“If someone asks me what the most essential Japanese food is, I answer that it’s steamed rice,” says Naoyuki Yanagihara of the Yanagihara School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine. Naoyuki (or Mr. Yanagihara) and his father, Kazunari, head this school founded by Naoyuki's grandfather, Toshio, to teach Japanese cuisine and cha-kaiseki (kaiseki cuisine for tea ceremony) to keepers of ordinary households.
Gohan, steamed rice, is the staple of the Japanese diet. It’s no exaggeration to say that okazu, side dishes, are prepared to make gohan supremely palatable. Gohan and miso soup go perfectly with okazu dishes cooked with such fermented seasonings as soy sauce, miso, sake, rice vinegar, and mirin sweetener that evoke the taste of rice.
Mr. Yanagihara teaches recipes and of concepts of cha-kaiseki. He says, “Kaiseki cuisines are for welcoming guests. People tend to think kaiseki is hard to deal with, but it was originally an expression of the spirit of hospitality through regular homemade food prepared with a little extra labor. So the ultimate home cooking is the essence of kaiseki cuisine.”
Sushi and tempura are renowned representatives of Japanese cuisine, but they originated from the culture of yatai food stalls in the Edo period, and are not considered to be regular household dishes.
The roles of yatai meals for casual, quick eating and ko-ryoriya meals for drinking differ from those of homemade meals that typically feature ichi-ju-san-sai (soup and rice bowls plus three side dishes) eaten at a dining table at home. Gohan, the essence of the homemade cuisines, is an indispensable food.
Mr. Yanagihara says that Japan’s cuisine ingeniously reflects its culture and seasons. Japanese traditionally prepared meals featuring bonito for tango-no-sekku festivities celebrating boys’ healthy growth on May 5, and thin, white cold soumen noodles resembling the Milky Way of summer night skies for tanabata festivities on July 7.
As Japanese seek seasonal foods for their typical diets, Mr. Yanagihara teaches recipes that vary by season. So in spring, when warming seas enhance the taste of shelled seafood, he instructs others how to make broiled turban shells (sazae) and marinated Japanese cockles. He combines such side dishes in wakatake sushi, a staple food containing young bamboo shoots and seaweed. In addition to such traditional fare, he favors a more modern meal of an omelet-style dish with delicious spring tomatoes and green peas.
Mr. Yanagihara says, “My grandfather opened Yanagihara School because he felt that Japan’s fading dietary culture was in a state of crisis.” As Japan’s society, including its culture of home cooking, has changed with the incursion of Western cultures, he feels that “traditional diets can be sustained only if parents make traditional meals at home and children learn to appreciate their tastes.”
He adds that “how well we savor food largely depends on our experience with it, so we can’t truly relish what we suddenly start eating if we are unaccustomed to it.” In his view, the Japanese diet can be sustained only through daily enjoyment of meals, mainly of gohan along with side dishes made with the most suitable seasonal ingredients.
Mr. Yanagihara is open to making Japanese cuisine more modern, although “for Japanese cuisine, my father and grandfather’s generations used only Japanese traditional ingredients, even charcoal for cooking.” Now, Japanese cuisine and its fans benefit from the advantages of fresh food imported from all over the world and the latest innovations in cooking equipment.
As Japanese tastes have become more sophisticated over the decades, Mr. Yanagihara wants to accommodate them: “Now more people feel that meals made by using my grandfather’s recipes are rather salty, and they prefer more lightly seasoned meals that take full advantage of ingredients' innate flavors accompanied by proper Japanese dashi soup stock.”
Lately, foreign visitors have been taking lessons in Mr. Yanagihara’s classes, reflecting growing interest in Japanese cuisine beyond sushi, tempura, and sukiyaki.
“They are especially interested in Japanese dashi soup stocks,” he says. Now, it takes much less time to make Japanese dashi bouillon than the lengthy process of boiling meat and bones to condense the umami taste into bouillon. However, in another unique aspect of Japanese food culture, it still takes a lot of time and labor to produce katsuo-bushi and kombu (dried kelp) that are dashi soup base.
Starting August 2015, Mr. Yanagihara will travel around the world for three months as a cultural emissary commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, essentially to promote intriguing aspects of traditional and contemporary Japanese dietary cultures.
Simple undyed cotton cloth called sarashi is used in various ways in Japanese cooking — for example, for sieving and removing katsuo-bushi from a saucepan to extract dashi soup stock, and wiping excess moisture from food. Pupils in Yanagihara School use such cloths of various sizes, cut from a bigger (0.34m wide x 12m long) piece of Japanese traditional base cloth.
Japan is blessed with water, and Japanese cooking uses ample amounts of it to boil (niru) and parboil (yugaku) food, so sieves are frequently used. Bamboo sieves (me-zaru) are convenient for picking up boiled vegetables from scalding water.
Rice used for sushi is mixed with sushi vinegar (sushi-zu) made of salt, sugar, and rice vinegar, and handai is an indispensable for preparing sushi rice. Since this tool is made of sawara cypress, excess moisture contained in rice and seasoning can be absorbed and minimized, for ideal preparation of sushi rice.
A pan exclusively for steaming rice, the staple of Japanese cuisine. Although electric steamers are popular in Japan, Mr. Yanagihara teaches how to steam rice using o-kama. The Japanese even have a verb, taku, used only for “boiling and steaming rice”. Ideally, cooked rice (gohan) is easy to eat, soft, plump, and without excessive moisture. The technique for making such ideal rice is a basic requisite applicable to boiling other food.