12 May / Japanese Food Maven Hiroko Shimbo on Her Mother’s Influence in the Kitchen
Hiroko Shimbo is a well-known authority on Japanese cuisine and a beloved cooking instructor based in New York City. And like many of us, she owes much of her culinary finesse to her mother.
Hiroko has long been a proponent of cooking Japanese cuisine with a Western sensibility. In fact, her 2012 cookbook, Hiroko’s American Kitchen (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012) bridges “two vastly different cultures and cuisines: (her) native Japan and (her) adopted home, America.” It shares her experience as a Japanese cook “navigating American culinary waters,” and combines the best of both traditions.
This comes as no surprise because Hiroko’s mother, Tokuko, frequently prepared Western dishes when she was growing up. On her blog, Hiroko says she only recently realized these dishes—items like “beef tongue stew, coquille Saint Jackque (sic), panko bread crumb coated fried fish, macaroni tossed with onion in sauteed in butter and milk, ground beef stuffed omelet, beef stew and rolled cabbage stuffed with meat”—actually came from far away.
The answer to this puzzle lies with Tokuko’s mother–Hiroko’s grandmother–Setsu. Setsu once belonged to a church run by Canadian missionaries and that’s where she learned how to cook delicious “exotic” Western recipes.
Naturally, Tokuko learned to cook from her mother, and in turn passed these recipes down to Hiroko.
Born in the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Hiroko grew up in a house attached to a Tokyo clinic where her father worked as a physician. Her mother managed the clinic while making meals for the patients. Hiroko often helped Tokuko in the kitchen and absorbed her mother’s culinary knowledge.
In an interview with food writer Debra Samuels, Hiroko describes her mother’s kitchen. “My mother’s kitchen was a wonderful busy, busy place. My father was a physician. His clinic was attached to our house. We had patients staying at the clinic so my mother always cooked a large amount of food both for the patients and then delicious dinners for our family. My sisters and I were always hanging around in the kitchen. We were raised with delicious food. We naturally developed a love to cook and eat.”
I asked Hiroko if she has a favorite recipe from her mother. She proffered the recipe below for green beans and walnut-miso dressing (Ingen no kurumi-miso-ae). Since it’s May and I couldn’t find green beans at the store, I settled on asparagus instead. Feel free to change up the vegetable–salad greens, kale etc. will all be tasty!
On this Mothers’ Day 2018, let’s pay tribute to all the mothers who have nourished us both physically and spiritually.
How has your mom influenced your culinary style?
Asparagus in Walnut-Miso Dressing
Adapted from The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo (pg. 236, Harvard Common Press, 2000)
Nuts are not as common as sesame seeds in Japanese cooking but when they do show up, walnuts (kurumi) are common. The heartnut is a walnut species native to Japan but regular walnuts (or black walnuts if you want something fancy and can find them!) are fine.
Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
7 ounces asparagus, trimmed, cooked in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, drained
2 ½ ounces (1/2) cup walnuts, toasted in a heated skillet until heated through
1 tablespoon sweet white miso
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons shoyu (soy sauce)
2 to 3 tablespoons dashi (or other stock)
Salt to taste
- Reserve 1/5 of the walnuts and transfer the rest to a mortar or food processor. Process until smooth and oily-looking.
- Add the miso, sugar and shoyu and mix well. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons dashi to loosen the texture. Add salt to taste. The dressing can be made a couple of days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator, covered. Chop the reserved walnuts into small pieces.
- Immediately before serving toss the beans with the dressing and the walnut pieces.