The Zen Kitchen — Adam Liaw

Cookbooks have always struck me as being very personal things to write. With any one recipe there is a whole web of decisions and preferences and value judgements.

For instance, if you’re writing a recipe with chicken will you mention that the chicken should be free range? Or organic? Or hand reared on a diet of the finest whatever-it-is chickens eat? Will you even feature chicken, knowing that the bulk of poultry is raised in conditions of abject horror and market research suggests people prefer the affordable over the ethical?

Alright, so let’s write a vegetarian recipe instead. Much safer. How about a quinoa burger with a zingy yoghurt sauce? Of course there was that sensationalist article claiming that due to the popularity of quinoa, Peruvians, for whom the grain is an essential staple, could no longer afford to eat it. And that thick, rich greek yoghurt we all crave? Well, its manufacture produces immense amounts of acidic whey. And it has become like the new nuclear waste: no one knows quite what to do with it.

Aside from the ethics, will people find your aggressive seasonings to reflect a course and unsatisfied palette? Or will people find your approach boring and lacking any life?

And broader, are your recipes guilty of cultural appropriation? Do you take from other cuisines without understanding or respect? How do you feel about the undeniable privilege about chiding your readers to buy and use the very best olive oil.

I could probably never write a cookbook, given my neurotic tendency of overthinking things. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think about the person behind the cookbook, and the choices that went into making a particular cookbook.

One such person I occasionally wonder about is Adam Liaw, an omnipresent Australian food celebrity. He has written a small handful of cookbooks. They are consistently solid and reliable cookbooks which usually play around with that broad category of pan-Asian food.

The Zen Kitchen, his latest, takes a slightly different track and focuses exclusively on one cuisine: Japanese. And more so than other books, it delves into the broader philosophy of Japanese food. Liaw writes authoritatively and with real love on the subject. In fact, he has been recognised as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.

It is a topic of real passion for Liaw. The best choices for cookbook are from authors with the most passion in a particular topic. And yet sometimes passion without proper and thoughtful application can come across as unrefined.

Structure and Design

Hardback.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Pickles stocks and seasonings
  2. Japanese breakfasts
  3. Rice and noodles
  4. Soup and nabemono
  5. Japanese salads
  6. Fish
  7. Meat
  8. Mainly vegetables
  9. Semi Sweets

Firstly, I have to talk about that title: The Zen Kitchen. It suggests either a certain outdated orientalism (you could almost imagine it typeset in Wonton font) or reference and adherence to the principles of zen buddhism. The book, thankfully in the case of the former and perhaps sadly in the case of the latter, does not live up to either of these images. It is a particularly bad title for a book that is modern in approach and execution.

There’s a certain by-the-numbers, commercial approach to the design of the book. It looks likes the publisher allocated exactly a certain budget for the design and that was it. This is not to say the book is poorly designed, but rather it has a disappointing feel of being just good enough. It’s the Mazda of book designs when Liaw is clearly more of a Volkswagen man.

One of the main examples of this is the chapter introduction pages. Featuring text superimposed over a full bleed photograph, it comes off as busy, hard to read and inelegant. The chapter numbers are mixed in with the chapter titles in a way that is hard to parse. One example reads, at first glance, chapter japanese / two breakfasts.

There are also these mini-essays scattered throughout the book that do a fine job of showing Liaw’s approach and appreciation for Japanese food. And yet these are again text set on a visually distracting photo background. The text in both these mini-essays and the chapter introductions is fully justified which I cannot help but find unpleasant to read in anything other than a newspaper.

While Liaw is not Japanese, he has an abiding respect for the Japanese legendary sense of attention to detail. This makes some of the decisions around the design of the book to be puzzling.

Things improve when you consider the recipe format itself. He has gone for something that is simple and usable. But for one minor quibble, it is my favourite recipe format in a while: a title, followed by minimal but useful headnote, and then a two column approach: a neat, orderly list of ingredients on the left and a numbered paragraph method on the right. Finally, a little note at the bottom of the method gives a serving suggestion or provides another useful titbit of information.

The quible mentioned above? The vast majority of recipes have exactly two steps in their method. There seems to be little logic behind the delineation of what is a step one step and what gets pushed over into step two (although the approach seems to be step one is ‘cook the dish’ and step two is ‘serve the dish’). It is puzzling.

The photography is monotonous in approach. While it does justice, by and large, to both the food and Liaw’s stunning collection of ceramics, the constant 45 degree angle induces an existential weariness. The weathered wooden board that makes a frequent appearance as a backdrop is straight out of food styling from a few years ago.

Really, it’s not a book that you’ll love because of the design. At best, the design fades in the background and allows you to focus on the strengths of this book: Liaw’s knowledge and passion for Japanese food. At worst, though, it goes against the love of Japanese food  that is otherwise on display.

Thoughts

Japan, and Japanese food, is amongst the chief pleasures that this life has to offer. Despite this, I struggle to find good Japanese cookbooks. The books I try are either too technical and strive for unachievable authenticity or they are dumbed down and produce boring food. Japanese food can—and should—often be subtle but never boring.

This book is one of the more successful in the genre of approachable Japanese food. The food is deeply enjoyable. It is very smart to position the recipes inside the context of the average Australian kitchen (although, doubtlessly the book would work as well in US, UK or kitchens elsewhere.)

There are a few moments where the indicated timings did not quite work. A poached chicken breast at the suggested ten minute mark was still dangerously raw. The miso-cured pork belly was still flabby and no where near as burnished after following the recipe.

Similarly, the recipe for onigirazu does not really give you instructions on the technique for folding these addictive rice and nori sandwiches. A video on Liaw’s youtube channel helps slightly, but if you have to go to youtube to get advice that should be in a book then you have already lost the war.

The inevitable judgement from this is that this book is not intended for either kitchen or Japanese-food beginners. Perhaps this was the result of an effort to condense recipes down to two step levels.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Summer Ramen (despite the inaccurate chicken cooking instructions, the finished product is a perfect meal: a lot of textural variation, the intrinsic delight of a noodle dish and a punchy dressing. For poached chicken, please avail yourself of the instructions from Serious Eats)
  • Sushi Sandwiches (while the craze around these may not have reached Australia, they are delicious and fun. The method, as noted, is inadequate for someone who likely has not heard of or seen these before.) 
  • Japanese Garden Salad (I think one of the best recipes from the book. A picture perfect combination of simple ingredients dressed up with a powerful and assertive vinaigrette. However the recipe tells you to blanch the broccoli before the corn, something that would result in corn speckled with broccoli flecks)
  • Onion and Garlic Vinaigrette (While potentially divisive in how assertive and pungent the combination of raw garlic and onion is, I could have sipped this like whisky. Would be great on steamed rice.) 
  • Sukiyaki of beef and Asian greens (again, a very nice dish that is let down by a recipe that lacks clarity and precision. The shirataki noodles, which I had never tried, were incredibly satisfying to eat and soaked up the flavourful sauce.)
  • Miso cured pork (I enjoyed the accompanying shaved cabbage more than I enjoyed this. It needed to be cooked for much longer than the recipe suggests. And even though I cooked it for another 10-15 minutes, it was still rather unsatisfying. I would be inclined to try again with fish.) 
  • Chicken and Tofu Meatballs (ding ding we have a winner! These little balls were perfect. This was one of the last recipes I cooked from the book so by this time I had learnt to assume the recipe was a starting point rather than something to be reliably followed. I would encourage anyone who makes this—and everyone should—to whizz the tofu in a food processor and then drain and to bake the balls instead. Life is too short for somethings.) 
  • Beans in black sesame (a simple vegetable dish that while unmemorable was at least pretty on the plate.)
  • Agedashi tofu (there is a perfect contrast between a crispy thin exterior and a soft, wobbly creamy interior. It’s not the easiest dish to make, but the end product is as delicious as you could hope for.)
  • Tantan chicken nabe (I liked this because it gave me licence for a bit of shopping: I bought both a wee little gas stove and a Muji donabe. It was also a decent recipe that resulted in a fun and interactive meal. The broth was sophisticated and quite impressive.) 
  • Barbarian fish (the recipie specifies salmon but I am a big baby so we subtituted in some firm white fish. Opinons were split as to the delicousness of the dish. It’s sort of like a cold sweet and sour fish. It’s very Japanese to deep fry something and then bath it in a delicious sauce. It is worth trying, if nothing else.) 

Why this book?

  • You like Japanese food and are confident in the kitchen
  • You are a fan of the irrepressible Mr Liaw
  • You love Japan and a cookbook is a little cheaper than a flight

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rain on your wedding day And does it just spark joy?

 

You should probably buy this book.