More Than Miso: Food Writer In Japan Records Struggling Region's Cuisine

Feb 9, 2012
Originally published on February 9, 2012 3:15 pm

If there was a Julia Child of Japanese cooking — a witty and passionate interpreter of the cuisine — Elizabeth Andoh would fit the bill nicely.

As an exchange student back in the 1960s, Andoh came to Japan from New York to pursue anthropology. She fell in love, but not just with a local businessman. She is also devoted to parsing and explaining the finer points of Japanese cuisine to the rest of the world, as a writer for Gourmet, cookbook author and culinary teacher in suburban Tokyo.

One thing Andoh has learned along the way is that traditional dishes often disappear during periods of upheaval — like right now.

Next month marks one year since the triple crisis — the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident — pummeled Japan. But concerns about food safety in the aftermath of the nuclear accident have hampered recovery of regions like Tohoku — a prime producer of seafood, delicacies like miso paste, and sake. So Andoh decided to help by raising money doing what she does best: publishing a cookbook.

But instead of her usual lavish coffee-table tome, this book would have to be shorter and published online only, to be completed in time for the one-year disaster anniversary.

Andoh's mission this time is also to save Tohoku by documenting its obscure regional cuisine.

Chilly and remote, with both mountains and a long coast, Tohoku cooking draws heavily on foodstuffs dating back 5,000 years.

"Some of the foodstuffs that I've tried to give a new life to — the seeds, the nuts, the dried flowers — they're not things that people normally would think of using in the kitchen," she says.

Documenting the cuisine is challenging work, in part because many residents have scattered. Some are living in temporary housing while others have moved to other parts of Japan, she says.

"There's a sense of urgency I feel that before it gets too assimilated, that people share their food memories with me so I can get it out there to a larger audience," Andoh says.

Andoh's e-book includes delicacies such as walnut and miso-stuffed herb leaves, enoki mushrooms with dried chrysanthemum petals, and persimmons in pine-nut sauce. But the cover displays just three rice balls — the Japanese equivalent of a peanut-butter sandwich.

"Because it travels well, doesn't have to be reheated, it became the first food that survivors ate," she says. "That's the whole point. It's comforting, because it's recognizable. It's the thing you want when everything else is falling apart."

Andoh's book, Kibo, Brimming with Hope, will be released this month in digital form only, with half the proceeds going to the recovery of Tohoku.

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Next month marks one year since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan, causing a meltdown at a coastal nuclear plant. The region, known as Tohoku, is a prime producer of seafood, miso paste and sake. But concerns about food safety after the meltdown have hampered its recovery.

As Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, one of the world's leading experts on Japanese food, an American woman, is now lending a hand.

ELIZABETH ANDOH: It's a nihai-zu or a vinegar sauce on top of it.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: If there's a Julia Child of Japanese cooking classes, a witty and passionate interpreter of Japan's cuisine, transplanted New Yorker Elizabeth Andoh would fit the bill nicely.

ANDOH: But the color is less vibrant. It's just embarrassingly simple. I'll explain it to you a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CRAFT: As an exchange student back in the 1960s, the former Elizabeth Sachs came to Japan to pursue anthropology. She fell in love, but not just with a local businessman. Her life has been devoted to parsing and explaining the finer points of Japanese cuisine to the rest of the world, as writer for "Gourmet" magazine, cookbook author, and culinary teacher in suburban Tokyo.

ANDOH: You can just pull off the feet...

CRAFT: After the triple disaster struck Tohoku last year, Andoh was in a quandary. Slowed by illness, she focused on raising money for what she does best - publishing a cookbook. But this book, instead of her usual lavish coffee table tome, would be shorter and published only online. Andoh's mission to help save Tohoku, by documenting its obscure regional cuisine.

ANDOH: There's a physical Diaspora, if you will. There are evacuees that are still unfortunately in temporary housing. Some of them have been physically moved to other parts of Japan.

CRAFT: Regional cuisines are a moving target. Traditional dishes often disappear during periods of upheaval, like right now.

ANDOH: So there's a sense of urgency that I feel before it gets too assimilated, that people will be able to share with me their food memories so that I can get it out there to a larger audience.

CRAFT: Chilly and remote, with both mountains and a long coast, Tohoku cooking draws heavily on foodstuffs dating back 5,000 years.

ANDOH: Much of it is quite ancient. The area itself goes back to the Jomon period. We're talking about, you know, millennia. And some of the foodstuffs that I've tried to sort of give a new life to – the seeds, the nuts, the dried flowers – they're not things that normally people would think of using in their kitchen.

CRAFT: Andoh's cookbook includes delicacies, such as walnut and miso-stuffed herb leaves, enoki mushrooms with dried chrysanthemum petals, and persimmons in pine nut sauce. But the cover of her e-book displays just three rice balls, the Japanese equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich.

ANDOH: Because it travels well and doesn't have to be reheated, it became the first food that survivors ate. That's the whole point. It's comforting, because it's recognizable. It's the thing that you want when everything else around you is falling apart.

CRAFT: Andoh's book, "Kibo, Brimming with Hope," is being released this month in digital form only, with half the proceeds going to the recovery of Tohoku.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.