“You don’t have to do much if you believe in the true power of the ingredients”
Hosting TV cooking shows, writing cookbooks, and constantly inventing recipes, Kentaro Kobayashi (known just as Kentaro in Japan) is one Japan’s busiest culinary artists. His original approach toward home cooking attracts a lot of followers. Five of his cookbooks are available in the U.S., and one of them focuses on donburi, a favorite Japanese dish that is also the main topic of this month’s issue of Chopsticks NY. Here, Kentaro shares his thoughts on home cooking as well as donburi.
Would you tell me the motto for your home cooking?
I would say, “Easy yet delicious, stylish yet realistic.”
Would you elaborate on “stylish yet realistic”?
When you cook a standard dish, I think stylishness is not necessary and it should be cooked with a straightforward approach. I just don’t buy the idea that home cooking should be boring, though; I want a little twist even at home. For example, you might serve food on stylish plates or use ingredients that you don’t use in your everyday cooking. If it’s too much, however, it might not be good for home cooking.
So you mean stick to being realistic in that sense?
You could say that. But when I say “realistic,” I use the word from the viewpoint of the person who creates recipes. Arranging a mint leaf as a garnish makes the dish look absolutely gorgeous, but what do you do with the rest of the mint leaves? What if I suggest a dish using hard-to-find ingredients? My recipes are simply for your everyday cooking.
In this country, many people think that Japanese cuisine is too intricate and delicate to cook. But your recipes are easy and quick. Is there any secret to making Japanese food with minimum hassle?
Japanese cuisine certainly has delicate and sophisticated aspects, but actually there are a lot of dishes that you can cook with simple steps and seasonings. You can make Imo no Nikkorogashi (Simmered Potato) that wows everybody with just soy sauce and mirin. If I say, “believe in the true power of ingredients,” it might sound pretentious, but I honestly think you don’t have to do much if you believe in the true power of the ingredients. You can make simple yet delicious dishes like stir-fried greens with a pinch of salt sprinkled on top.
Simplicity is at the core of Japanese cuisine then?
Yes. Sashimi, for example, is just a sliced fish. Of course, it requires craftsmanship and technique to make it sophisticated, but fundamentally it’s the true power of the ingredient, I think.
Would you recommend some seasonings for cooking Japanese food or for adding Japanese flair to one’s repertoire?
I think many people know soy sauce and sake, so I’ll recommend mirin here. I’m afraid that people in the U.S. are a little sensitive to sweetness in a savory dish, but I guess they like sukiyaki. Mirin can add an elegant sweetness that’s not as noticeable as sukiyaki’s sweetness. You can use mirin for salad dressing, too. Unfortunately, you cannot find mirin in regular supermarkets outside Japan very easily, although Japanese grocery stores carry it. I do hope mirin will someday be a regular item in supermarkets.
Without limiting yourself to Japanese seasonings, are there specific seasonings you often use?
Oyster sauce and sesame oil are my frequently used seasonings. Each seasoning can be the center of a dish or a flavor by itself, in a way. You can make one complete dish just by stir-frying ingredients with oyster sauce, for example. Both oyster sauce and sesame oil are very convenient and go great with gohan (steamed rice).
Speaking of gohan, this issue of Chopsticks NY features donburi dishes. How would you describe the appeal of donburi?
Well, the dish has some sort of force as a meal. It might be misleading if I said donburi is fascinating in a vulgar manner. For example, if you served toppings and gohan separately, you would make an elegant meal, but donburi is the meal you would want to devour. Donburi has energy, and I guess you don’t want to eat donburi if you don’t have energy. Also, it might be a bit dull if you ate gohan along with just one dish like sautéed meat and vegetables, but if you serve gohan in a bowl and place the sautéed meat and vegetables over it, the dish suddenly becomes energizing and you don’t want anything else.
Do you have any preferred style of eating and cooking donburi?
Each person has his preferred style, so this is my personal taste, but I like the donburi whose toppings and gohan stand out independently, instead of the kind with soupy sauce that soaks the gohan. I still want to enjoy gohan as it is, so I usually don’t make toppings with runny sauce, but I season the toppings with a little strong flavor to go well with the gohan. Since donburi is a really casual dish, slowly simmered dishes are not commonly used as toppings, I think. It’s kind of like “Oh, I wanna eat something. Let’s cook donburi.” Again, it’s the force.
Japanese sticky rice is not mainstream in the U.S. Do we really use Japanese rice for donburi?
I strongly believe donburi goes well with tiny, plump Japanese rice. Thai-style, sautéed curry dishes might be okay with long-grain rice, though.
By the way, I’ve heard dinner parties at home are becoming more and more popular in Japan these days. Can you recommend a good menu for a dinner party?
Let me see… my friends enjoy pizza very much––making plain pizza dough, putting whatever they like on top, and baking it. All the participants can enjoy not only eating pizza but also making it. A gyoza [dumpling] party would be nice, too. Everybody can join in making gyoza and eating freshly sautéed gyoza––this would definitely create a fun party atmosphere.
Would you recommend some destinations or things to do in Japan for Chopsticks NY readers who are planning to visit?
Hmm, this sounds too common, but I’d say Asakusa. I myself love it there, and it’s truly a good place. Oh, I thought of a good one: buying houchou (knives) in Japan. I do believe our houchou are the best in the world. I think the approach toward knives in Japan is different from other countries. It has come down from the tradition of the katana (Japanese sword), so I feel some tension while holding a houchou. The sensation is completely different from the feeling I get while holding knives made in other countries. Also, every time I bring my Japanese houchou outside Japan, the local chefs always envy them.
What do you like to do in the U.S.?
I adore the sloppy hot dogs from vendors on the streets of New York!
Sloppy hot dogs?
Yes. They grab a sausage without really draining it and put it directly on a bun. The bun is also so cushy that it’s almost sticking to my palate. These kind of hot dogs can never be found in Japan. The hot dog we are familiar with here has a nicely sautéed sausage on a toasted bun. The hot dog in New York is completely different, but that’s what I like. So every time I visit New York, I always go to vendors on the corners of NY streets to buy hot dogs from them. I also enjoy interactions like, “What do you wanna put on the side?” “All of them.” I love the whole experience, and I always do this in New York.
——– Interview by Noriko Komura
Born in Tokyo as a son of Katsuyo Kobayashi, Japan’s legendary chef/author and the Japanese version of Julia Child, Kentaro began working as an illustrator while attending Musashino College of Fine Arts and simultaneously put his innate love of cooking to work by becoming a culinary artist. In addition to introducing recipes on television and in magazines, he helps develop ready-made recipes for retail sale and hosts cooking classes. In particular, he creates menus and meal plans based on what he himself wants to eat and make, in keeping with his lifestyle and his goal of always being practical.
Kentaro Kobayashi’s Cookbooks
Easy Japanese Cooking: Donburi Mania
This book features about 60 donburi recipes, from classics to creative ones. It also includes recipes for side dishes and soups to accompany donburi.
Others in the “Easy Japanese Cooking” series by Kentaro Kobayashi:
- Noodle Comfort
- Bento Love
- Veggie Haven
- Appetizer Rex
All books are published by Vertical, Inc., New York.