Chef Rika Yukimasa: Ambassador of Japanese Home Cooking
September 1, 2016
Sushi, tempura, and ramen have become popular restaurant choices throughout the world, which is one reason why people tend to think of Japanese cuisine as being difficult to prepare at home. But these represent only a fraction of what Japanese food culture has to offer. Everyday home cooking is extremely important in Japanese cuisine. Drawing on her own experience as a homemaker, Chef Rika Yukimasa introduces easy-to-make Japanese recipes on a popular cooking program “Dining with the Chef.”
Rika calls herself a food "translator." She "translates" formal kaiseki dining and authentic Japanese cuisine into simple recipes that can be prepared outside Japan, and even by people who are unfamiliar with Japanese cooking. Rika’s priority is to make Japanese cuisine accessible and approachable, and you won't lose a thing in "translation"!
Rika became interested in cooking while studying at a college in California. Her host family offered her the part-time job of preparing their evening meals, which she did five days a week for two years. Looking back, Rika says that the experience of planning the menu, shopping for ingredients with a specific budget, and cooking efficiently so that everything would be ready by dinner time provided her with crucial basic training as a chef. She adds that living away from Japan opened her eyes to the health benefits and sheer variety of foods that are served in Japanese homes.
Q1What do you find most appealing about Japanese cuisine?
Japanese cuisine is called washoku, which is written with the kanji characters for harmony (和; wa) and food (食; shoku). I believe that harmony is what defines Japanese cuisine; the harmony brought about by combining five basic colors and tastes, the diversity of ingredients, the pairing and presentation of food and tableware, and the nutritional balance. Japanese cuisine is not just about enjoying food for food’s sake. It’s all about appreciating the harmony of different tastes, presentation, health benefits and more.
Q2What challenges have you encountered in preparing Japanese cuisine outside Japan?
The main difference is in the water. Japan has abundant water and is one of the few countries in the world where it’s possible to enjoy really great tap water. Even simple dishes such as cooked rice or simmered vegetables taste so good in Japan for that reason. Western cuisine makes use of soup stock that takes hours to prepare, and you might add wine to enhance the flavor, whereas Japanese soup stock, dashi, can be made in just five minutes. The quality of water is what makes this possible. So the difference in water is probably the main obstacle I’ve encountered in preparing Japanese food overseas. The best solution is to use soft water, which is so common in Japan. European water, for example, is often hard, but if you can use soft water then that alone will go a long way toward recreating authentic Japanese flavors at home. Another thing is to try using more seasonings and flavorings than are listed in the recipe.
Q3How would you like to see Japanese cuisine spread throughout the world?
It’s nice to see people dining out at Japanese restaurants. But what I’d really like to see is the spread of Japanese home cooking. It would also be great to see more and more photos of Japanese food on Instagram–photos uploaded by visitors to Japan who’ve enjoyed eating their way around the country, or people who’ve tried their hand at making Japanese food after watching “Dining with the Chef” or by referring to the JAPANESE FOOD website. I believe that sharing images of Japanese food and happy faces on social media will go a long way toward promoting Japanese cuisine.
Q4Finally, what's your favorite Japanese food?
Definitely sushi! Coming home to Japan after traveling abroad, a meal of sushi makes me feel so happy. Sushi is all about eating seasonal ingredients. Eating sushi prepared with fish that's available for only a limited time is absolutely the best way to make me feel I’m back in Japan!
Another important dish for me is miso soup. I like to start the day with a healthy breakfast, and so I make a point of serving my family miso soup full of vegetables every morning.