Sharing Lessons From a Farm in Japan
By DAVID TANIS
THOUGH she had intended to spend only one year abroad, Nancy Singleton Hachisu has lived in a small village in rural Japan for more than 20.
As she says, “I came for the food, but stayed for love.” A native Californian, she met Tadaaki, an organic farmer, married him and has been there ever since, raising a family, absorbing the culture and cooking up a storm. Her personal stories make her just-released cookbook, “Japanese Farm Food,” come alive.
I first met Nancy when I cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Whenever she was in town for a visit, she always came by for a meal or two. She quickly turned from diner to friend, and finally ended up helping out in the kitchen. Her visits always included piles of gifts, a habit picked up in Japan. Sometimes it was a smuggled package of delicate bean curd, sometimes a handmade teacup, but she never arrived empty-handed.
That kind of generosity extends to her cookbook, in which she shares two decades’ worth of cooking knowledge in a disarmingly intimate way.
Nancy is fearless (she says “stubborn” is a better word for it). She simply jumps in and learns. Used to the weather in temperate Northern California, where seasons change only subtly, and it never snows, she needed to change her mind-set when relocating to the Japanese countryside.
Instead of year-round produce, there were harsh winters to contend with, and the concept of real seasonal farm cooking gained meaning. As she discovered, vegetables there during the warmer months are abundant, yet eating farm-to-table often means having the same vegetables for weeks on end, waiting for the next plantings’ offerings to appear.
She writes of tackling daily tasks: pickle-making, rice-planting and the hard labor of harvesting, and joining in seasonal rituals. There’s a lovely description of the communal celebratory pounding of mochi (glutinous rice) for the Japanese New Year to make traditional sweet rice cakes. (Of course, being stubborn as well as foreign, Nancy also insists on her own tradition of Champagne and French gougères for Christmas.)
The book offers a breadth of information, with lessons about Japanese products and techniques, and instructions for everything from homemade tofu to udon noodles. But for me, the recipes for simple vegetable dishes, often flavored with only a bit of miso or a splash of sake, are the most fascinating.
When I made the steamed kabocha squash, I found it astonishingly delicious, straight from the pan or cold the next day. Likewise, the easy salt-massaged cucumbers with roasted sesame proved the point that mindful cooking with minimal ingredients can produce marvelous results.