Emiko Davies: “I Want People To See Japanese Home Cooking As They Do Italian Cuisine”

There’s more to Japanese cuisine than sushi masters and late-night ramens. Food writer Emiko Davies tells us where to get a taste of home-cooked meals when you’re travelling

When Emiko Davies visited her grandparents on holidays to Japan as a child, it wasn't ever-replenishing bowls of raman or hand-moulded sushi made by a 40-years-in-the-making master that she remembers. Instead, it was the home-cooked recipes lovingly prepared by her obaachan (grandmother), the scents of which would waft from behind the saloon-style doors guarding the entrance to the matriarch's kitchen.

Travelling to Japan? Here's where to head...

Those quick, easy and nourishing family dinners are the inspiration for Davies' new cookbook, Gohan. Now based in Tuscany, the food writer has swerved the typical associations of Japanese cuisine - izakaya dishes, sushi and swish omakase menus - in favour of showcasing the simplicity of everyday eating in the country. And while the book invites cooks to recreate regional specialities in their own kitchens, Davies is keen to show that, like the cuisine of her adopted home in Italy, Japanese home cooking can be explored and enjoyed while visiting the country, too. You just need to know where to look (or eat).

Here, Davies chats about the often-overlooked joys of Japanese home cooking and shares her tips for tasting comforting tofu bowls, simple bento and moreish mochi snacks when visiting the country.

Emiko Davies on where to visit in Japan, dishes to try and the delights of home-cooked Japanese cuisine

Soba noodles, Japan

How did you come up with the idea for Gohan?

It started with a conversation I had with another cookbook author, Tessa Kiros. She mentioned that she thought Japanese food was something you don't really attempt to cook at home. It's often seen as intimidating, and "cheffy". My response was "but this is the food I cook when I'm tired, and I don't have a lot of time, and I need something fast and comforting". It made me realise that usual experiences of Japanese food are had in a restaurant, and that's very different to what you would eat at home if you had a Japanese mother or a grandmother, or a friend, cooking for you.

How does home-cooked food differ in Japan?

When you go to a restaurant, you eat sashimi made by a master who has been doing that his whole life. Or you'll go to a tonkatsu restaurant and all they will do is tonkatsu, and there will be someone in the kitchen who has been learning to cut cabbage for 30 years. With this book, I wanted people to see Japanese home cooking as they do Italian home cooking: it's quick and easy, and it's seasonal.

Shed, Japan
Katsu Curry, Japan

Is Japanese cuisine a similarly communal affair?

Yes, absolutely. Food brings people around the table. A lot of the dishes in this book are what you'd make for a gathering to eat together. For example, nobody makes sushi at home, but they do make temaki. You have your bowl of rice, a platter with all the ingredients on - slices of fish and cucumber, avocado - and everyone sits around and builds their own temaki. It's called hand sushi because you cut the seaweed to the size of the palm of your hand. It's one of my favourite things to eat with my family.

What's something surprising about the cuisine we might not know?

In Japan, there are a lot of regional differences. Most of the dishes in the book are from around Tokyo, because that's where my grandparents lived. But, like Italian food, there are regional specialities that people don't really know much about.

Any we should seek out?

My grandparents are both from the south of Japan, and moved when they were young. My grandfather is from Fukuoka in Kyushu, which is known for its fishcakes.

I talk a little bit about curries in Gohan, too. It's a great example of Japanese home cooking that's different everywhere you go, and done differently in every house. Each part of Japan has a different speciality of curry.

Somen noodles
Kitchen Pantry

What's one region that's really impressed you with its food?

I spent some time in Nagano last year, visiting friends. It's a landlocked region in the mountains that is very cold and dry in winter. Their speciality is freeze-dried food. They freeze-dry tofu and daikon radish, and fishermen bring seaweed to the region in winter to be freeze-dried and then used to make jelly. It's only two hours from Tokyo by train.

Where should we go in Nagano?

A town called Chino. The tourism board organises wonderful food experiences with local grannies. You'll be taken into the village and shown where they plant perilla leaves and other ingredients. You'll see rice fields and daikon fields, and then you can try classes in preparing home-cooked Japanese meals using the local produce. I did a class in making freeze-dried tofu, which has an incredible texture and can be added to soups. It was a wonderful experience.

How did you pick recipes to share in the book?

I picked all the recipes I really, really love and that I'm most nostalgic for. These are the recipes that hold a lot of memories of Japan. Some of those dishes are ones my grandmother would prepare, but there are also a lot of things that we would eat when we were out in Tokyo. We could reach the city by train in about 40 minutes, and we'd spend the day in Mitsukoshi department store, or my grandfather would take me out to a little restaurant to have a fried prawn sandwich. I wanted to recreate the things you might try on a trip to Japan.

Restaurant in Tokyo
Bento, Tokyo

Is there an easy way to experience home-cooked Japanese food as a visitor?

The closest - and easiest - thing you can do is have a Japanese breakfast. A Japanese breakfast looks pretty much like a Japanese lunch or dinner. It's based on having some rice and soup, and three or so other dishes. There'll be lots of little vegetable dishes, and probably some grilled fish, and pickles.

Otherwise, if you're travelling in the countryside, a typical ryokan may offer half-board dinners. They'll bring all of the dishes into your traditional room, serving a big tray full of these little dishes that will give you a taste of some of the things that are more like what you would have at someone's home.

There are also some great lunch spots in Tokyo that do bento lunch, which is a really affordable option. An unexpected place that does bento lunch really well is Muji in Ginza. They offer a set lunch bento, which is essentially a homely Japanese meal.

The Lowdown

Gohan: Everyday Japanese Cooking (Smith Street Books) is available from uk.bookshop.org for £26.

Photography by Emiko Davies, Hana Davies and Yuki Sugiura