2 minutes with Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Occupation: Cookbook Author & Educator
Business: Sunny-Side Up!
Age: Old enough
Lives: Kamikawa-machi, Saitama prefecture, Japan (2 hrs NE of Tokyo)
How did your career take you into writing cookbooks?
I have been obsessed with food since a small child and have been cooking since I was about 10 and seriously since I was 16. I worked in busy bars and on the floor of restaurants in San Francisco for about 8 years after college in the 80s. I wanted to go to culinary school but did not have enough money and also wondered if working in a restaurant kitchen would dull my desire to cook at home.
I needed to get out of “the life” and decided to apply to grad school for joint JD/MA in Japanese Studies programs. And with this plan in place, went to Japan for a year to teach English. Why Japan? Because I fell in love with sushi in the early 80s. My first sushi master was 22-year-old Sachio Kojima at Onna no Shiro in San Francisco. When Sachio opened his own shop, Kabuto, I followed him there. And it was because of the food and the peaceful feeling that enveloped me when I sat down at the sushi counter that compelled me to want to learn Japanese and to live in Japan for a year. (Coincidentally, Sachio’s son, Chase Kojima is chef at Sokyo in Sydney.)
In Japan, one of my first students was a farmer boy named Tadaaki Hachisu. We became friends and 7 months later he proposed. We have three sons: Christopher, 26; Andrew, 22; and Matthew, 20. We home-schooled (as in unschooled or farm schooled) our sons and I also ran an immersion English school. But I always had the idea to write cookbooks. There were several I wanted to write, but Japanese Farm Food seemed to be the book that people wanted. And so I wrote a proposal, found an agent, and signed with Andrews McMeel (all in the space of an intense five months). The book was well received and I followed it with Preserving the Japanese Way.
Tell us about your new cookbook, coming out next year?
Japan: The Cookbook (April 2018) is in the Phaidon country “bible” series. Encapsulating the food of a whole country is almost impossible. While I did travel all over Japan forging relationships and gathering material over the course of 1 and 1/2 years, ultimately the book took a different shape. The recipes in Japan: The Cookbook harken from an era of prosperity in Japan: the bubble years of the 70s and 80s. The food is very veg-centric and also has roots in traditional Japanese temple food. The dishes are light, bright, and rely on sesame, sea greens, dried fish, and Japanese citrus to add texture and flavour. I am very excited about this “new” material.
Can you describe to us your organic farm that you live on in rural Japan?
Hmm. We renovated my husband’s 80-year-old family farmhouse in 2000 to remove the modernizations of the 70s and restore the old feeling of the traditional Japanese farmhouse, at the same time as introducing modern conveniences like a restaurant-sized fridge and oven range as well as floor heating. The farm consists of fields here and there near our house. My husband and his family grew the food they ate, and my husband continues this custom, though today we also buy from friends. My husband and his family never sold vegetables. They had chickens. Now my husband grows organic soybeans and wheat for Yamaki Jozo—our local organic soy sauce/miso/tofu company.
Why are fermented foods so important in the Japanese diet?
Fermented foods are important to everyone’s diet. In Japan they have a 1000-year food tradition of fermented foods, so they are intrinsic to Japanese food culture. Sadly, most fermented foods today are made with sub-standard ingredients (often imported), using accelerated fermentation, and some contain MSG.
Favourite phrase in Japanese and what does it mean?
“Aji aru” it means something has taste—as in is viscerally cool—almost like you can taste it. This saying most likely refers to objects.
For people just starting out at fermenting, what should they make?
Salt-fermented Napa cabbage: it employs the same techniques as for sauerkraut. Kim chee is also simple and delicious and ferments quickly.
You can follow Nancy on Instagram @nancyhachisu