Cookbook Review: Japanese Cuisine by Seiji Yamamoto

by Deanna Dong
July 2012

Japanese Cuisine by Seiji Yamamoto

Seiji Yamamoto


Dish Precision:
For some dishes, such as spring vegetables, Yamamoto recounts cooking each component separately, at different temperatures and for various lengths of time, and then meticulously reassembling them on the plate. He notes that this can make serving a large table particularly challenging.

Unusual Ingredients:
Soft-shell turtle, spiny goby, pike conger, dragon fish, and fugu milt.

To Chef Seiji Yamamoto of Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo, cooking is not simply about fresh ingredients, knife skills, or beautiful plating. His approach is deeply philosophical: it’s not “cooking” if there is no meaning or purpose. In Japanese Cuisine, Yamamoto outlines these scholarly principles in detail, challenging chefs to ask themselves “Why am I cooking this way? What is my intention?”

Yamamoto’s central philosophy is illuminated by this example paraphrased from the foreword (with the help of our generous translator, Chiaki Takada of Morimoto):

If there is a cucumber, is that considered cooking? No, that is just an ingredient. What if it is cut in half? No, that is just cutting it in half; that is not cooking. So what is cooking? This cucumber, picked this morning, is juicy and fresh, and I’ve intentionally cut it in half to give you the opportunity to try its tastes, flavors, and textures. There’s meaning that I want you to experience. That is cooking.

Written entirely in Japanese, Japanese Cuisine is not so much a cookbook (there are no ingredient lists, recipes, or step-by-step directions) but rather an anthology of Yamamoto’s favorite products with descriptions, culinary histories, and ideas for usage. The book’s purpose isn’t to teach but to inspire. Over 200 or so pages, Yamamoto features mainly traditional Japanese products, such as firefly squid , wakame seaweed, and Japanese radish. But some Western-centric items (such as truffles, venison, and caviar) also make an appearance.

If Yamamoto’s words aren’t enough to inspire (or if you simply can’t read them), the book’s photography will surely motivate you to find meaning in the kitchen. For example, a dish of spring vegetables spans two full pages—ribbons of red beets, shards of white asparagus, and lush green sprigs of udo create a diorama evoking a tropical rainforest or deep sea reef. Another photo features the lush, ruby red centers of black figs sliced into the shape of mushroom caps and stacked upon sesame-covered pastry “stems.” The close-up pictures explore Yamamoto’s elegant, creative, and vibrant ideas, making the dishes seem otherworldly and larger than life. Plus, the arrangement of prepared dishes next to the original product (e.g., tucking a bowl of seared duck breast next to the bird in all its plumy glory) is surprising and whimsical.

Yamamoto believes that successful future chefs need to explore the world beyond merely cooking; they need to learn from artists, philosophers, architects, and other creative types. He wants his readers to be more than just cooks, to have “big worlds within themselves.” And reading Japanese Cuisine could be the first step toward a journey of enlightenment.