Meaning in translation

4/3/2023 ☼ meaningfoodtranslationinnovation

Taking an idea from one context and making it relevant in another—translating it—is a difficult act of meaning-making. The potential payoff from investing in this kind of meaning-making is that when the translation works, the idea spreads and grows in influence.

Translation is particularly top of mind now as I try to explain why not-knowing is important in a world which usually denigrates or avoids it it and values knowing instead. This is part of a broader and still-amorphous investigation into dimensions of not-knowing.

How Japanese cooking became fine dining in America is an example of the meaning-making challenge and opportunity embedded in the act of translating ideas.

A cuisine’s aesthetic philosophy is an idea complex that must be translated effectively for it to make sense in a different context. (For context, my view is that being able to create meaning instead of imitating is what sets humans apart from the machines for now.)

The English-speaking world now takes it for granted that Japanese cuisine has the potential for enormous refinement—in other words, that it can be considered fine dining within the same frame of reference as other Western cuisines. Almost everyone assumes it has been this way for ages. In fact, this elevation” of Japanese cuisine is very recent: it happened within a few years in the early 1980s in America. 

The usual explanations for this make sense only superficially. Most centre on the fact that from 1960s, Japanese expatriate and immigrant populations grew on both coasts, and the Japanese economy (and Japanese culture) similarly swelled in global influence. The problem with these explanations is that both trends were slow and steady. Neither spiked suddenly. Yet the phase change that resulted in Japanese food becoming fine dining in America was both abrupt and pronounced, happening between October 1979 and 1982, and a book’s publication catalysed it.

In October 1979, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji was published by Kodansha in the US. I first came across the book by accident in 2002 while looking for a more plausible explanation for Japanese food’s anomalous trajectory. In my usual way, I fell into a rabbithole. 

This particular rabbithole involved sifting through a then-uncatalogued archive of M.F.K. Fisher’s personal papers and, eventually, traveling to Japan to meet as many of the original editorial and production team behind Japanese Cooking as I could find decades after the project. The story I eventually pieced together is one of secret influence and cultural change that began with an unsolicited letter from Tsuji to Fisher in the 1970s and, through a chain of extremely unlikely events in which Fisher played a pivotal (but until now completely unknown) role, culminates in Japanese cuisine entering the world of American fine dining via Japanese Cooking and the events that surrounded its publication. But that’s a much longer story for another time.

To Kodansha’s surprise, reviewers of Japanese Cooking were universally enthusiastic. Interest in Japanese food in America had been growing slowly and steadily since the 1960s, but until 1979, the most important food writers and critics in the media—the influencers of their day—still considered Japanese food to be fundamentally different, an ethnic” cuisine ultimately alien and incomprehensible to the Western palate. As Craig Claiborne wrote in the New York Times in 1974, who can persuade John Doe that there is much to be said in a positive sense for cooked chrysanthemum leaves?”

When Japanese Cooking was published a few years later, Fisher’s intercession behind the scenes led the prominent media outlets like the New York TimesSan Francisco ChronicleHouse and Garden, and Time, among others, to give the book rave reviews. The Washington Posts review, in its influential food section, said, what makes a cuisine alien’ is not the national origin of its dishes, however exotic, but rather the inability of the cook to project what the dishes will be like and to understand the originating culture of the cuisine … The cuisine of Japan, while it has become less mysterious, still tends to be viewed as alien … This void has been filled [by the recent publication of] Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.

The reaction was so unexpectedly positive that the first print run sold out before the official release date despite an unusually large first printing of 15,000 copies. The book ultimately sold over 65,000 copies in the first four months after it was published—success unheard of in cookbook publishing at the time. It has not been out of print since.

But Japanese Cookings success should be measured in more than strong reviews and book sales. It profoundly changed how American food influencers then understood Japanese food, from an alien cuisine to one that could be understood in the same frame of reference as Western cuisine, and thus one with the potential to be considered at a level, or even surpassing, the best Western cuisines. Japanese restaurants began to be talked about as having a rigorous aesthetic standard comparable to, even if different from, the refinement associated with the haute cuisine of France, which was itself influenced by Tsuji via the French outpost he set up for his Osaka cooking school. In truth, it remains the only non-Western cuisine to be widely regarded in this way.

Japanese Cooking was influential then for the same reasons it is worth reading today. It’s beautifully written and structured─a product of an era now long past, when publishers were willing to invest huge amounts of time and money in books not written by social media superstars. But foremost is its dedication to articulating in plain language the everyday knowledge that normally can only be developed by growing up immersed in Japanese food culture. It is the rare cookbook that provides not just recipes but also a pathway to understanding another culture’s approach to food, values, and aesthetics. Such understanding is a prerequisite for elevation, because what isn’t understood cannot be truly appreciated and valued.

Part One of the book is devoted to this kind of tacit cultural knowledge. In a wide-ranging series of 20 essays and annotated lists that make up more than three-fifths of Japanese Cookings 500-odd pages, Tsuji explains—among other things—the aesthetic philosophy of the Japanese meal, the material, social and cultural context of Japanese food, the Japanese approach to ingredients (many unfamiliar then and now), the philosophy and aesthetics of cooking and eating, and how the logic of the Japanese meal is anchored on the main cooking methods of the dishes involved.  

After reading Part One, you’re ready to cook. On to the recipes in Part Two. Here, too, Japanese Cooking excels. Its recipes, unlike those in many other cookbooks, deliver on their intention of helping even novice readers understand and learn the tricks that experienced cooks in a culinary tradition know so well they are taken for granted. For instance, the recipe for simmered chicken and cabbage below goes as far as diagramming how the cabbage is to be sliced. Someone familiar with the dish would know this—but the book is not for such a reader. The diagram is for the benefit of the reader new to the dish (and maybe to Japanese cooking) who might not even know to ask.

While modern cookbooks largely depend on photographs to visually document technique, Japanese Cooking relies instead on a multitude of such diagrams. Line drawings are the default in technical instruction because they focus on the essential and can more easily omit (unlike photographs) the superfluous and distracting. And where photography dates swiftly (just look at any other cookbook from the 1970s to see how styling and other aesthetic choices rapidly go out of date), the line drawings in this book feel of the moment because they were of no particular time to begin with.

The recipes in Japanese Cooking are long, though like many Japanese recipes they tend to require a relatively small set of ingredients and cooking techniques and to deploy them with great precision. The length is because the recipes go into what may seem (but is usually not) unnecessary detail about the ingredients and techniques used.

I haven’t cooked paying scrupulously close attention to a recipe for ages, but I did this time. The chicken and the cabbage in this dish are simmered separately in the same seasoned liquid for about the same amount of time, then combined for service. The separate simmering seems finicky but is worthwhile for the ability to control the degree of doneness of the chicken and cabbage. Such precise technique is relevant even in an ostensibly homely dish, and shows how simple ingredients and techniques can be combined to produce complex results. I ended up making this recipe twice, because it was genuinely delicious and fundamentally easy to cook. 

Precision requires attending to necessary detail, not adhering mindlessly to it. This requires both understanding what detail is necessary, and why. This book, through its careful explanation of underlying logics and method, equips the reader for that—and thus permits the reader to go beyond slavish execution of recipes. 

So, lacking some key ingredients, I substituted dried mushrooms for the umami-laden katsuobushi in the dashi, and replaced the sweetly acidic mirin with a diluted mixture of lemon juice (I used cider vinegar the first time, which was less good) and the end of a bottle of Coteaux du Layon. The second time around, I cooked the chicken for much longer than the recipe calls for because I’m at high altitude, and used about half as much sugar. It was better that way. Assiduity is not the same thing as fidelity.

Chicken and Chinese Cabbage
(Tori Jibu-ni) 鶏じぶ煮

There are two entertaining theories as to how this dish came by its name: one that the simmering liquid sounds like jibu-jibu-jibu as it bubbles; the other that it was created by a man called Jibu_emon. Grated ginger may be used instead of wasabi horseradish, but the latter is traditional.

4 servings

12 ounces (340 g) boned chicken, with skin (thigh recommended)
6 leaves Chinese cabbage

for simmering:
1 cup dashi (made from simmering kombu and katsuobushi)
4 Tbsp light soy sauce
4 Tbsp lemon juice/wine mix   1/2 Tbsp sugar

finely grated wasabi horseradish or ground sansho pepper

To prepare: Cut boned chicken into 2-inch (5-cm) pieces and brush thoroughly with flour.

Carefully separate whole leaves from the head of Chinese cabbage and parboil in a large pot in ample lightly salted water (about 3-4 minutes); drain well. Lay out each leaf and cut into - x -1-inch (- x -2½-cm) strips as shown [there is a cutting diagram in the photo of the recipe pages above]—first cut the leaf crosswise, then lengthwise. If the stem is very thick, slice off a thin layer. Transfer the cabbage strips to a medium-sized pot.

To cook and serve: In a second medium-sized pot mix the ingredients for simmering. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer for about 2 minutes,

Pour 2/3 of this very hot simmering liquid directly over the cabbage in the first pot. Place on medium heat immediately and gently boil cabbage strips for approximately 10 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally Be careful not to break up leaf pieces.

In the second pot, in which the simmering liquid remains, lay the flour-brushed chicken pieces. Place over medium to high heat. Shake the pot frequently to keep the chicken moving. The meat will absorb most of the liquid within 7 to 10 minutes, although my tough, pastured chicken took 14. Do not cover.

Remove the two pots from heat. Arrange mounds of Chinese cabbage on small, individual plates or dishes. On these, cushion pieces of chicken (1/4 of amount cooked), skin-side up. Pour 1 Tbsp or so of simmering liquid from the cabbage pot over the chicken. Garnish with a small cone of grated wasabi horseradish or a pinch of ground sansho pepper. Serve immediately.

A version of this essay was originally published in December 2020 by Vittles, as Iteration X: Vaughn Tan cooks Shizuo Tsuji,” one in a series of reflections on how using a recipe in a cookbook inevitably involves translation and interpretation.