'Martha Stewart' of Japan
|||Put together a Harumi Kurihara kind of spread|
|||Thai ginger chicken a quick simmer|
|||Lighten coffee cake with Splenda, low-fat options|
|||Her 'fluffy' icing may take cake|
|||White wine you're missing|
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Even in an e-mail that's passed through the hands of a translator, you can hear Harumi Kurihara's dismay: Japan's most popular cooking expert and lifestyle maven has once again seen her name coupled with that of Martha Stewart.
It's inevitable: Stewart is shorthand for the career that Kurihara, a very young-looking 59, has carved out. She publishes a cooking magazine, writes cookbooks, gives classes, appears on TV, has a line of cookware products and works with a number of restaurants who use her recipes. Her latest project, and the first to be released in America, is "Harumi's Japanese Cooking" (Home/Berkley Publishing Group, hardback, $27.95), her premiere English-language cookbook, previously a hit for Penguin in the United Kingdom.
But when it comes to that Harumi/Martha thing, she writes, "I demurely disagree. Martha is an entrepreneur but I am a housewife, and I want to continue." Harumi K — her brand and the name by which she is universally known — acknowledges that she is a housewife who leaves her home each day to meet her business commitments. Still, her kitchen and dining room are where her heart is.
She grew up in a very traditional Japanese family near Izu, where the imperial family has a country home, watching her mother prepare three from-scratch meals a day while also helping with the family's printing business. After she married TV announcer Reiji Kurihara, she adopted her mother's habits: rising early, making meals special family occasions, and choosing fresh, seasonal ingredients and presenting them as prettily as possible.
Although Harumi-the-housewife is also now Harumi K-the-company, a typical day still begins before dawn, when, like her mother, she relishes her private time. She feeds the two cats and the goldfish, prepares breakfast for her husband, does a few cleaning chores or gets started on some cooking for later in the day. Her husband makes tea and the two sit together and discuss their children (they have two) and their schedules. Both then go off to work, but Harumi tries to be home most nights to prepare dinner, which, she said in our e-mail interview, "usually lasts 2-3 hours and is always fun."
If her first debt of gratitude is to her mother's training, her second is to her husband, who urged her not to just "wait at home" for him, but to "do lots of things." Stymied by a lack of training and work experience — except for a few occasions when she worked in the kitchen of the imperial country home — she decided to fall back on the thing she knew and loved best: cooking. She began teaching classes for housewives, sending food stories to magazines and, in 1992, published her first cookbook, "Gochisosama Ga Kikitakute!," which means "I want to hear you say delicious!"
"The publisher hated the title. 'It is too casual and inappropriate. It sounds like the title of an essay, not a book' was the complaint," Harumi K writes. "But I did not compromise. The book sold over a million copies and remains in print. I feel vindicated."
Harumi K's culinary style weaves like a bon-dance line back and forth between washoku, traditional Japanese cooking, and yoshoku, Western-style cuisine. She'll throw shredded gobo into a hamburger or make a delicately flavored sauce from tofu and avocado (not a traditional Japanese food). She enjoys the process of cooking, and believes freshly cooked food is best, but she doesn't disdain shortcuts when they serve her purpose. Among the most popular dishes she's created is a carrot and tuna salad in which julienned carrot slices are cooked tender-crisp in the microwave, then tossed with canned tuna and a light vinaigrette with just a touch of shoyu.
In one key ingredient, she does not compromise: Dashi, the mother stock of Japan, is best from scratch, she insists, then proceeds to show how easy it is to combine water, kombu seaweed and katsuo boshi (dried bonito flakes) for a broth that, unlike the powdered kind, is not overly salty.
Another Harumi K signature is presentation and it is here that she could potentially spark a fad in America, as Japan's passion for lots of small, perfect, mismatched plates has not yet jumped across the water. She is a passionate collector of serving pieces — "I would become so bored if I could only use round plates" or one dish pattern — and divided her collection into three divisions.
There are everyday, inexpensive pieces, often in white or black; "dollhouse" dishes that are generally tiny and in a wide variety of styles and colors; and "reward dishes," bowls, platters, bento boxes and such that are larger, one-of-a-kind and often more costly — these she buys as treats for herself. Porcelain spoons, unusual chopsticks, chopstick rests, napkin holders and other accessories round out her collection. Among the most intriguing pictures in the new book are peeks inside the drawers where she stores her treasures.
As in the U.S., the world of the Japanese homemaker is changing rapidly. More women work out of the home — though Harumi K acknowledges that "working women face many challenges" in Japan. Eating habits are changing, incorporating Western ingredients and ways. Everyone is busier but Japanese women have help in the form of readily available, high-quality department-store takeout. "Many wives and mothers rely on these delicious take-home prepared foods, and using the plastic containers allows for fast cleanup," Harumi K wrote in her e-mail to The Advertiser. "But I think women should feel a little guilty about relying too much on store-bought things. They should serve the food on real dishes, prepare side dishes like sauteed spinach and maybe prepare a full meal on a day off," she suggests.
Trends in Japan are very similar to those in the U.S., she wrote: "Healthy cuisine. No-pesticide vegetables. Calorie-counting. Things that are anti-carcinogenic. There is a new sensitivity (to these things)."
Japanese housewives make routine use of many Western ingredients, including avocados, pastas and other things Italian, and fresh herbs such as basil and mint, and Chinese vegetables. "Housewives don't hesitate to use new things," she said, noting that one of the central principles of a Japanese-style diet is variety, consuming as many as 30 different ingredients (in small quantities, of course) a day. Spaghetti is as popular with Japanese kids as curry rice and tonkatsu.
Harumi K's American tour won't bring her to Hawai'i, but that doesn't mean she isn't familiar with the Islands. She and her husband have visited five times — they were here last February — and like it so much they daydream about living here. Maybe we'll see a Harumi K store in Waikiki.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.