Recipe books collected from around the globe, some written in Cyrillic and Arabic, line the bookshelf of Yuriko Aoki, a cooking expert on the world's local dishes.
She refers to the books, including an instructional tome with hand-drawn illustrations and a beautiful volume resembling a photo album, to recreate local flavors and introduces them through events and the media.
Aoki encountered the dishes from around the world more than 20 years ago in New York City, where she was covering theaters as a magazine reporter.
The big city was dotted with Chinatown and enclaves of Brazilians and Greeks. A step inside, she found authentic local dishes.
As she frequented the ethnic towns between assignments, Aoki was strongly drawn to the history the people had woven over the years and the food that reflected their faith.
She eventually quit her job as a reporter and began touring the world to learn about local food.
At a time when online information was still scarce, she would buy recipe books and ingredients overseas, and return home to try making the dishes.
Through her travels in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Aoki became aware of the diversity of regional characters in one country as well as the link between seemingly separate dishes from different countries.
Aoki also learned that what we regard as "Japanese cuisine" reflects various foreign influences.
She was strongly reminded of this during a meal she had in Nara about 10 years ago.
A banquet from the Tenpyo Period in the eighth century, when Nara was the capital, had been recreated based on information recorded on "mokkan" (narrow strips of wood) and other materials. It included "so," made by cooking down milk to resemble cheese.
Aoki was startled because she had seen a strikingly similar dairy product in Central Asia.
The origin of milk consumption is said to extend back to Mesopotamia. Legend has it that when Buddha attained enlightenment, he had some milk rice. Milk is thought to have arrived in Japan with Buddhism.
This knowledge clicked with the "so" in front of her, and Aoki understood that food culture had also traveled the Silk Road, much like the ancient treasures kept in the Shosoin Repository at Todaiji temple in Nara.
Asuka hot pot is a local Nara dish reminiscent of such history. It is characterized by the use of milk in the soup. Beyond the steam rising from the soup, one can imagine seeing a caravan crossing the desert.
A native of Saitama Prefecture, Aoki entered the culinary world in her mid-30s after working as a reporter for the entertainment information magazine Pia.
In 2000, she started e-food.jp, a comprehensive information website on world cuisines that also offers recipes and event information. She has written and supervised the seven-volume "Shirabeyo! Sekai no Ryori."
600 cc milk
1 to 2 Tbsp white miso (shiro-miso)
1 Tbsp chicken soup stock powder
400 grams chicken thigh
1 each of burdock root (gobo), green onion (naganegi) and large carrot
2 medium-sized turnips
Chinese cabbage (hakusai)
bunch crinkly spinach (chijimi horenso) (normal spinach may be used)
Some mushrooms of your choice
1 block tofu
100 grams noodle made from kudzu powder (kuzukiri)
Bit of salt
Cut burdock root in "sasagaki" style and immerse in water. (Make cross-shape incision at one end and cut into shavings as if sharpening a pencil while rotating burdock.)
Finely slice green onion at an angle. Peel carrot and turnip and cut into bit-size pieces. Cut Chinese cabbage, spinach, chicken and tofu into appropriate size. Remove hard end from mushrooms.
If dried kuzukiri is used, reconstitute by boiling in water for more than 5 minutes. Cut length in half.
Bring 200 cc water and chicken soup stock to a boil in pot, add chicken, burdock root, carrot, turnip and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add milk and dissolve miso. Season with salt. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over medium heat.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column