Ayao Okumura is an ancestral cooking expert whose work is motivated by two questions: Which ingredients have the Japanese cooked and eaten since ancient times? And how should we hand traditional cuisine down to the next generation?
His efforts include recreating ancient recipes written in old documents and travelling around Japan to sample and study regional cuisine. But it’s not just his personal tastes that inspire him.
“I want young people to eat Japanese home cooking more,” says Okumura, 78, who creates new recipes as well as reviving forgotten classics.
Two years ago, when he was asked to lead a cooking class, he chose “satoimo” taro rice and a simmered dish for the first lesson. Disappointingly, not many young people signed up.
So he chose “paella made in a rice cooker” for the next lesson and succeeded in attracting younger participants.
“There is nothing special about it. It’s just a type of rice cooked with various ingredients and a dash of tomato paste,” says Okumura.
For his “Naples-style yellowtail teriyaki” he added tomato paste to the sauce. Later, he was thanked by a student whose child loved it when she made it at home.
When he travels to study regional cuisine, local people often lament that their young folk are uninterested in traditional cooking.
“A recipe will not last unless you add a contemporary element,” says Okumura. “Today’s Japanese cuisine is something that has evolved through the ages and has lasted.
“Some people say what I am doing is wrong. But the key is not only to preserve tradition but also to breathe new life into it.”
According to Okumura, ingredients dressed with sauce are called “Japanese salad,” and vinegared miso becomes “Japanese dressing" when combined with a little mayonnaise to create a condiment less oily than its Western-style equivalents.
“You need a playful touch when cooking. I’m always thinking of ways to cook tasty dishes. You shouldn’t twist them around too much but all you have to do is to incorporate flavors people today are used to,” says Okumura, who continues to cook with an open mind.
Ayao Okumura was born in 1937 in Wakayama Prefecture. After quitting college, he enrolled in a cooking school run by the late culinary expert Masaru Doi and studied folklore at the same time.
He later struck out on his own and has also helped supermarkets to develop prepared food products.
His book on the origins of Japanese cuisine, “Nihon Ryori towa Nanika--Washoku Bunka no Genryu to Tenkai,” will be published next year by the Rural Culture Association Japan.
For vinegared miso dressing:
80 grams white miso
2 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp vinegar
1 tsp Japanese mustard paste
2 tsp mayonnaise
For salad with tuna and green onion: serves four.
160 gram block of tuna sashimi (red-meat part)
1 green onion
To make the dressing, mix all ingredients. If kept in a lidded bottle, it will keep well in the fridge for about a month.
To make the salad, chop the white part of the green onion into 1-cm pieces. Finely slice the green part. Place all in a plastic bag and microwave at 600W for about 1 minute. Spread on a sieve and cool. Dice tuna into 1.5-cm pieces.
Dress tuna and green onion with 6 Tbsp dressing.
Leftover dressing may be used to flavor boiled pork slices with strips of daikon radish and carrot, among other ingredients.