese diet was actually the healthiest in the 1970s, whereas nowadays eating habits are westernising and people eat more and more junk foot and meat.


But in general it appears that the Japanese eat less. Portion sizes in restaurants or supermarkets are much smaller than in the West.

Indeed, we have a saying that you should only eat until you are 80% full (hara hachi bu). Especially among the elderly, there is still a very strong mottainai spirit – that is we don’t want to waste and would only prepare as much as we can consume. This is in contrast with the Chinese culture, where you always cook more than you can eat, especially when you’re entertaining. If your guests eat everything, it means that there was not enough and you were not a good host. I didn't know about it when I first went to Singapore, so when my Chinese hosts served me enormous amounts of food, including a whole-lobster sashimi, I struggled to eat it all, to which I received yet another lobster! While in Japan, you are expected to eat everything that you are served (but the portions are small), in the Chinese tradition you should leave something on your plate not to make your hosts lose face.


Talking of table manners, only in Japan have I realised that I have been consistently breaking some of the basic rules, e.g. dipping sushi rice (rather than fish) in soy sauce. What are other common breaches of etiquette made by foreigners?

Oh, but they will always get away with it because they are foreigners! (laughing). There is an extremely elaborate etiquette for using chopsticks. Even the Japanese are not fully aware of all the do’s and don'ts, each of which has its own name. In particular, you should not pass food with your chopsticks directly to somebody else’s chopsticks (utsushi bashi) or stick your chopsticks into rice (tate bashi), because of their connection to funeral rites. You are also not supposed to lick the tips of your chopsticks (neburi bashi) or wave them undecidedly over the plate as if you’re unable to decide what to eat (mayoi bashi). And so on and so forth…


Do you have any cooking tips or tricks that you could share?

Like other Japanese housewives, I don’t like wasting food, so I have quite a few tricks on storing food. For instance, ginger or shiso [Japanese basil] will stay fresh for a longer time if you put them in a jar of water. Miso can be perfectly well kept in a freezer. It will not become hard and can be used directly in your dishes. Freezing can also boost the nutritive value of some products like clams, whereas drying may intensify the taste. If you leave the leaves of a Chinese cabbage outside to dry overnight, they will become noticeably sweeter.


And any tips on how to buy cheaper? The prices of fruits, vegetables and dairy products seem outrageous compared to Europe…

Normally, I will go the supermarket when it has a promotion for particular products. Previously, this kind of information was attached to your local newspapers. Nowadays, you can find it online, for instance at ShuFoo! Platform, which informs you of all the promotions in your area on a given day. Usually, the reductions are quite substantial. For instance, here you see the promotion of komatsuma, which is normally around 150 yen and today you can get it for half the price.


Could you share one of your favourite recipes?

This is a recipe using tofu. Freezing a tofu is not common practice in Japan, but I think it is another great way to use tofu as it resembles chicken breast, so it is something like chicken-katsu (chicken breaded in panko)


Frozen Tofu Katsu (Shallow fried tofu with panko bread crumbs)

       Ingredients (for 2 persons)

Tofu                                  1 block

Panko Bread Crumbs        1/2 cup

Flour                                  2 tablespoons

Eggs                                   1/2

Salt &Pepper to taste

 1. Freeze the tofu in the refrigerator for overnight and defrost in room temperature. If you are in a hurry, you can put the tofu in a bowl and pour boiling water over it and let it stand until it is defrosted.

2. Cut the block of tofu in half vertically and then cut again in half horizontally, so you will have 4 pieces of tofu that are about 1.5 cm thick. (You can cut the tofu before freezing to save time defrosting)

3. Squeeze the water out from the tofu by placing it in between your hands and lightly pressing it. (Don’t press too hard). Beat the egg.

4. Lightly salt and pepper the tofu on both sides. Dust them with flour, dip in the beaten egg and bread with panko.

5. Heat a skillet on medium heat. Put 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Once it is hot, fry the tofu on both sides until golden brown. (There is no worry of undercooking a tofu as it can be eaten raw)

5. katsu1 mniejsze

6. Serve with tomato sauce or tonkatsu sauce. A great way to serve this - although it is not Japanese - is to make Tofu Parmesan, by adding parmesan cheese in the panko, then shallow frying as directed above and baking it in the oven with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

6. katsu2 mniejsze

 Thank you very much!






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