All Our Burning Questions Answered: Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Nancy Singleton Hachisu first went to Japan intending to teach English but, on the first day of classes, she met Tadaaki Hachisu, the tall handsome farmer who would later become her husband. Since then she’s made her life in Japan, living on an organic farm in a traditional Japanese farmhouse, and raising their three sons. She’s passionate about Japanese food ways and well known on Japanese television, where she visits artisanal producers and gives viewers a glimpse of her rural life.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu first went to Japan intending to teach English but, on the first day of classes, she met Tadaaki Hachisu, the tall handsome farmer who would later become her husband. Since then she’s made her life in Japan, living on an organic farm in a traditional Japanese farmhouse, and raising their three sons. She’s passionate about Japanese foodways and well known on Japanese television, where she visits artisanal producers and gives viewers a glimpse of her rural life. She’s been a force for change in the Slow Food Japan movement, collaborated with top kitchens around the world, and written a number of stellar books, among them Japanese Farm Food (Andrews McMeel, September 2012), Preserving the Japanese Way (Andrews McMeel, 2015), Japan: The Cookbook (Phaidon Press, April 2018), Food Artisans of Japan (Hardie Grant, November 2019), and now, Japan: The Vegetarian Cookbook (Phaidon Press, April 2023). Gorgeously produced with lush photography, it’s the deepest of deep dives into Japanese vegetarian cooking. That’s why it’s so exciting that she’s including L.A. on her forthcoming book tour, and we got a chance to ask her all our burning questions.

ELA: Your beautiful book inspired me to pick up dashi and a cool looking miso and konbu and now I’m looking into donabes too. This is unusual for me who tends to write about food more than cook. What would you say to someone green, very green, like me as I dig in and start cooking from Japan: The Vegetarian Cookbook?

Cucumber with Ume and Shiso (Ume to Kyuuri no Aemono), Photos by Aya Brackett

NSH: Perhaps the easiest way to dive into this book is to start with rice dishes + miso soups + simple pickles. That is the quintessential Japanese vegetarian meal. I would also pay close attention to the Building a Bowl of Miso Soup pages. I wrote these as a way for people outside of Japan to really get a feel for what miso soup is and how to create their own seasonal variations. By the way, miso soup is never called just “miso” like I’ve been hearing in the West recently—it is always called “miso soup."

ELA: There’s a strong element of spirituality in the book which fascinated me. I was particularly interested in  “food is where I center myself, and the kitchen is where I regain quiet.” I think we’re always struggling with the intensity of our present world with its constant streams of information. I’d love an example of how you center yourself through food and regain quiet in the kitchen. Also “food is how I look at life” and “look into your heart through food”?

NSH: Although I do plenty of events for the books, at home I enjoy cooking alone. I like to set up my space and allow the process to unfold at my pace. These days I don’t do the large gatherings of 50 people for garden parties or 40 adults and kids for sit down dinners. The pace of such cooking is grueling and frankly stressful. I’m glad I did it over the years, but am happy not to do that now. As in all of the years since I married, I think about what I am making for dinner in the morning, and I begin prepping in the afternoon. Setting aside time to cook at a peaceful pace is very centering and enhances the enjoyment of the process many fold. It’s good to test ourselves by taking on big cooking projects, but day in, day out, the more sustainable practice is to manage your time and manage your ingredients so there is little stress and more pleasure.

As I wrote in the introduction, “Food is how I look at life” is something I said several years ago when doing an interview. It means that all of my life I have looked at life through the lens of food. Almost all memories are tied up in food and there was never a time I was not thinking about food: how it was prepared, how it tasted, and what I could be cooking next. 

Potato Chip Salad (Poteto Chippusu Sarada)

“Look into your heart through food” is included in a list of Zen Buddhist maxims on approaching Japanese vegetarian food, rather than my personal words. For me this means allowing your ego to separate from the cooking process, freeing yourself to almost float above and feel your “elementalness.” Absorb rather than force. 

ELA: You mention that Japanese culture has 72 micro seasons, in contrast to our four. This makes sense to me. Living in California where the seasons are arguably more subtle, I find myself more attuned to the little things. The woman at the end of my block has an elaborate front-facing garden; I track the small changes in the seasons there on my walk. I notice the star jasmine blooming (I wait for that one) or, deeper into summer, when the orange blossoms hit me at a certain time. We have a distinct scentscape in LA as well as a soundscape that’s constantly changing. There are many examples of these microseasons in this book. Which is your favorite? What evokes the most memories?

NSH: The 72 micro seasons are mostly evoked in poetry and art and reflect the natural world…personally I am most moved by the tender bright green new leaves that appear on the trees in the spring - they join the darker leaves from past years and signal hope and rebirth. It’s a beautiful thing to see the hues co-mingling on the same tree.

Tofu Cake (Toufu Ke-ki)

ELA: You write of the concept of consciously holding back, using restraint, which will eventually evolve you. This makes sense to me as well, though I’m not quite sure how. Would you give me an example of how you see that?

NSH: What I wrote was that "you will have evolved personally from the experience.” In other words, by practicing restraint in our cooking and allowing the vegetables to speak to us rather than imposing our will upon them, we in turn learn to apply that to our own lives. It is a more passive process rather than a ‘conscious’ one and this gentle holding back or restraint in our cooking will have a gentle effect in our lives. Like many people, I find peace in the kitchen. I find my center. But it’s not something that can be forced or something that will ‘evolve you’—it is all about mindfulness and giving in to the process.

ELA: I’ve read that, for most Japanese, rice-washing is essential, and that many families have different traditions of doing this. In the book, when discussing washing rice, you say it took you years to be “one with the rice?”

NSH: The exact phrase I used was “something akin to being ‘one with the rice'” —and it was meant to be tongue in cheek. But essentially the process of washing rice - especially in the context of Zen Buddhism - is that one should be respectful of each grain because rice growing is such a physically arduous process for the farmer. Therefore one should focus on the rice as one scrubs the grains, swirls the water in, and rinses the rice with running water until clear. It is a quiet thoughtful approach rather than a slap dash task to check off the list as one prepares a meal.

ELA: I’m fascinated with the relationship between container and food in Japan. It’s something I think we’re becoming more conscious of here as well with so many chefs working with ceramicists. You write of sourcing bowls and other kitchen instruments at flea markets in your books. Can you speak to the Japanese relationship of food to container?

NSH: Regarding Japanese cookware, tableware, and cloth: the vessels and other implements used for serving are just as important as the food itself.

There is a saying in Japan aji ga aru. It means (the vessel) has taste, but not in the meaning of ‘good taste’ but that it tastes good, like the thing is so cool you can absorb/eat it with your whole being. There is a visceral reaction to the piece. It could be an imperfect piece, it could be a mended piece (with gold lacquer paint at the mend), it could be expensive, it could be inexpensive, but by all means it must be well-made and not garish, nor should it be obviously mass-produced or ‘generic,’ in the sense of the word that means ‘common.’

We shot the book in Oakland. I did the prop styling and my son Andrew did the food styling with a Japanese ceramist/cook friend, Yuko Sato. Aya Brackett was the photographer. Because of the huge importance of the tableware, I brought 98% of the ceramics, lacquerware, and metalware plates and bowls as well the sake cups, chopsticks, miscellaneous utensils and cloth. It was a logistical nightmare but in the end worth every bit of packing, placement, and planning I put into getting all of those materials to the U.S. And the ultimate group effort shows in the photos that are authentically Japanese and beautifully photographed.

ELA: Living as you do with a foot in both Western and Japanese cultures, what do you love most about your life in Japan and is there anything you miss here?

NSH: I like that I can do anything I want here and that I live an isolated life in the countryside. I am my own person. I don’t miss anything in the States except friends and family, but I suppose I do miss being anonymous in the crowd.

ELA: And last, the dinner party question. If you had a dinner party and were able to invite six people, living or dead (not counting immediate family or friends), who would they be?  What would you serve?

Guests: Nigel Slater (British food writer), Kim Schuefftan (late writer, collector, and editor at Kodansha International), Lucie Rie (British potter), Bernard Leach (British potter and arts Teacher, Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), and Elizabeth David (British cookbook author).

To serve: a seasonal meal starting with zensai, then moving on to perhaps chawan mushi, a clear soup, agemono, and some grilled items. Fruit for dessert.

Meet Nancy at her collab dinner on May 23rd , 2023 at Orso & Winston, and at Now Serving LA, in conversation with Tomoko Imade Dyen on May 24th. Order her book from Now Serving HERE.


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