Owner of Hashi Cooking in London, chef, teacher and author Reiko Hashimoto introduces creative and simple techniques to novices looking to recreate authentic yet accessible Japanese dishes
Q. Tell us about your new cookbook, Cook Japan, Stay Slim, Live Longer. How did the idea come about?
RH: I don’t really need to try and focus on any specific healthy recipes, because generally Japanese dishes are quite healthy. Basically, Japanese people live the longest by far and it’s been true for the last decade and we have the lowest obesity rate in developed countries. I thought, ‘Why not just introduce this to people here?’. My first book was based on my cookery school dishes—quite traditional—but then I thought to introduce people to what the Japanese people eat in a modern way. This is why I have quite a few fusion dishes using western ingredients. I think by using western ingredients, it’s easy for people to get hold of the ingredients as well. That’s the idea behind it.
Q. What’s the key message you want to convey through this cookbook?
RH: The key message is that this isn’t diet food, I don’t have calorie counting or anything like that on the recipes. I do have deep fried dishes and I do use meat and desserts. But we don’t have a love of fat. So it’s not a diet book, but a balanced diet is key for healthy eating. You can eat meat and you can also eat lots of other ingredients and carbs—but it needs to be balanced. And you’re not having one ingredient in massive quantities. It’s always about balance.
Q. Would you say there is a common misconception that Japanese cooking is complex and mysterious?
RH: This is a comment I get from everybody. I teach classes here in London and so many people are actually really shocked to see how easy it is to cook Japanese recipes. The people who come to my courses, they’re not thinking of becoming chefs, they just want to create tasty dishes in an easy way. So that’s what I hope to introduce to people. I hope this cookbook will try to fight this misconception.
Q. What is your favourite recipe from this cookbook and why?
RH: It’s very hard. The soba noodles with broccoli pesto. I like Italian food and I cook lots of Italian food so the idea of pesto is from that. Soba noodles, the buckwheat noodles, are the healthiest noodles. Then I added a bit of chilli and miso and broccoli—it is very tasty. When I was testing this dish I let my son test it, and he just thought it was amazing. It’s a simple recipe with humble ingredients and that’s why I was very pleased with it.
Q. Can you tell us about traditional Japanese eating habits?
RH: As much as I like to say rice and grilled fish, I think nowadays most people eat toast for breakfast, and it’s very similar to here [in England]. But probably, when people have hangovers, here a lot of people crave fry-ups but in Japan they have miso soup and rice and grilled fish and something like that. It’s a completely opposite meal to a fry-up. But nowadays people do eat the western simple breakfast, some sort of pastry, a coffee or a tea. At lunch, people eat a bowl of soup noodles and dinner is the biggest meal, but people tend to eat earlier about six or seven. A typical businessman here goes out for drinks and then eats something at nine in the evening or something. Whereas in Japan, they go out and the first thing they do is eat and drink together. So people tend to eat much earlier than here but, again, all meals are balanced.
Q. Tofu is a very popular ingredient in Japanese cooking, do we as a nation tend to shy away from using it in our everyday dishes?
RH: Very much so. I am trying my best to promote tofu and I always hear people say, ‘Tofu is vegetarian people’s food’—that’s the interpretation. But in Japan, tofu on its own is an ingredient whether you’re a vegetarian or not. There aren’t many vegetarians in Japan. We enjoy tofu dishes and we have lots of tofu dishes. I do have a chapter for tofu, and I’m really trying to introduce it to western cooking. When people try my tofu dishes it kind of changes their opinion of tofu.
Q. How can tofu as an ingredient be used well in everyday cooking?
RH: You can take fresh tofu, quickly quartered and deep fried and then you can have it in a proper clear broth with ginger and spring onion. It just tastes very clean and it makes you feel like you’re eating good things. When I’m in Japan I eat tofu salad every day because in Japan the quality of tofu is so good. That’s the sad thing here, you can’t really get great tofu. It’s more expensive to get here as well. But at the end of the day it is tofu, so it’s not that much more expensive than meat or fish.
Q. Can you tell us about your cooking school, Hashi, why it started and how it has grown over the years?
RH: I love cooking so I started to cater, and soon after I started some sit-down dinner parties. People started asking me to teach them how to make sushi and at that time nobody was teaching sushi-making in London. I was the first one that really actually started sushi and sashimi classes. I think it was 15 years ago. But in a way I was lucky because there are so many places—like YoSushi and Itsu—that opened since then. People started to wonder what sushi is. Now if you Google it there are so many people doing sushi classes. That’s how I started, and because I have started so early I have a clientele that’s established.
Q. How have attitudes towards international food changed since you founded Hashi?
RH: I think definitely in England people’s minds have opened up and the willingness of trying new cuisines here is great. I started to come to London in the early 80s and at that time—London is the greatest city in the world—but when it came to food it was very behind when compared to New York, Tokyo, Paris and cities like that. But now I think in England people are more interested in other cuisines.
Q. What techniques and ingredients are especially important in Japanese cooking?
RH: Something that really makes a big difference in Japanese cooking is how you cut the vegetables and how you chop the vegetables. This actually does determine a lot of dishes. In other cuisines, it’s not that important. That’s what I try to teach people here.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration from when it comes to cooking?
RH: Inspiration comes from everywhere. I do always believe the basic flavours method. Flavouring is very traditional. When I cook my Italian food or French food I will always make sure I understand their respective methods and translate that to what I’m doing. Even when I’m cooking fusion dishes I make sure that the base of the flavours are authentic Japanese flavours. Then I add other flavours.
Q. You must go back to Japan quite often. What ingredients do you bring back to the UK?
RH: What I bring back is bonito flakes and kombu. Those are the two very important key ingredients for Japanese stock. These two ingredients are definitely the main ones, but I do bring lots of things back to the UK when I go.
Q. What is your idea of a simple comfort meal?
RH: This will probably be the soup noodles. Noodles in a broth. It’s so easy to make and you really can’t go wrong.
Q. What advice would you give to cooks when it comes to experimenting with new cuisines and ingredients?
RH: I don’t think you should be afraid of trying new ingredients. Obviously you need to understand each one—and the flavour. Don’t just follow the recipes exactly, I would say. Because everyone has a different palate. Novice cooks think they have to follow exactly, ‘One and a half tablespoons,’ but as long as you use the right ingredients from the recipe you can experiment. Add a little more or a little less to adjust to your own taste. •