Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew

Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
Tokyo Up Late is a guide to the after-dark dishes of Japan’s sprawling capital city. Taking you through the long night with recipes that reflect that breadth of gastronomical options Tokyo offers even in the depths of the witching hour, the book attempts to offer something fresh in the increasingly crowded Japanese cookbook market. Whether it succeeds is another matter entirely.

Starting with the food you may find in izakayas – Japan’s popular type of bar, which often serves a range of light meals and snacks that put your local Greene King to shame – the book also offers a look at a cross-section of the city’s society. From makanai (meals served to restaurant workers at the end of their shifts) to fast food, convenience stores and the late night snacks eaten once the evening comes to a close, there’s plenty of ideas here, but very little that hasn’t been shared elsewhere already.

The author is Brendan Liew, whose last book, Tokyo Local, offered a similar look at the practical everyday eating of the city. Liew’s writing here is well researched, but frequently let down by the book’s design, which clumps paragraphs together into a hard to read mass. It’s not the only design flaw in a title that often feels fairly claustrophobic to look at. Gorta Yuuki’s photography and Yuko Yamaguchi’s food styling both work hard to overcome the oppressive colour scheme and blocky prose, but it’s too big an ask.

You should buy Tokyo Up Late for a friend who has a real obsession with recreating Japanese food at home, and the commitment to follow through. Whilst many of the ideas here have been presented previously (and more accessibly) in books like Tokyo Cult Recipes or Tim Anderson’s recent Your Home Izakaya, Liew is a stickler for authenticity, and regularly calls for hard-to-find ingredients like zarame or usukuchi soy sauce. There are some tasty looking dishes here, including a lovingly-presented egg sando and a tempting instant ramen carbonara. But Japan’s cuisine is well-represented on bookshelves at the moment, and this is unlikely to be anybody’s first port of call – especially at the end of a long day.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book
Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
£26, Smith Street Books

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Salmon Ochazuke by Brendan Liew

TUL_Back Home_Ochazuke
This is the most common ochazuke type in Japan and abroad, and for good reason. The flaky, salty, slightly rich salmon pairs well with the clean, pure flavour of the rice and green tea. Feel free to change the toppings and the soup to suit your tastes.

2 x 100 g (31/2 oz) salmon fillet pieces, skin on
300–400 g (101/2–14 oz) hot cooked rice
2 spring onions (scallions), white part only, finely sliced
2 tablespoons takana (pickled mustard greens)
2 tablespoons tororo kombu (finely shredded kombu)
2 teaspoons wasabi paste
2 tablespoons shredded nori (kizami nori)
2 teaspoons sesame seeds, ground

SOUP
500 ml (2 cups) green tea (or tea of your choice)
1 handful of katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
2 teaspoons usukuchi soy sauce
2 teaspoons mirin
1 teaspoon salt

SERVES 2

Preheat the oven grill (broiler) to high. Season the salmon fillets on both sides with salt, then place on a greased tray lined with foil, skin side up. Grill for 8–10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet and how you like your salmon cooked; it should be flaky.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat the green tea to a simmer, then add the katsuobushi and turn the heat off. Leave for 5 minutes, then strain into a clean saucepan. Save the katsuobushi for another use (see note on page 216 of the book).

Bring the soup back to a simmer and season with the soy sauce, mirin and salt. Taste and adjust if necessary. Scoop the rice into serving bowls. Top with the cooked salmon, followed by the remaining ingredients, finishing with the soup.

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Kamo Negi – Duck With Grilled Leeks by Brendan Liew

Buy this book
Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
£26,  Smith Street Books

Read the review
Coming soon

Mizu Shingen Mochi – Raindrop Cakes by Brendan Liew

TUL_Izakaya_Mizu Shingenmochi
This may be called a ‘cake’ in English, but it is really a jelly. A jelly that is very lightly set using agar, and resembles a crystal-clear raindrop, accompanied by a flavoured syrup. I’ve gone with a matcha syrup for this recipe, but traditionally it is served with the black sugar syrup (see page 188 of the book) and sprinkled with kinako (roasted soy bean flour). A raindrop cake looks spectacular, and with the right moulds (spherical ice moulds or semicircular moulds) is very easy to prepare. This makes it a great, easy dessert for busy izakayas, and a refreshing end to a meal.

1 g (1/28 oz) kanten agar
400 ml (14 fl oz) water
80 g (23/4 oz) sugar
2 teaspoons matcha powder, plus extra for sprinkling

SERVES 4
Set out four small bowls or circular moulds, about 6 cm (21/4 inches) in diameter. In a small saucepan, combine the agar, water and 20 g (3/4 oz) of the sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar and agar. Working quickly, so the liquid doesn’t start solidifying in the pan, pour the mixture into the bowls, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours to set.

Make a matcha syrup by whisking together the matcha powder and remaining (60 g) sugar in a small bowl. Heat 30 ml (1 fl oz) water in a small saucepan until simmering, then slowly stream it into the matcha powder and sugar, whisking well.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, just until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the syrup into a container and refrigerate.

When the cakes have set, unmould each one onto a serving plate. Spoon the matcha syrup around them, sprinkle a little matcha powder over and serve.

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Buy this book
Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
£26,  Smith Street Books

Read the review
Coming soon

Kamo Negi – Duck With Grilled Leeks by Brendan Liew

TUL_Izakaya_Kamonegi

Like bacon and eggs, kamo (duck) and negi (leek) can be listed as just two ingredients on a menu, but the combination is so well known in Japan that people can envisage the dish based only on those two words alone. Kamo negi is usually seared, thinly sliced duck breast accompanied by the whites of leeks that have been slowly pan-fried or roasted to have nicely brown grill marks. It could be served plated
as an okazu (side dish) as part of a larger feast, or made into a delightful noodle soup. I’ve included both versions of the dish here, as you can double the amount of duck breast and turn it into two completely different meals. It is best to start this recipe the day before, to allow the duck breast to cure with the salt and sansho overnight. This draws out water from the meat while seasoning the duck at the same time, resulting in crispier duck skin and more flavoursome meat.

2 duck breasts
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground sansho pepper
1 thin leek, cleaned, whites cut into 4 pieces, greens discarded or used for stock
30 ml (1 fl oz) soy sauce
30 ml (1 fl oz) sake
15 g (1/2 oz) zarame or sugar

PLATED VERSION
1 bunch of spring onions
(scallions)

SOUP VERSION
500 ml (2 cups) dashi (see page 32 of book for recipe)
250 g (9 oz) ramen noodles, home-made (see page 130 of book for recipe) or store bought
1 bunch of green vegetables, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces
shichimi togarashi, to serve

SERVES 2
Using a sharp knife, remove any silver skin from the underside of the duck breasts. Rub 1 teaspoon salt over the skin and meat of each breast, then rub the sansho pepper over only the flesh. (We season only the meat side with the sansho, because the sansho will burn on the skin side, which is pan-fried for a longer time than the meat side.) Place the duck breasts, skin side up, on a rack with a tray underneath. Leave uncovered in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, but at least 2 hours.

When ready to cook, use a sharp knife to cut lines down the duck skin, along the length of the breast, about 2 mm (1/8 inch) deep and 1 cm (1/2 inch) apart. This creates channels for the duck fat to render out, resulting in a crispier skin.

Place the duck, skin side down, in a cold frying pan and turn the heat to medium–low. When the duck starts sizzling and a thin layer of rendered duck fat coats the bottom of the pan, add the leek to the pan.

Cook for 15 minutes over medium–low heat, skin side down the whole time; there should be a light frying noise. Every 5 minutes, drain the fat from the pan, reserving it for roasted potatoes or stir-fries. Turn the leek over after 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the soy sauce, sake and zarame just enough to dissolve the zarame.  At this point, you can take the recipe in two different directions.

FOR THE PLATED VERSION:
Wash the spring onions, then divide into the green and white parts. Shred the green bits and very thinly julienne the whites, keeping them separate.

After the duck has finished cooking on the skin side for 15 minutes, turn it over onto the flesh side and sear all the parts that appear uncooked. After you’ve seared each side, leave the duck on the meat side for a further minute (it should be 2 minutes in total), then transfer the duck and leek from the pan to a plate and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, but do not wash.

After 5 minutes, place the pan back on the heat and turn the heat up to high. Add the spring onion greens and stir-fry until wilted. Add the soy sauce mixture and any accumulated juices under the duck. Allow to bubble until slightly thickened, then remove from the heat. Slice the duck, then place on your serving dish with the leek. Pour the sauce over, garnish with the spring onion whites and serve.

FOR THE SOUP VERSION:
While the duck is cooking, bring the dashi to a simmer and prepare a pot of boiling water for cooking the noodles.

After the duck has finished cooking on the skin side for 15 minutes, very quickly sear the flesh side of the duck just to colour it, then remove from the pan with the leek. Don’t worry if you think it’s still raw; it will cook further in the soup.

Quickly blanch your vegetables in the boiling water; remove with tongs and place in a colander to drain. Boil the noodles in the same water, then pour into the colander to drain, shaking the colander to remove as much excess water as possible.

Divide the noodles and vegetables among bowls. Add 3 tablespoons of the soy sauce mixture to the simmering dashi. Taste and add more of the dashi mixture, or salt, until you are happy with the flavour. Pour it over the noodles and top with the greens. Slice the duck breast and fan it out over the noodles with the leek. Serve with shichimi togarashi for sprinkling over.

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Buy this book
Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
£26,  Smith Street Books

Read the review
Coming soon

KARAAGE 6.0 by Tim Anderson

Izakaya_Day2_13855
第6版の唐揚げ DAI ROKU-BAN NO KARAAGE

I‘m calling this Karaage 6.0 because it is, if memory serves, the sixth karaage recipe I’ve written. And it’s the best one … so far. There are so many variations of making karaage it’s hard to settle on a ‘perfect’ version. For this one, I’ve stripped it back to basics, with a really simple, classic marinade. The only thing unusual about it is that it uses a seasoned flour and white wine rather than sake, which gives a lovely fruity acidity that works perfectly with the chicken – a brilliant idea I heard about from chef Jon Sho of the excellent Knightsbridge sushi bar Kaké, as well as the food
writer and karaage pop-up chef Melissa Thompson.

SERVES 2_4
FOR THE MARINADE
10 garlic cloves
20 g (¾ oz) ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
100 ml (3½ fl oz/scant ½ cup)
white wine
3 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

FOR THE SEASONED FLOUR
150 g (5 oz/1¼ cups) cornflour (cornstarch)
100 g (3½ oz/scant 1 cup) potato starch
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
400 g (14 oz) (about 4–6) chicken thighs, boneless and skin on
about 2 litres (70 fl oz/8 cups) oil, for deep-frying
lemon or ponzu, store-bought or homemade, to serve (optional)

METHOD
For the marinade, blitz all the ingredients together in a food processor until no big chunks remain; alternatively, you can finely grate the garlic and ginger and just stir everything together. For the seasoned flour, simply stir all ingredients together until well mixed. Cut the chicken thighs into quarters (or thirds, if they’re quite small) and toss through the marinade, then leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

To cook, heat the oil in a deep saucepan to 180ºC (350°F). Remove the chicken from the marinade, letting any excess drip off, then dredge in the seasoned flour, ensuring that all the nooks and crannies are well coated.

Carefully lower the chicken into the oil in small batches, checking the temperature periodically to ensure it is between 170–180ºC (340–350°F) and fry for about 8 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, use it: the chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of at least 65ºC (150°F). If you don’t have a thermometer, use a knife to cut into the biggest piece of chicken at its thickest point. If it’s still raw, keep cooking for another few minutes until it is cooked through.

Remove the cooked chicken from the oil and drain on paper towels. Karaage is juicy and flavourful enough to be enjoyed without a dip, but it’s also great with ponzu, or just a wedge of lemon.

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Buy this book
Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan
£25, Hardie Grant Books

Fish Finger Hand Rolls by Tim Anderson

Izakaya_Day2_13878

FISH FINGER HAND ROLLS
フィッシュフィンガー手巻き FISSHU FING  TEMAKI

This dish was inspired by recipes by two cooks that I, and many others, idolise: Ivan Orkin and Nigella Lawson. In Orkin’s excellent The Gaijin Cookbook, he provides a guide for hosting a temaki party, a great way to enjoy sushi at home that requires
no particular skill or technique. You simply bring cooked and seasoned sushi rice, some choice fillings, nori and condiments to the table, and let everybody assemble their own little temaki, or hand rolls. It’s brilliant – we did this a few days after Christmas when I was craving Japanese food but had no fresh fish in the house.

Enter Nigella. Lately, everybody has been talking about her fish finger bhorta, a recipe she borrowed (with permission) from the journalist and activist Ash Sarkar. Basically, it’s a sort of dry curry made with smashed-up fish fingers; the kind of thing that’s so ingenious yet so simple that it has made us all wonder why we haven’t been making it our whole lives. Indeed, it’s certainly got me thinking why I’ve never utilised fish fingers in anything more interesting than a sandwich before.

This must have been in the back of my mind when I reached for them to use in our temaki party. If you think about it, it makes sense; fried seafood is no stranger to sushi, after all. I texted my friend Yuki (of Bar Yuki fame) a photo of my invention, expecting her to laugh at me. Instead, she simply replied, ‘Yummy, it’s like ebi-fry temaki!’ – referring to the perennial favourite, panko-crusted fried prawns (shrimp). So there you have it: fish fingers are just the poor man’s ebi-fry, and they make a killer temaki.

MAKES 8 LITTLE HAND ROLLS; SERVES 2-4
200 g (7 oz/1 cup) rice
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
40–50 g (2 oz) daikon, peeled, or radishes
iced water
8 fish fingers
Japanese Mayo (see below) or Tartare Sauce (see below)
1 handful of pea shoots
2 sheets nori
soy sauce, as needed
wasabi, as needed

METHOD
Cook the rice according to the instructions on page 219. While the rice is cooking, stir together the vinegar, sugar and salt until the sugar and salt dissolve. Once the rice is cooked, spread it out in a large bowl or tray and sprinkle over the seasoned vinegar. Mix the vinegar through the rice using a rice paddle or spatula with slicing and turning motions. Let the rice cool to room temperature before making the rolls.

Slice the daikon or radishes very thinly – use a mandoline if you have one, and if you don’t, use a very sharp knife and take your time. Cut down the length of the daikon,
rather than across, so you have rectangles rather than circles. Stack the slices of daikon up and cut them again into very thin shreds.  Transfer this to a bowl of cold water with a few ice cubes and leave to soak for about 20 minutes (if you don’t have ice, just put the bowl in the fridge).

Cook the fish fingers according to the manufacturers’ instructions, but I would recommend giving them a few minutes extra to get really crisp. Drain the daikon and dry it well with paper towels. Toast the nori by waving each sheet back and forth 15–20 cm (6–8 in) over an open flame on the hob, for about 30 seconds each. Cut each sheet into four squares.

Bring everything to the table along with chopsticks, side plates and little dip pots. To assemble, hold a piece of nori in your hand, then use the chopsticks to pile in a little mound of rice, then top with the mayo or tartare sauce, then some daikon and pea shoots, then the fish fingers. Wrap it up like something halfway between a taco and a burrito, and eat with your hands. Dip it in the soy sauce and a little wasabi with each bite.

NOTES:
JAPANESE BROWN SAUCE AND JAPANESE MAYO
Japanese brown sauce has many variants, such as tonkatsu sauce, yakisoba sauce, okonomiyaki sauce and takoyaki sauce. They all fall under the category of what’s simply called ‘sauce’ in Japan, as they have similar flavours, with slight variations in terms of consistency and balance. Tonkatsu sauce is a good choice if you need something that will work well in a variety of recipes. You can make it at home but I would strongly recommend buying it. The same goes for Japanese mayo, known for its creamier, eggier, deliciously MSG-enhanced flavour. The brand Kewpie seems to be everywhere these days, and while it is expensive, it’s worth it. Normal mayo just doesn’t cut it.

FOR THE TARTARE SAUCE
20 g (¾ oz) pickled ginger (any kind), very finely chopped
4 tbsp mayonnaise
½ tsp lemon juice
½ tsp English mustard
½ tsp dried dill
1 handful of chives, finely sliced

Stir together all the ingredients until well mixed.

Photography: Laura Edwards

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Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan
£25, Hardie Grant Books

Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter by Tim Anderson

Izakaya_Day1_13551
ペッパーステーキの醤油ガーリックバター焼き PEPP  SUTĒKI NO SHŌYU G RIKKU BAT  YAKI

One of my very favourite lunch spots in Japan was a little fast food shop called Pepper Lunch. Pepper Lunch is a chain, with over 200 branches in Japan and even more outside Japan. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of Japanese gastronomy, and my Japanese colleagues teased me for liking it so much, but damn, did they do some good pepper steak. It was cheap – suspiciously so – but it was always cooked perfectly and it was also really good beef, highly marbled and incredibly tender. Of course, the seasonings were so tasty (lots of pepper, lots of garlic, lots of soy sauce) that you probably could have cooked an old shoe in them and it would have tasted reasonably good. So this is my loving homage to Pepper Lunch.

SERVES 2
1 tbsp oil
1 ribeye steak, 300–400 g (10½–14 oz) and ideally at least 2.5 cm (1 in) thick, patted dry with paper towels
a very generous amount of coarsely ground black pepper
4 tbsp water
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sake
1 tbsp honey
20 g (¾ oz) butter
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

METHOD
Set a frying pan (skillet) over high heat and add the oil. Season the steak all over with the pepper. When the oil is smoking hot, lay the steak in the pan and cook it on one side until nicely browned, about 2–3 minutes. Turn and brown the other side, again for about 2 minutes. By this point the steak should be rare; keep cooking for a further 2 minutes for medium-rare and another 2 minutes after that for medium, flipping the steak every 20 seconds to form an even crust and cuisson. When the steak is cooked to your liking, remove it from the pan and leave to rest on a chopping board.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the water, then set the pan back over the heat and add the soy sauce, sake, honey, butter and garlic. Simmer for 4–5 minutes until the liquid reduces slightly and the garlic infuses into the gravy, then remove from the heat. Slice the steak into bite-size cubes, about 2 cm (¾ in) wide, and toss through the pan sauce.

TIP
Use your senses and intuition cooking steak or, better yet, a probe thermometer, to gauge the steak’s doneness. And remember: if you’re not sure how cooked it is, err on the side of rare. You can always cook it more. If you’re using a cut other than ribeye, slice the steak across the grain as you usually would; otherwise, the meat will be too
tough and chewy.

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Buy this book
Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan
£25, Hardie Grant Books

Your Home Izakaya by Tim Anderson

Your Home Izakaya by Tim Anderson

What’s the USP? A Japanese cookbook inspired specifically by the cosy izakaya bars of Japan. More casual than restaurants, izakayas are often compared to Spain’s tapas bars and, occasionally, to English pubs. The latter feels a little like a stretch, though – the delicious snacks izakayas offer are a big part of their appeal, and whilst I’m a big fan of Smith’s Scampi Fries, it’s pretty hard to romanticise their role in pub culture.

Who wrote it? Tim Anderson, the former Masterchef winner who went on to found Nanban. He left the restaurant last year to focus on, amongst other things, his cookbooks. Nanban’s loss is our gain. Your Home Izakaya is Anderson’s fifth book, and an interesting take on the increasingly crowded Japanese cookbook market. Focusing on the casual dishes most likely to be found in izakayas, Anderson’s book continues his refreshingly unprecious look at the cuisine. Fusion dishes abound here, the result being an engaging and very approachable collection.

Is it good bedtime reading? Whilst not exactly a lot of reading, there’s more than you’ll find in a lot of cookbooks – and those few lengthier chunks of prose are very enjoyable. Opening and closing with the pandemic reflections that you suspect will be commonplace on our shelves for the next year or two, and supplemented with the standard explanations of cuisine-specific ingredients, Anderson also finds room for touching tributes to individuals and practical explanations of technique. Occasionally a recipe will start a page later than you’d expect thanks to a particularly effusive introduction.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Ingredients are listed with clear and precise measurements for Brits and Americans alike, but it’s fair to say that Anderson’s prose-heavy instructions can be a little hard to follow – at least in a literal sense. Recipes are written in chunky paragraphs that often contain a dozen or so steps. It looks nice, but makes it easy to lose your place as you switch between stove top and cookbook.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Anderson lives and works out of London, and with one or two optional exceptions the city should be able to offer everything you need. That said, those shopping in small cities and towns will want to find out where their nearest Asian supermarket is and stock up – from dashi powder to daikon radishes, there are plenty of ingredients here that won’t be popping up in your local Asda.

What’s the faff factor? Two of Anderson’s biggest books to date have been his Japaneasy titles, which specialised in simple dishes. If you’re looking for really quick and easy recipes then these will remain your best bet – but much of the ethos present in those books has been carried over to Your Home Izakaya too. Yes, dishes like Braised Pig’s Trotter with a Crispy Crust require a bit of waiting, but anyone willing to eat pig’s trotter is usually willing to wait for it too.

How often will I cook from the book? Eager home cooks may find themselves pulling this from their shelf on a very regular basis – there’s plenty to love here, and dishes like Cheese Dakgalbi, Chicken Katsu Curry Spaghetti and Fluffy-Creamy Omurice lend themselves to a rich and filling weeknight dinner.

What will I love? Another hangover from his last book, Vegan Japaneasy, is the wealth of vegan and vegetarian friendly recipes here. Whilst the tail end of the book tends to weigh a little heavier with meaty recipes, the opening chapters are overwhelmingly veggie, and readers will find it easy to put together tasty menus that suit their own needs.

What won’t I love? It’s actually pretty hard to find a flaw in Your Home Izakaya – the photos are vivid and tempting, each recipe comes complete with suggestions both for other dishes that might share a table and the best drink to serve alongside your meal. The biggest issue is those hefty paragraphs in the recipes, but it feels like a petty sticking point.

Killer recipes: The Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter was a brilliant success when cooked on a quiet weekday evening, and served (as per the book’s suggestion) over rice with an egg yolk on top. Elsewhere, there’s Furikake Potatoes, Japanese Fish and Chips, a fantastic section on yakitori including some delicious Chicken Thighs with Yuzu-Kosho. Tucked away between the desserts (Sake Glass Jelly with Seasonal Fruit!) and some useful essentials like Dashi are a smattering of cocktails – a Salted Grapefruit Shochu Highball being a particular highlight.

Should I buy it? Fans of informal Japanese cooking will be well served by this thoughtful (and fun!) new cookbook by Tim Anderson. Those looking to replicate high-end dishes or create perfectly formed sushi will be better off looking elsewhere. But if you want to explore the cuisine whilst having a little fun, I’d suggest turning directly to page 161 – Prosciutto-wrapped Crab and Avocado Sushi Rolls.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book
Your Home Izakaya: Fun and Simple Recipes Inspired by the Drinking-and-Dining Dens of Japan
£25, Hardie Grant Books

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

monk by Yoshihiro Imai

monk Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path by Yoshihiro Imai

What’s the USP? Recipes and stories from monk in Kyoto, a 14 seat restaurant located on the philosophers path on the outskirts of the city where locally sourced ingredients are cooked with fire and the signature dish is, surprisingly, pizza.

Who wrote it? Yoshihiro Imai is the chef and owner of monk. Born in the small village of Mito-city, 60 miles northeast of Tokyo, Imai studied sociology at university, but an interest in baking bread and a stint working in a mountain resort hotel in Karuizawa lead Imai to take a job as a chef at enboca, a nearby pizza restaurant. Imai opened a sister restaurant to enboca in Kyoto in 2010. Inspired by a short internship at Noma, Imai opened monk in 2015.

Is it good bedtime reading? Food writing often falls flat when it aspires to any sort of  literary merit, lapsing into adjective-heavy, pseudo-poetic cliché that manages to express little more than the author’s desire to be taken seriously at all costs, including the text’s clarity and use to the reader. But, in a series of beautifully written essays about his life, career and culinary philosophy that includes subjects such as Oharah village market; Yoshida Farm cheese from the mountains of Okayama, and Yu Sasaki, ‘the mushroom whisperer’ of Iwate prefecture in Honshu, Imai communicates what is obviously a very deeply felt and considered passion for ingredients, the process of cooking and the nature and art of hospitality with a welcome directness and simplicity. For example (just one of many):

‘For us at monk, lighting the oven each day has become part of our daily lives, and we spend the entire day living with fire. The guests who join us at the counter end up gazing at the flames in silence during gaps in their conversation. Fire must have some kind of power to bring us back to our roots, to something ancient within us, and inspire philosophical thoughts. By cooking almost everything entirely by the heat of the fire at monk, I hope our guests can connect with this part of them through the food we share with them.’

What does it look like? There is an elemental simplicity and beauty to Imai’s food. Even a bowl of turnip soup looks like a work of art – swirled with purees of turnip greens and carrots and served in an elegant grey and blue-flecked artisan ceramic ‘vessel’ (of a large dark blue dish made by Taniai-based ceramicist Teppei Ono, Imai says, ‘Looking at it, I get the sensation that this is not a plate, but a hole in space through which one can peer into a deep ocean.’) The signature pizzas – made perhaps with fresh nori or fiddlehead ferns and koshiabura (the sprouts of a wild tree) – are extraordinary. Kyoto itself, depicted through the seasons (the book is divided into spring, summer, autumn and winter) looks like heaven on earth, with lush greenery, vibrant blossoms, crystal waters and open blue skies in the spring and summer; rich red and orange foliage in the autumn and a land of moss and frosts in the winter. At the risk of repeating myself on this blog, the publisher Phaidon are past masters at creating visually pleasing cookbooks, but monk is simply ravishing.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? If you want to follow the recipes to the letter and you don’t live in Japan, you are going to run into problems. Try tracking down Shogoin turnip, shirako bamboo shoots (‘the fresh heads of the shoots before they appear above ground’, explains Imai), seri (Japanese parsley), yomogi (Japanese mugwort), or nanohana blossoms in Middlesbrough(or London, probably).

What’s the faff factor? If you have a wood fired oven and you can navigate your way through the ingredients lists, finding reasonable substitutes for items that Imai sources locally in Kyoto, then often the recipes are fairly straightforward to execute. Some dishes, including slow-roasted napa cabbage; tomato soup, and the pizza dough recipe could even be adapted for a domestic oven, with a bit of tweaking. The reality for many home cooks however will be that this is a book to read, enjoy, marvel at and dream of visiting monk one day to experience it all for yourself, rather than try and replicate at home. Professional chefs are more likely to have the skills resources and suppliers to make more practical use of the book, especially those based in Japan.

What will I love? monk captures Imai’s distinctive, individual and inspiringly soulful culinary expression.  It’s a complete pleasure to read and to gaze at Yuka Yanazume’s gorgeous images.

What won’t I love? This is probably not a book that you will be cooking from on a regular basis.

Killer recipes: pea soup; suyaki pizza crust; romaine lettuce, egg and yomogi; cherry leaf roast beef; octopus, red shisho and red onion; assorted roasted vegetables, summer; plum lemon verbena and green tea oil.

Should I buy it? If you are passionate about modern gastronomy and love to travel to eat, this book is for you.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy the book 
monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path
£29.95, Phaidon

Japanese Cooking for the Soul

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What’s the USP? A collection of 70 Japanese dishes ‘inspired by’ chefs from the Hana Group (the name behind 14 Asian food concepts that’ll you’ll find in supermarkets and other retailers around the globe including Sushi Gourmet, Wok St and Poke-Lele) that celebrate the Itadakimasu ritual of gratitude and reflection.

So, spirituality meets global commerce? Sounds grim. Yeah, probably best to ignore the veneer of mindfulness that’s been applied to the faceless, corporate behemoth that’s behind Japanese Cooking for the Soul to try and make it look more human (spoiler altert: they failed) and stick to the meat of the book which is the rather good recipes.

They’re authentic then? I think we’ve all agreed authenticity is a problematic and nebulous concept when applied to food in the modern global age haven’t we? Or maybe we’re about to roll all of that back and enter a new age of puritanism. In any event, some may raise an eyebrow when they discover that the recipes have been written by former Good Housekeeping Cookery Editor Emma Marsden. If you insist on your Japanese recipes being written by a chef or food writer from Japan or of Japanese heritage, then this book is not for you. If however you’re in the market for an approachable selection of dishes that include sushi and maki; teppanyaki and noodles; poke and Japanese salads; gyoza and dim sum; robata, ramen and tempura, as well as some desserts, then you can’t go far wrong.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? You will need to find a fishmonger who deals in sushi-grade fish if you want to tackle salmon and tuna sushi or cristal salmon rolls, but you’ll find most, if not all of what you need at the supermarket. Online stores like Sous Chef will be able to fill in any gaps.

What’s the faff factor? By their very nature, things like sushi or shumai dumplings will take a bit of care and attention and the assembly of various elements, but there are plenty of straightforward dishes like grilled salmon in balsamic onion glaze and stir fried rice with chicken that you can knock up on a work night without too much sweat.

How often will I cook from the book? It’s easy to imagine the book becoming well thumbed and food splattered in no time at all. It’s full of delicious and achievable dishes suitable for quick mid-week diners, and for when you want to spend a bit of hobby-time (is that a thing? Lets assume it is) in the kitchen and prepare a feast.

Killer dishes: Pork and cabbage gyoza; yakitori chicken skewers; beef ramen; prawn tempura with spring onions; teppanyaki duck and many more.

Should I buy the book? If you don’t have any other Japanese cookbooks in your collection, this will serve as a fine introduction to the subject. If you want to delve much further into the cuisine, try Japan:The Cookbook. But at fifteen quid, or less if you click on the link below, this is something of a bargain and a purchase you won’t regret.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Japanese Cooking for the Soul: Healthy. Mindful. Delicious.
£14.99, Ebury Press