Chef Tim Anderson’s new cookbook demystifies Japanese cookery

“JapanEasy” will boost your confidence and prep you for grander things like sushi knife angles.

Japanese potato salad brings Asian flavors to the potluck standby. (Laura Edwards)

Japanese potato salad brings Asian flavors to the potluck standby. (Laura Edwards)

His bio reads like the answer to a foodie’s obscure trivia question.

Pop quiz: Wisconsin native. MasterChef UK champion. Japanese food expert. London chef. What do these incongruous descriptions have in common? Answer: Tim Anderson, American chef of a London Japanese restaurant and youngest winner of MasterChef UK.

Raised in Wisconsin, Anderson studied Japanese history and food culture at Occidental College in Los Angeles, moved to Japan for two years, went off to London to take the trophy on MasterChef UK and opened Japanese soul food restaurant, Nanban. He wrote a cookbook, “Nanban: Japanese Soul Food,” and then another, his newest, “JapanEasy: Classic and Modern Japanese Recipes to Cook at Home.”

In an effort to demystify Japanese cuisine, Anderson purposely didn’t load “JapanEasy” with every favorite Japanese dish. Instead it’s a cookbook that will boost your confidence and prep you for grander Japanese cookbooks specializing in sushi knife angles and seaweed toasting etiquette.

A stylish and highly approachable book, “JapanEasy” presents Japanese culture in a humorous manner. Anderson rates his grilled edamame as “soy not difficult,” followed by a large fist-pump emoji. The playful artwork nods to cultural icons such as Godzilla and Mount Fuji, and his title page includes an irreverent quote from writer and critic A. A. Gill: “The samurai were thugs in frocks with stupid haircuts, and haiku poems are limericks that don’t make you laugh.”

It’s clear that while Anderson might revere the traditional and precise methods handed down in Japanese cuisine, he’s letting us know we need not take it too seriously. Japanese food is delicious, makes use of only a few simple, surprisingly easy-to-source ingredients, and is a cuisine one can whip up on a weeknight when you’re craving something savory (umami) but want to eat in.

Along with elegant French pastries and molecular gastronomy, Japanese food, I think, is best left to the professionals. My 4-year-old son and I have a favorite restaurant for after-school snacks. I gorge on raw fish, rice and miso soup, while he asks for fried chicken. Yes, Japanese fried chicken.

If you’ve never had Japanese fried chicken, which is actually called chicken karaage, you must make it now, today in fact (recipe follows). Until “JapanEasy,” I’d never made chicken karaage, which Anderson has given the difficulty rating of “considering this may be the best fried chicken in the world, it is incredibly not difficult.”

Despite the popularity of KFC in Japan — the colonel is ranked No. 4 in fast food chains there — chicken karaage isn’t like Southern fried chicken, a powerhouse of fried meat in its own right. Small pieces of thigh or leg meat are marinated in a blend of Japanese ingredients, breaded in starch flour and then fried. Like its Southern fried cousin, it’s the ultimate partner for a weekend sports binge.

In fact, most of the food I made from “JapanEasy” was a partner to some sports watching. Thursday Night Football went with loads of chicken karaage dipped in Sriracha mayo. During game 6 of the ALCS we ate bacon fried rice, rated “so not difficult that I could cook this when I was a completely inept and awkward 14-year old.” Game 7 was accompanied by grilled edamame — “soy not difficult,” indeed — Japanese beer and sweet potato croquettes — rated “not difficult/says-a-who?/sesame” — and tonkatsu sauce, a sort of umami-loaded ketchup. Japanese potato salad and miso butterscotch banana splits highlighted Sunday’s Seahawks game. These were rated “less difficult than that other potato salad you make” and “so not difficult, it’s bananas,” respectively.

All that salt and umami made for perfect game-time snacking and added some Japanese flavor to our football Sunday potluck.

Anderson’s rating system isn’t just lip service. All the recipes came together easily, even the fried ones, and his enthusiasm urged me to ease up on my rigid view of Japanese cuisine. It’s not all sushi and knives-flying teppanyaki grills. Much of it is easily replicated at home. I’m not looking to win MasterChef, I’d just like to add some meals into my family’s rotation that are authentically Japanese, yet easy to execute and packed with that trademark umami power.

Japanese Fried Chicken

This is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. Truly, ever. A note on the dashi powder, if the only brand you can find has added MSG, and that’s something you work to avoid, there are some brands that omit this ingredient that you can source online. Or, for similar effect, you could DIY this by grinding a combination of dried shiitake or maitake mushrooms, kombu, bonito flakes and optionally, dried baby anchovies or sardines. All of these you will find at your local Asian market.

— Erin Swaney

4 chicken thighs, boneless, with skin on

cornflour (cornstarch), for dredging (if not using seasoned flour, below)

oil, for deep-frying

For the marinade:

½ cup, sake

3 tablespoons mirin

3 tablespoons vinegar

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons sriracha or similar hot chilli sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

10 garlic cloves, peeled

4 shallots or 2 banana shallots, roughly chopped

½ ounce peeled fresh ginger, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

For the seasoned flour (optional):

2½ cups cornflour (cornstarch)

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

½ teaspoon dashi powder

¼ teaspoon chilli powder

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

For the marinade, whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor until no big chunks remain (it doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth).

Cut the chicken thighs into pieces no bigger than about 1¼ inch at the thickest point — most thighs will yield 4 pieces, but you should get 5 or 6 out of bigger ones. The main thing to bear in mind is that they need to cook quickly, before the crust begins to burn. Basically, you should err on the side of small. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade and coat them, then leave in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 48 hours.

For the seasoned flour, if using, simply combine all the ingredients until the seasonings are well distributed.

To cook, pour at least 4 cups oil into a very deep, wide saucepan, making sure it comes no higher than halfway up the sides, and heat to no higher than 340 degrees. Remove the chicken from the marinade, letting any excess drip off, and dredge in the cornflour or seasoned flour, ensuring that all the nooks and crannies are well coated — this will help maximize crust and minimize burning. Carefully drop the chicken into the oil in small batches, checking the temperature periodically to ensure it is between 320 and 340 degrees, and fry for 6—8 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, use it: the chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees. Or use a knife to cut into the biggest piece of chicken at its thickest point. If it’s pink, back into the oil it goes. If it’s not pink, it’s karaage time!

Drain on kitchen paper and, if you’re not using the seasoned flour, finish with a little salt and pepper. This chicken is so juicy it doesn’t really need a dip, but it’s good with mayo, ponzu, or just good ol’ soy sauce and a wedge of lime.

Serves 4.

Japanese Potato Salad

Like the chicken karaage, this Japanese potato salad is another classic potluck dish that surprisingly has a Japanese equivalent. The only difficult bit about making it can be sourcing quail eggs. I found these at my local Asian market (along with all the other necessary ingredients), but they looked a bit past the pull date. Even though I was careful to find the best dozen, when I brought them home, a few were cracked and molding. I ended up throwing several out. As cute as the dainty quail eggs make the salad, if I run into this issue again, I’ll just opt for chicken eggs and slice them thin. Also, I used Russet potatoes.

— E.S.

¼ cucumber

½ carrot, peeled

salt

1 pound russet or any other floury-textured potatoes

12 quail eggs

6 cornichons

2 slices of ham, about 2½ ounces in total

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ teaspoon dashi powder

¼ teaspoon mustard

pinch of freshly ground pepper

½ bunch of chives, finely chopped

Slice the cucumber and carrot in half lengthways, then slice both very thinly — use a mandoline if you have one (watch your fingers!). Sprinkle these with salt and let them sit for about 20 minutes to tenderize, then rinse them under cold running water to remove the salt.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut into chunks, about 1 inch thick, similar to how you would prepare them for roasting. Transfer to a saucepan, cover with about 1 inches of water and add a big pinch of salt, then bring to a high simmer and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Remove the taters with a slotted spoon (keep the water) and leave to dry out and cool completely.

Bring the water to a rolling boil and add the quails’ eggs. Cook for 3 minutes and drain, then transfer to cold water to stop the cooking. Peel the eggs and cut them in half. Dice the cornichons and cut the ham into thin strips.

Combine the mayonnaise, dashi powder, mustard, pepper and a pinch of salt. Using a fork or sturdy whisk, mix this into the cooked and cooled potatoes with unnecessary roughness — you want to break up the potatoes and sort of half-mash them to give the salad a fluffy, creamy texture. Mix in the cucumber, carrots, cornichons, ham and quails’ eggs. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking, then serve, topped with chopped chives.

Serves 4.

Fried Rice

This fried rice is perfection. If I’d change one thing in the recipe, it would be to advise you to brown your shiitakes in batches before proceeding. This gave me a richer, what Anderson would call “moreish umami,” and kept away the excessive gumminess that shiitakes sometimes have and that I don’t prefer.

— E.S.

1 tablespoon oil

4 thin slices of smoked streaky bacon (dry-cured pork belly, if possible)

1 onion, finely diced

5 ounces shiitake (de-stemmed) or chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced

1 carrot, diced

4 eggs

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 scallions, roughly chopped

4 large portions of cooked rice (about 2 cups uncooked)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1½ tablespoons mirin

¼ teaspoon dashi powder

2 ounces red pickled ginger

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

freshly ground black pepper

handful of katsuobushi (optional)

Heat the oil in a frying pan (skillet) or wok and add the bacon. Cook until golden brown and crisp, then remove and drain on kitchen paper (keep the bacon fat in the pan). Crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces.

Add the onion to the hot bacon fat and stir-fry until translucent and beginning to brown, then add the shiitake, carrot and eggs, and stir to break up and scramble the eggs. Add the garlic and spring onions and fry briefly, then add the rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin and dashi powder. Break up the rice with a wooden spoon as you stir-fry, ensuring that there are no clumps. When the rice has absorbed all the liquid in the pan, add the pickled ginger, sesame seeds, some pepper and the bacon bits, and stir through.

Serve in shallow bowls, topped with katsuobushi, if you like.

“JapanEasy: Classic and Modern Japanese Recipes to Cook at Home” by Tim Anderson

Publisher/Price: Hardie Grant Books, $29.99

Who should buy this? Anyone wanting a fun intro into Japanese cooking, with recipes you’ll actually cook. This makes a great gift to anyone who fits the former.

Recipes excerpted with permission from “JapanEasy” by Tim Anderson, published by Hardie Grant Books September 2017.

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