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An Italian Foodie Shares Her Passion for Japanese Cuisine

April 20, 2017

People all over the world have come to enjoy Japanese food and culture. But among all those Japan fans, Chiara Bettaglio is a standout. An Italian who works for a publishing firm in Milan, Chiara’s love for Japanese culture and food has prompted her to set up Italian-language websites that cover both. Her knowledge of Japanese food is a source of constant amazement to even her Japanese friends! We asked Chiara to share her thoughts on Japanese food: what she likes, some useful hints for preparing dishes, and tips on enjoying a gourmet tour though Japan.

How did you become interested in Japanese food?

When I was little, every child was in front of TV after school looking at the new thing called anime that came from Japan. We saw there every kind of Japanese food, from the plain onigiri (rice ball) to the full family meal and street food like okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancake), and I grew up curious of how such different dishes could taste. My mum told me I started to use skewers as chopsticks to imitate anime (chopsticks weren’t common in Italy in the 80s). When I was 28, I started a food blog about Japanese food because I felt lonely and was struggling to recreate it at home in times when ingredients weren’t widely available in Italian shops. This blog grew for 10 years and the amount of information I wanted to share with my followers was overflowing, so I started a website “Ohayo” in 2016 to fit everything.

Tell us about your website.

It is founded over the principle of sharing true Japanese culture with Italian people to fight against typical stereotypes of geisha, samurai and sushi-only country, which are unfortunately still widespread. It’s been almost one year now and I learnt quite a few things from my followers: they are curious about what is the day-to-day life in Japan, they want to deepen cultural knowledge and of course they desperately want to visit the land of rising sun. I receive a lot of emails asking for daily pictures, tips about travelling and, of course, recipes!

What is it about Japanese food that interests you?

I’m especially interested in home-cooking, I think that Italian and Japanese food share a lot of culture in terms of cooking and you can see this by looking very closely at what you call “comfort food”, which is almost always what your mom or grandma used to prepare for dinner.
Also I’m very fascinated by the seasonal aspect of Japanese cuisine: the peculiar usage of certain ingredients only at their best makes some dishes available for a few weeks only. The visuals of Japanese food are also the other aspect that interests me a lot, especially the kaiseki cuisine: it is so beautiful to see before it’s even tasted.

Above: Kaiseki cuisine

What sort of Japanese food do you cook?

I prepare a daily bento to bring to the office for lunch and about 2-3 times a week for dinner. When my friends ask for a special dinner, I always cook them some dishes as they are also Japanese enthusiasts. My staples are niku-jaga (simmered beef and potatoes), homemade gyoza (dumplings), yakisoba (fried noodles) and nabe (hot pot), which I prepare mostly in the winter. I also enjoy preparing some izakaya dishes like salmon nanban-zuke (salmon marinated in sweet and sour sauce) and potato salad, while misoshiru (miso soup) and rice are a given. Sometimes I try new recipes; last month I tried chicken with hoba miso cooked on the shichirin (portable clay stove) I brought from Takayama, Japan, while sharing the food with friends.

Nowadays, Japanese basics like soy sauce, mirin, miso, nori seaweed and sushi rice are widely available in supermarkets. In Milan, you can also find quite good homemade fresh tofu in Chinatown while some organic shops carry fresh shiitake mushrooms, lotus root, taro and edamame beans. It’s been just a few years that we can find Japanese ingredients in Italy, and mostly in big cities only, so sometimes I have to search online and order from Great Britain or Japan directly, but it’s still very difficult to find special ingredients like sake lees for instance.

Above: Niku-jaga and gyoza made by Chiara

What would be a good way to start cooking Japanese?

I would advise to start mastering the basics of rice: it is very important to learn how to obtain fluffy and savory rice to match the main dishes and to make onigiri. Then upgrade to yakisoba and yaki-udon (fried thick noodles): it’s stir-fry almost impossible to fail if you cook them on medium heat. Stick to simple but tasty food! I would advise also not to start with sushi, it takes a lot of experience and very fresh and high quality ingredients to succeed, one may fail and be discouraged to keep on trying.

Above: Chiara making yaki-udon

What do you think is the key to enjoying Japanese food?

Be curious about food and don’t hesitate to taste it when you have the possibility! I started learning about Japan online, but also by reading cooking books. Go to Japan and have a real food experience by eating local dishes and not being lured by tourist traps. If you have the chance, go dine with a local or someone who speaks Japanese and a whole new world of possibility will open to you. Check if there are cooking lessons in English in the city you’re going to, and go explore the food courts and supermarkets: remember that the best key to a culture is passing through its food!

Profile: Chiara Bettaglio
Passionate about food, technology and Japan. Writes a blog called Food & Crafts about Italian and Japanese food, and in 2016, launched, an Italian web magazine about Japanese culture. Contributed to the book Taste of Tohoku. Crazy about cats, red pandas and other kawaii animals.

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