If you’ve seen cook Adam Liaw on television then you’d know he’s not your usual television chef. He’s not one of the tanned, shouty ones spruiking chain store produce. In his Destination Flavour travel/cooking series on SBS as with his television beginnings as the winner of the 2010 Masterchef, Liaw presents as an unusual television ‘personality’ because he is calm, considered and precise.
The former Adelaide lawyer might now have a full-time career in food, for which which he thanks his Masterchef exposure, but he has always been passionate about food and cooking and its role in family and culture. His particular interest in Asian cooking stems from his Malaysian family influences and the time he spent living in Japan with his Japanese-born wife, Asami Fujitsuka from 2003 until 2010.
Liaw’s calmness, consideration and precision are evident when Daily Review spoke with him, as they are when you look at his new cookbook The Zen Kitchen – Easy Japanese Recipes for Home Cooks (Hachette Australia). The 230 page hardback cookbook written with his wife and with photography by Steve Brown is handsomely presented. Its simply explained recipes are the core of the book, but it’s also accompanied by informed commentary about the role of food in Japanese culture and philosophy.
As he writes in the book’s forward: “To understand Japanese food is just not to know how to cook it, but it is also to know what it represents. In Japan food is something used to celebrate to educate. It’s more than just a part of Japanese culture, it’s a totality of Japanese culture presented in its most tangible form”.
This is his fifth cookbook — the previous four have all had an Asian focus — but this is the first solely devoted to Japanese cuisine. He says the Japanese approach to food is respectful, appreciative, enthusiastic and practical. And it’s also easy.
“Japanese food is the easiest to cook out of all the Asian cuisines,” he tells Daily Review. “If you’ve got some soy sauce and some miren you can make most dishes. It’s not as if you have to fill your pantry with new ingredients.”
“Japanese cuisine touches every aspect of life – relationships, money, politics, manners and of course, health as part of it.”
In The Zen Kitchen he describes the six basic seasonings — soy sauce and miren of course, but also sake, sugar, rice vinegar and miso — as the basis for just about each of the 90 or so recipes he includes.
“You might well look at Japanese cuisine as a manual for living,” he writes in the book. “It touches every aspect of life – relationships, money, politics, manners and of course, health as part of it.” He says it’s not a health or diet book, but it could be given its emphasis on fresh seasonable vegetables and fish.
Liaw says that Japanese cuisine is a “kind of philosophy (rather) than a set of rules”. Many of the dishes we think of Japanese menu staples, such as sushi, tempura and were ramen were imported from neighbouring countries, which is surprising given how we perhaps assume a certain inward looking approach about Japan given it was such a closed society for so long.
But the idea of “fusion” is not new; the Japanese influenced Peruvian cooking for example, and now they are doing the same in France as more and more Japanese chefs work in high end Paris restaurants binging a Japanese eye to traditional French dishes.
Part of that philosophy is the Japanese unfailing commitment to quality ingredients and the care with presentation.
“Some of the best Italian meals I’ve had in my life have been in Japan, ” says Liaw, who adds that in the last 20 years modern day Japanese cuisine has become far more creative. “Japanese chefs are breaking every kind of rule.”
But one of its unshakeable tenets of its cuisine is its emphasis on fish, vegetables and seasonality and a philosophy of moderation –“Eight-tenths full keeps the doctor away” goes the proverb — which is central to making the Japanese among the longest living people on earth.
In the book he explains the five preparation methods of Japanese cooking – grilling, stewing, deep-frying, steaming and raw. He describes some of the cooking equipment the Japanese use, but says they’re not particularly necessary as they serve most of the same functions as the everyday equipment that you’d find in your own kitchen.
The recipes, each with serving amounts, preparation and cooking time are divided into categories: Pickles, Stocks and Seasonings; Japanese Breakfasts; Rice and Noodles; Soup and Nabemono; Japanese Salads; Fish; Meat; Mainly Vegetables and Semi-Sweets.
Interspersed with these are Japanese proverbs and the explanations of sayings such as “eat sugar and die young”, “sleep soon after eating and you will turn into a cow” and “eaten alone even sea bream loses its flavour”.
This year Liaw was appointed an “Official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine”, the first time the honour has been bestowed outside Japan and a recognition of what have become his long and deep connections with Japanese cuisine and culture though his professional and family life.
He says one of his all time favourite Japanese dishes (and one he provides a recipe for) is the fish dish Nizakana, or “simmered fish”. “You don’t see it restaurants in Japan but it’s very simple, very good and very healthy and delicious,” he says, using adjectives that can be applied to almost every recipe in the book.