The Japanese Martha Stewart?

From the NY Times

April 19, 2006
Empress of Domesticity Drops In

MY cat is going to be on Japanese television.

When the most famous housewife in Japan arrived in my kitchen recently, she was not alone. Editors, kitchen assistants, translators, photographers, publicists and a cameraman — 11 people in all — crowded into my galley kitchen, all there to document the American premiere of Harumi Kurihara. Ms. Kurihara’s television cooking shows, housewares stores, cookbooks and food magazines have propelled her to rock-star status in Japan, and her first book in English, “Harumi’s Japanese Cooking,” has just been published in the United States by Penguin.

For the next three hours every move Ms. Kurihara made — whether sautéing scallops or petting the cat — was filmed by Fuji Television for a show about Americans’ first encounters with Ms. Kurihara.

“Harumi-sensei is like the queen of Japan,” said Chieko Onishi, a tourist from Osaka who waited in line the next day for Ms. Kurihara’s sold-out demonstration at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Rockefeller Center. “Everyone likes to look at her and do what she does.”

Ms. Kurihara, the most famous of several modern Japanese domestic goddesses, is proud to say that she is one of Japan’s “majime shufu,” literally translated as “serious housewives.” These women — like Makiko Fujino, famous for her mastery of French patisserie, and Machiko Chiba, who runs a celebrated cooking school — pride themselves on raising domesticity to an art.

“It seems like half the shows on Japanese television are cooking shows,” said Robb Satterwhite, an American expatriate in Tokyo who writes about Japanese food. “Harumi Kurihara is just one of several women who you might call ‘the Japanese Martha Stewart.’ ”

After decades of rapid change in the lives of Japanese women, when young women flooded into the work force, recent years have brought a surge of interest in home cooking. Japanese food, too, has changed quickly in the last century, fomenting national passions for dishes like curry, burgers, pizza and tiramisù. But the huge influence of global fast food stays out on the street, not entering most home kitchens: shopping for fresh ingredients, mastering knife skills and presenting food beautifully are still daily rituals for many Japanese women.

To Americans, Japanese home cooking is still unfamiliar, even though Japanese restaurants have been totally assimilated into the landscape. “In Japan people don’t normally make sushi or shabu shabu at home.” Ms. Onishi said. “All the things Americans go to Japanese restaurants for, so do we. And to learn to cook now, we watch television.”

Ms. Kurihara’s television career began with her husband, Reiji Kurihara, a longtime television personality described to me variously as the Japanese Walter Cronkite and the Japanese Merv Griffin. She got her start when his colleagues praised her cooking, eventually leading to her own show. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Ms. Kurihara has never held a job outside the home, preferring, according to her book, the pleasures of “puttering in my kitchen, creating a harmonious and happy life for my family.”

In today’s Japan, this is generally considered a laudable goal, said Amy Borovoy, an assistant professor of East Asian studies at Princeton. “The term ‘housewife’ is relatively positive there, because women’s work traditionally contributes to the education of the children and the productivity of the husband,” she said. “Now there is a lot of hand-wringing that cooking and other women’s skills are being lost. The idea is that the rush into offices has left a vacancy in the home.”

The reality, she said, is that many Japanese women, especially those who have had children, spend most of their time running a home. Many factors make it difficult for Japanese women to return full time to the workplace after raising children; rather than take the part-time low-status jobs available to returning workers, many stay home instead.

And they cook. Today’s majime shufu, in addition to mastering the simple home cooking of Japan, might dabble in Vietnamese spring rolls, Chinese stir-fries, Italian pasta and French pastry. The majime shufu eschew fast food, rise early to cook a traditional breakfast of miso soup, fish, rice and pickles for their husbands and children and prepare the elaborate boxed lunches — bentos — that are the hallmark of their kind.

“A Japanese mother’s reputation in school rests on her bentos,” said Nobuko Suzuki, the editor of Ms. Kurihara’s Japanese cookbooks. Bento boxes — and the wrapping, arranging, rolling, folding and decorating that goes into them — are portable national icons, carried by children and adults alike. Japan’s huge bento culture fuels sales of ubiquitous animated characters like Hello Kitty, Frog Style and Totoro: they appear on the boxes, but also on child-size chopsticks, tiny portable mayonnaise containers and edible seaweed wrappers for omusubi, or rice balls, a popular snack.

All these factors help explain the swooning I witnessed when I was with Ms. Kurihara, and the feverish attention of her fans. Although there are those who feel that food in Japan is slipping into decline, cooks like Ms. Kurihara, who incorporate modern and global flavors without stooping to fast food, earn both worship and respect.

“Her recipes are always tasty, and they always work,” said Emiko Yawada, a 19-year-old art student who was hoping to squeeze into the Rockefeller Center cooking demonstration. “And she is so pretty!”

Younger women like Ms. Yawada, who make up a huge part of Ms. Kurihara’s fan base, have their own word for her. “We call her a karisuma shufu — a charisma housewife — because her own style is so strong,” she said.

In person, too, Ms. Kurihara manages to be both serious and charismatic. So does her food, which has both a delicate balance of flavors and a stylish mashing of influences. In the kitchen, with assistants frantically digging through the six boxes of equipment and tableware she travels with, she worked steadily and quietly, but with a powerful expectation of perfection.

Speaking through a translator, Ms. Kurihara said she thinks of dishes as belonging to one of three flavor families: soy, salt and mayonnaise. (The mayonnaise, spiked with rice vinegar and soy sauce, provides a creaminess that traditional Japanese dishes rarely have.)

“We love mayonnaise,” she said. “We have a great appetite for other cultures.” The Japanese passion for mayo is often surprising for Americans who encounter it at local sushi bars. Mayonnaise was introduced to Japan in the 1920’s and quickly became the national condiment, a virtually all-purpose sauce drizzled enthusiastically on sushi, pizza and fried chicken.

Ms. Kurihara has helped popularize strong cheeses like Parmigiano and Gorgonzola in Japan, which has no tradition of cheese making, and very little dairy of any kind in the traditional diet. “They have the same umami as my favorite Japanese foods,” she said.

Umami is the Japanese term for the nearly indefinable “fifth taste,” which is often described as savory, mouth-filling or meaty and is found in cured meat, soy sauce, mushrooms and red wine, among other foods.

The ingredients Ms. Kurihara uses most often, though, are longtime standards of the Japanese kitchen: soy, sesame, ginger, rice and its derivatives (sake, vinegar) and especially the members of the huge green-onion family. While American cooks use either slim scallions or fat leeks, their Japanese counterparts use every size in between.

In addition “there is no Japanese cooking without myoga,” Ms. Kurihara said, picking up a graceful shallotlike bulb that is related to ginger. Its streaks of green, pink and white were reflected in the blossoming tulip trees outside. “It’s so refreshing to taste the first cabbages, the spring onions, new garlic and artichokes,” she added, speaking the international language of cooks.

Ms. Onishi, the fan, agreed.

“In springtime, New York City is a little like Tokyo,” she said looking around Rockefeller Center. “But without the fresh bamboo shoots.”

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