Two days after I poured rice vinegar over cabbage, as the hour hand slogged to the finish line on its last of four laps, I was swirling chopsticks in a batter for tempura. I had been cooking for a few hours because I was curious to taste a Japanese meal as outlined by Shizuo Tsuji, whose book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art I was following. When the flour had settled and the last square of squid had been fried, I had a Japanese dinner for two.
Caption: At 8:00 sit the pickles, now pink; circling clockwise we see, at 11, a bowl of dark miso soup and its tenant tofu; a spinach salad in sesame dressing appears with the witching hour; sweet potato and squid tempura, the slippery squid having stubbornly shed its batter in the safflower oil, sizzle on their towels at 2; next comes green tea; and finally, a sunny scoop of short-grain brown rice, framed by a wavering red corona.
Each dish comes from this book:
Tsuji writes well in English. An anecdote he tells before his section on pickling reveals that he was once a journalist. Tsuji laces the text with anecdotes, and the divine details of his stories and aphorisms give us a crisper picture of Japanese food and culture. One of these asides drove me to the vinegar. “For the older generation,” writes Tsuji, “no meal, be it humble or a banquet, is complete without its final pickles.”
So I fished the cabbage out of the mason jar when the cooking was done. You can see the purple pickles, now pink, below. They are in a dish painted with wine barrels and grape pyramids and bolded words like “Chianti.” Here I let slip my familiar food experience, though I can handle a few slivers of cabbage and a scoop of rice, the rice thanks to a rice cooker, a measuring cup, and an on-switch.
Miso soup isn’t much harder. You simmer water with seaweed (kombu) and bonito flakes (shavings from a dried tuna), whisk in miso, and add tofu or mushrooms or veggies or anything. But I have heard of people skipping the broth, of people heating water in a tea kettle, of people pouring this water-flavored water into a pot and then stirring in the miso. Tsuji tells us that miso soup, rice, and pickles form the foundation of the Japanese meal. They are the bread and cheese, the pasta and wine, and the tempura and whatever else are just for kicks.