From Farm to Table in Rural Japan
Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japanese Farm Food, finds inspiration and friendship among East Bay chefs and food artisans
By Kristina Sepetys | Illustrations by Mary Brown
It’s Monday evening in Berkeley when I receive a telephone call from Nancy Singleton Hachisu, but it’s already Tuesday lunchtime at her farmhouse kitchen in a semi-rural area of Saitama Prefecture, about two hours from Tokyo. I can hear a clutch of hungry, chattering children eager to tuck into the curry burgers she’s preparing for their lunch.
Hachisu, a Bay Area native, directs an English-immersion school at the organic farm where she’s lived for more than 20 years with her husband, Tadaaki Hachisu, and their children. The kitchen, with its long counters and collections of antique pottery, baskets, and cookware, is the heart of this farmhouse that has been passed down through Tadaaki’s family. Now a mix of traditional wooden post-and-beam architecture with modern updates, the home reflects the multicultural and multigenerational family that lives there. It also serves as a gathering spot for friends who come from near and far to share meals or partake in celebrations, among them many current and former Chez Panisse staff. Some guests make extended stays to soak up the rural atmosphere while learning about the traditional food production and preparation customs the Hachisus observe.
It was some of these curious visitors who encouraged Hachisu to create a cookbook describing her life on the farm. The result is Japanese Farm Food, an engagingly written volume, beautifully illustrated with colorful photographs by Kenji Miura and borders of Japanese indigo fabric designs. Shortly after it was released by Andrews McMeel Publishing in September 2012, the title quickly appeared on many “best of” cookbook lists and received a Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Already in its fifth printing, the book sells out rapidly whenever shops are able to stock it.
Japanese Farm Food is the product of many years of kitchen collaboration between Hachisu and her husband, a farmer of organic eggs, chickens, and vegetables. She gives recipes and instructions for the very simple dishes this family prepares daily along with descriptions of the significance each has to the Hachisu family, or an anecdote about preparing, eating, or serving the food. There are also sections on kitchen tools, cooking techniques, and ingredients.
But the book is much more than a collection of recipes. It’s the story of a Western woman adapting to a different culture, growing food and preparing it from scratch, observing local customs and creating new ones. We read about Hachisu planting rice in her bare feet in the warm, muddy paddies, leaving out steamed manju (buns filled with sweet bean paste) during September full moons for local children to creep in and snatch, spending hours plucking feathers from a wild duck, learning from her mother-in-law how to sun-dry eggplant on bamboo screens, or pounding glutinous rice to make mochi to share in a torchlight celebration with friends.
But it’s not all romance. Hachisu is pragmatic in acknowledging how aspects of this rural lifestyle are disappearing as younger generations move away or eschew the intensive labor and commitment that rural farm life requires. Indeed, she explains that it’s a way of life she has struggled to learn herself as she confronts the challenges and occasional frustrations of living between cultures, raising three bi-cultural children, meeting the expectations of her in-laws and family members, and grappling with her own expectations about being the perfect Japanese farm wife.
A Chez Panisse Affinity
There has been an especially warm reception for Japanese Farm Food in the East Bay, in some part due to Hachisu’s associations with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse staff. The child of what she describes as “beatnik parents,” Hachisu grew up in Atherton and attended Stanford. While living in San Francisco in the early 1980s, she frequently drove across the bridge to eat at the iconic restaurant, and she did not give up the habit even after she married and moved to Japan and had to squeeze it in on trips back to the Bay Area. “Visiting Chez Panisse became a family tradition,” she says. “As the years went by, I’d see Alice Waters and her staff at Slow Food gatherings in Italy. I began an email correspondence with her office which led to a friendship.” As Waters describes it, “Nancy has been a great friend through the years. She’s a part of the Chez Panisse family.”
It’s not surprising that Hachisu would find such natural affinity in a milieu driven by a love for crafting food by hand and using fresh, seasonal, sustainably harvested, organic ingredients.
Last September, Waters hosted a book-release celebration with a special dinner at Chez Panisse. The menu married Hachisu’s rustic Japanese culinary style with the more refined style of the restaurant, highlighting both the local bounty and some items the author had hand-carried from Japan. Diners that night enjoyed wood-oven roasted squid; kelp-wicked halibut with freshly grated wasabi; albacore tuna with Hachisu’s homemade miso; myoga ginger bud grown from Kitazawa Seed Company seeds; handmade tofu and eggplant with chile, shottsuru and shiso; and rice that had been harvested from Hachisu’s farm and cooked in an iron pot.
“We share the same vision of cooking simple, delicious food made from pure ingredients,” Alice Waters says of Hachisu. “It’s been a beautiful experience having Nancy share her deep knowledge of Japanese home cooking with the chefs of Chez Panisse. There’s been a wonderful sort of cultural exchange—we’ve had so many Chez Panisse staff visit her and Tadaaki’s farm and learn from them, and experience her amazing hospitality.”
Sylvan Mishima Brackett, the owner of Oakland-based Peko-Peko Japanese Catering, first met Hachisu at Waters’s restaurant when he was their creative director. Six years ago, Brackett visited Japan and stayed for a while at Hachisu’s farm. “She lives in a pretty incredible situation, surrounded by a community of farmers. It’s the true, simple, farm-food life, an old-style Japanese way of living that’s quite rare now. They have things like an old fire cooker and a big stone mortar. Nancy makes everything herself and she’s surrounded by people who do the same thing. She picks her vegetables in the morning . . . and cooks them up at night. She milks her own goat, makes her own cheese, tofu, mochi, everything. She’s the only person I know who out Chez Panisses Chez Panisse. It’s an extraordinary life.”
Hachisu says this self-reliance, together with her husband’s excellent sense of food, has developed her culinary skills. “What really taught me to be a good cook was having to make everything by myself. I can’t buy things like fresh pasta or sausage, so I have to make it.”
During the 20 years he cooked at Chez Panisse, Russell Moore, now chef/owner of Camino in Oakland, became friends with Hachisu. He says that the commitment to “making everything from the ground up” is something he and Nancy share. “Neither of us is afraid of making food that takes a lot of work. I try not to buy any value-added things at Camino. We make our own vinegar. I don’t even buy balsamic vinegar; we do all fermented things ourselves. We can tomatoes from the summer, make our own marmalade and jam, and buy only whole animals. Nancy and I are alike in that way. We like to make the best stuff we can with what we have.”
Living with her farmer husband has taught Hachisu to cook with whatever is ripe in her field. “It took me a while to understand that you have to give in to what you have,” she admits. “In my early days on the farm, I would want to plan a menu a month or two months in advance. My husband would resist, saying, ‘Who knows what I’ll have then? I’ll just go to the fish market and see what’s good and that’s what we’ll have.’ I’m a planner, and that uncertainty was crazy-making for me. But I’ve learned.”
On Bearing Gifts
Whenever Hachisu travels—which happens a lot these days as she promotes her book—she brings along food and prep tools. “It’s my way of bringing a part of my home,” she explains. Her suitcases might hold rice—“Last time, 50 kilos . . . out of hand!”—a grinding bowl, knives, homemade miso, or even nukadoko, the rice bran mash used to make pickles. She supplements with items from favorite local purveyors. In the Bay Area, she picks up meat from Aaron Rocchino at the Local Butcher, San Jose tofu from Tokyo Fish Market, and nattō from Megumi, a producer in Sebastopol. She also likes to enjoy a meal at Pizzaiola with her friend Charlie Hallowell, who hosted a book-signing event for Hachisu during a recent visit.
In addition to bringing food to share, Hachisu always brings gifts. “Present-giving is one of the beautiful parts of Japanese culture,” she explains. Former Chez Panisse chef and restaurateur Kelsie Kerr remembers: “Nancy would come to the restaurant to eat every time she came to town, often bringing her boys for dinner downstairs. They once brought me a lovely teacup made by the eldest [son] with a Japanese fairy in the bottom. I still have it.”
Says Hachisu, “The art of giving something lovely—paper products, cool knives, interesting cloth—is something I work hard to incorporate into my trips. It’s my way of giving back.” Japanese Farm Food just may be her very best gift of all. ♦
The following recipes are adapted from Japanese Farm Food and included with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing.
Seared Bonito with Ginger, Garlic, and Chives (Katsuo No Tataki)
Reprinted with permission from Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, published in 2012 by Andrews McMeel Publishing.
In Japan, bonito (skipjack tuna) season starts in spring with lean, clear-flavored flesh and ends in fall with fatty, darkly flavored (and colored) meat. I love both seasons, but I particularly like to taste the change in flavor and fat as we move into the summer. I also like that the fish makes sense. In the spring you are looking for lighter and brighter food, whereas in the fall you are ready for stronger or heartier fare. Nature is funny that way. If we leave it be, it gives us what we want when we want. No need to eat out of season.
- A side of sashimi-quality fresh bonito
- Sea salt
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons yuzu, sudachi, or Meyer lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely julienned ginger
- ½ tablespoon yuzu, sudachi, or Meyer lemon zest (optional)
Cut out the bonito’s dorsal bone to create 2 elongated triangular-shaped filets. Scrape off any hard spots on the flesh. Set the filets side by side on a cutting board or dinner plate and salt lightly on all sides from about a foot above the fish. Poke the filets through the horizontal side, skin side up, with five 1½-foot-long metal skewers, keeping the handles all at the same place and the tips radiating out like an open fan.
Heap straw in a barbecue and light (or prepare a high-flame charcoal grill). Carefully hold the skewered filets directly in the flames, rotating until the skin sizzles and all sides are seared. (Take heed: This operation is quite difficult if there is any breeze.) Plunge the filets into ice water to cool. Remove from the water, pat dry, and wrap in a clean kitchen towel before refrigerating. Alternatively, sear over a hot stove flame, wrap in a paper towel, and place in the fridge for l to 2 hours or 30 minutes in the freezer to cool.
When ready to eat, slice diagonally into ¼-inch-thick pieces and fan out overlapping slices on a beautiful round dinner plate, working from the outside in like flower petals.
Make the dipping sauce by mixing the soy sauce and citrus juice. Sprinkle the sliced fish with the dipping sauce and garnishes. Serve immediately.
Turnip Greens with Soy Sauce (Kabunoha No Ohitashi)
Reprinted with permission from Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, published in 2012 by Andrews McMeel publishing.
Katsuobushi is skipjack tuna (bonito) that’s been dried, fermented, and smoked in a process that can take three to five months. In the kitchen, the dried fish is shaved with a razor-sharp tool and the flakes are used to make stock or flavor vegetables. While packaged, shaved katsuobushi is relatively easy to find locally, it’s worth the effort to track down a whole piece, as well as the plane used to shave off curled pieces. You’ll get markedly better flavor and texture. To enjoy a special aesthetic effect, sprinkle katsuobushi over hot food and watch as the heat causes the thin flakes to curl and wave back and forth. —KS
- 1 large bunch (about 1 pound) turnip greens (or mustard, bok choy, komatsuna)
- 2 tablespoons freshly shaved katsuobushi or 3 tablespoons hanakatsuo
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
Bring a large pot of hot water to a boil and place a large bowl of cold water in the kitchen sink.
Line up the turnip greens so the stems are all at the same end. Grasp the whole bunch of turnip greens and lower the stem ends into the boiling water for a count of 10. Drop the greens into the water and boil for about 1 or 2 more minutes. Scoop the greens out of the water with a strainer and plunge the strainer of turnip greens in the bowl of cold water to cool. Add cold water if the water loses its chill.
Pull the turnip greens out of the water by the root ends, squeeze, cut into 2-inch lengths, and stack attractively in a couple of small bowls for the table. Serve with the shaved katsuobushi and a generous dose of soy sauce right before eating.
Japanese Soul Food
For most Japanese, raw eggs over very hot rice with a dash of soy sauce (tamago-kake gohan) is like the American standard eggs on toast. “I was raised on Japanese food,” says Bill Fujimoto, a self-described 66-year-old Japanese American, who is known in foodie circles as a former owner of and produce buyer at Monterey Market. (He’s currently a consultant to Diablo Foods in Lafayette and Cooks Company in San Francisco.) “Egg on rice is so familiar to me. It’s a simple country dish, a basic meal that my mom cooked on weeknights on a regular basis. Nancy’s descriptions help me to understand and appreciate some of the basic, traditional foods I grew up with.”
A freshly laid egg from a free-roaming chicken that has been raised on corn, seaweed, crab shells, and greens (as Tadaaki Hachisu feeds his chickens), over a bowl of carefully cultivated organic rice, will have a sweetness and pronounced taste very unlike a factory egg from a supermarket.
“Nancy calls tamago-kake gohan ‘soul food,’” says Fujimoto. “For me, much of what’s in her book is soul food: whole, nutritious, comfort food.”
Raw Egg on Hot Rice (Tamago-Kake Gohan)
Reprinted with permission from Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, published in 2012 by Andrews McMeel Publishing.
The hot rice cooks the egg just a smidge, but essentially it is raw, so do not attempt this method unless you are able to buy your eggs directly from a local farmer. Knowing your egg source and how the chickens live assures you that the eggs can be safely eaten uncooked. —NSH
- 2 cups cooked Japanese rice (hot!)
- 4 very fresh large farm eggs, at room temperature
- Organic soy sauce
For each serving, scoop about ½ cup or more rice into a small bowl. Break the egg over the steaming grains and splash in a little organic soy sauce. Mix with chopsticks. Eat every grain of rice. Lick the bowl if you like.
VARIATION: If you don’t find the idea of eating raw eggs appealing, you can make a couple of Japanese-style fried eggs to eat on top of the rice. Heat a teaspoon or two of rapeseed or sesame oil in a small frying pan over high heat with 1 small dried chile torn into 3 pieces. Break 2 farm-fresh eggs into the hot oil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the white is set but the yolks are still runny. Loosen the eggs from the pan with a spatula and set on top of a small bowl of rice. Drizzle with soy sauce and eat for breakfast (or lunch).
Kristina Sepetys lives in Berkeley. She is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay and several other Edible publications, and has written on food, farming, economics, and environmental policy issues for many publications.
In a 2020 update, artist Mary Brown says, "I'm currently acting budget manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. I’ve worked for the District for three years now and love it. In addition to fine art, I’m a member of the Berkeley Potters Studio and have been working with ceramics for roughly two years. My main focus, however, is getting back to figurative oil painting. Though I’ve been working in finance for many years, art is truly my only purpose in life. Reach her at marybrownis(at)gmail.com. Learn more about her work at cawperpaint.weebly.com or etsy.com/shop/LettuceCreate.