My latest cookbook, Gohan: Everyday Japanese Cooking: Memories and Stories of my Family’s Kitchen, will be out 12 September 2023 in the US, 14 September in the UK and Europe and 1 November in Australia.
It is a book I have been longing to write for many years, made up of a collection of my most favourite ever, nostalgic recipes of the Japanese home cooking that I grew up with.
It’s so very special to me that this book will be making its way out there in the world this autumn. It’s not just because it was a book that was originally turned down, or that it is sprinkled with old family photos and stories of the fascinating (and I think relatively little known) culinary history of Japan (like the 1,200 year old ban on meat that was only lifted 200 years ago, the Buddhist history of noodles and more), but the other thing that writing and researching this cookbook has done is it has opened up a deep exploration of my heritage that I think I have been suppressing since as long as I can remember.
But this is my soul food. This is the food I was born to crave. I may not speak Japanese fluently, but the food is the food I love most in the world. Being the first born of a Japanese mother, newly arrived in Australia as a young 20 year old, I am hardwired to with a preference for Japanese flavours and textures, with a love of the sharpness of rakkyo (pickled Chinese onion), the saltiness of umeboshi, the creamy bite of raw squid, the umami of dashi and a predisposition for a deep appreciation of tofu and anko (sweet red bean paste), the soul of all my favourite Japanese sweets. I would give up all the chocolate in the world for it.
This is what truly tastes like home to me. It is every day, home cooking: simple dishes, based on peak season foods, that my Japanese mother and grandmother made. The favourite bites and flavours from all our annual trips to Japan as a child and teenager, like onigiri, or the fried prawn sandwiches that remind me of my grandfather.
Here below I wanted to share a little interview that my publicist sent me to answer and I think the responses can help you get to know Gohan a little better too. I hope you enjoy it and if you’d like to pre-order Gohan now, it is such an enormous help for authors as it lets their publishers know that this is a book worthy to print (and keep printing)! Thank you in advance for all of your support.
Get to know Gohan, an interview with Kat Purcell and Emiko Davies
What dishes are quick to put together?
I wanted this cookbook to show people the very simple nature of Japanese home cooking. Things from the pickles (which are not only quick to make, 10 mins, but quick to pickle too — you can eat them after only a few hours of marinating), Dashi (the backbone of all the soup, sauce or stewed dishes, equivalent to a stock), only takes 10 minutes, the cold tofu (just add your favourite toppings and it’s ready in minutes), most of the vegetable dishes, in particular things like green beans with sesame, mushrooms with tofu sauce (these can be made with any vegetable as the base), miso soup (handful of minutes!), the clam soup (mere minutes too), are super quick.
Aside from the homemade tofu, everything in the breakfast chapter can be whipped up in under 10 minutes (many in 5). The egg and rice dish (tamagonogohan) is my go-to when I’m tired and hungry and takes about 3 minutes to cook (you use already cooked rice). Both the salmon and beef rice bowl take minutes to put together too (not counting the cooked rice, which if you’re doing in a rice cooker or if you’ve got it in a saucepan, is already being taken care of). The vegetable chapter too is a collection of quick dishes — salads that can be done in under 10 minutes, warm dishes that take only a few minutes to cook. Even the more involved dishes, like the Okara salad, only requires about 7 minutes of cooking time. I think the longest preparation in that chapter is the pumpkin braised in milk and that takes 20 minutes. Dishes like the cold somen noodles are just thrown together in minutes; yakisoba too — very quick. Yakitori only takes 10 minutes to cook.
Meanwhile, dishes like sukiyaki and te maki are wonderful too because you only need to chop and put things on a platter and the cooking (for sukiyaki) is done at the table together, while te maki is mostly raw. Even the Japanese curry from scratch is done in less than 30 minutes. In the sweets chapter, the kanten jelly is so quick — to make and to set. In 10 minutes it’s ready to eat, unlike traditional gelatin jellies. Arrowroot mochi takes only minutes to make too.
What makes them simpler than Italian cooking?
Japanese cooking is about preserving nutrients and flavours as much as possible so cooking times are quick because of this. It is, more even than Italian food, entirely dependent on ultra seasonal produce (I have a section about “shun”, the joy of peak of seasonality on page 113 — bookmark it for later! — so food is already at its most flavourful and you don’t want to ruin this beautiful produce by changing it too much, adding too many things or long cooking. Italian cooking on the other hand is about low and slow cooking to bring out flavours — think of the best ragu, which has been cooking for at least 3 hours, a day before you want to serve it. Or stewed white beans and hearty beef stews, which were traditionally cooked in front of the fireplace so they would take hours to cook (the beef because it was also very tough and needed hours of cooking to tenderise it). Japanese cooking is, by nature, fast cooking.
Which dishes are family favorites?
Well I have an entire chapter called Family Favourites 🙂 but to be honest, the entire book is! These are literally all of my favourite things from my childhood and adolescence, each and every recipe. But the Family Favourites chapter might be the top ones (and ones I think other families/groups of friends will love). The other dishes that are particularly special and personal to me are my grandmother’s clear clam soup and her lotus root and carrot kinpira, cold tofu with various delicious toppings for breakfast, my mother’s tamagonogohan (stir fried egg and rice), the fried prawn sando that reminds me of my grandfather and absolutely everything red bean.
I like that you substitute ingredients so home cooks can use what they have on hand.
This is all about home cooking and so the important thing for people to know is that they can use whatever is on hand. I try to give substitutions on most of the recipes — and I especially have tried to make this book accessible for vegetarians and vegans. There is this thought that Japanese cuisine is difficult/impossible for vegans/vegetarians because of the use of dashi and fish-based flavours. But starting with the Dashi itself, I give easy vegetarian substitutions (use kombu alone, the king of umami, you just leave out the katsuobushi), and so much of Japanese cuisine is vegetarian naturally (or pescatarian) — as you’ll read about in the book on page 16, meat was banned in Japan for 1,200 years!
What are some common substitutions from one season to the next?
At the beginning of the vegetables chapter I have a run down of some of the favourite vegetables you’ll see in Japanese cuisine, this is a tiny selection obviously but gives people an idea of what vegetables you can use for a more “authentic” flavour. But many of the dishes (being home cooking) are simply about using what you have on hand and what is in season. For example, the seasoned okra dish is one my Obaachan (grandmother) would make usually with spinach, but in the summer, I think okra is a really nice version (said to also help keep you cool in hot weather); the sesame dressing in the green bean dish is also one that you can do with any vegetables that are seasonal — delicious with just grated carrot, blanched broccoli or snow peas too. Miso soup as well is highly seasonal, so any vegetables (or fish or tofu) you decide to put in there can reflect that — kabocha pumpkin in the autumn is one of my favourites, daikon and napa cabbage in the winter are so comforting too.
Did you learn this from your Obaachan?
I learned this from noticing everything on Obaachan’s table, I recognised how she would make the same kind of preparations with different vegetables, and I always looked forward to every meal she cooked, each variation, paying close attention to what she had made. I also learned about different flavours with my grandfather — he didn’t cook but he loved food and we had the same tastes, the same preferences for things like sharp rakkyo pickles, sweet, chilled mochi and salty grilled fish roe gobbled up with rice. My mother too was the queen of using what was on hand to make a delicious meal, substituting always this or that for something she would have used in Japan. She was cooking for me mostly in Australia (or China, where we lived for 8 years), but it was in Australia where not always was it easy to get the exact same ingredients.
What lessons about home cooking did you learn as a young girl/woman?
I learned so many things. First, that cooking is a direct link “home” — my mother cooking her mother’s food was a way to imagine we were at my grandmother’s table, far away in Japan. That cooking at home is a joy, that you can open the fridge or go out into the garden and get inspired right then on the spot to make something based on what you have around you. Living in Australia and China we didn’t always have access to the “right” ingredients but my mother always made sure to bring back certain things with her from trips in Japan so that we could have our favourites. And even without those things, with a limited pantry of just the very basics, you can make many, many wonderful dishes that satisfied all my cravings for my Obaachan’s food.
What are the most essential pantry staples to have on hand?
This is a common question I have already been asked a lot! So I have written a whole section on this in the introduction, you’ll find it from page 19 — “On ingredients” and “My essential Japanese Pantry”, where I talk about the bare minimum needed. Living in Tuscany where it’s not easy to get foreign ingredients, I cook a lot with just this bare minimum — a handful or two of ingredients: soy sauce, kombu and katsuobushi or at least some dashi powder, proper Japanese rice (of course), miso paste (I’ve just learned to make my own from Yuki’s kitchen in London, she does online classes), rice vinegar for sushi rice and pickles, Japanese sesame oil — this one isn’t super essential but it is one of my favourite flavours ever so I always have this!
Your Japanese background is interesting (especially since you grew up in Australia and traveled a lot). Was Japanese food important to your family? How did your parents keep Japanese traditions alive? How did your peers view your heritage?
Very important. Growing up, my mother cooked for us every day (we rarely ever ate out) and she cooked all kinds of things but we all — my father, my siblings and I — loved Japanese food, me in particular most of all. I think it’s quite natural for her to want to cook her own food for herself and her family whenever she could. She still does. It’s the Japanese dishes like sukiyaki (that I call “welcome home sukiyaki”) and te maki that she knows are the family favourites that she makes for us when I arrive home from being overseas (I’ve lived overseas, far, far away from my family since I was 17 years old). It’s a love language. I get the feeling that she also feels out of balance when she doesn’t have Japanese food for a while and craves it. At least I know that I feel like this sometimes too. My mother also took my siblings and I to Japan every year as kids — we would spend a good portion of our school holidays visiting my grandparents. When I was 12 I even stayed for a whole summer by myself, I flew over alone, and stayed with my grandparents and when we moved to Beijing, we were even closer so it was easier to visit.
This is your first Japanese cookbook, tell me more. Why now?
To be perfectly open about this, I put this cookbook proposal through in late 2019 and I believe it was turned down on account of the sales team convincing the publisher that Asian cookbooks are not as sellable as Italian cookbooks, which I found problematic, racist, not to mention hurtful. Ironically, they also cited that they didn’t need my book as they were publishing Japanese cookbooks already so they had enough (written by a white chef, of course). But them turning it down meant that I was free to take this book to a new publisher and I’m thrilled to find Smith Street Books was as enthusiastic about it as I was (full circle moment, my new publisher was actually my very first publisher, who I signed my contract for Florentine with back in 2014).
Why now? I think that many things have happened between 2020-2023 that have allowed more diversity in food media beginning in the US — for Asian voices in particular, especially after events that led to the Stop AAPI hate movement, for example. But I personally think that this book would have been well received even before all of this, and I could have found a new publisher earlier but I had honestly lost my confidence and felt a bit lost — I had planned to visit Japan in March 2020 to do more research on the book and strengthen my proposal with new photos, then the pandemic hit and I shuffled it away. Then books came out like Hetty McKinnon’s To Asia With Love and Eric Kim’s Korean American — where finally these favourite authors of mine wrote about their own heritage and these books have had enormous success.
Photographs are mostly by me, but also my sister Hana Davies contributed and did ALL the post processing of the photographs, including the old family photos and Yuki Sugiura, a London based Japanese photographer, did the step by step photos and many other beautiful images for several of the recipes. The location photographs were taken by me in Japan, September 2022, while the country was still in pandemic mode and not yet open to visitors.
Design and illustrations by the wonderful, uber-talented Evi O, an Indonesian-Australian artist and designer based in Sydney. This is the first time I have been able to choose my designer and I instantly picked Evi. I have long loved her work and her love of Japanese art and design I knew would be an interesting fit.
Editing, my project editor Hannah Koelmeyer, is half Sri Lankan, half Australian, and is someone I worked with originally with my first cookbook Florentine as well. She’s the best.