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Food book: How to Care for Japanese Kitchen Utensils

Anyone who appreciates Japanese cuisine will also probably love the elegant tableware it’s served on, as well as the extensive range of cookware used to prepare the dishes.

Japanese culinary implements tend to be beautiful as well as practical and some are designed with just one, seemingly frivolous, purpose in mind. I’ll never forget being politely admonished by a waitress at a high-end tempura restaurant in Tokyo when I put a discarded shrimp tail on the incorrect dish. I was told I should put the shrimp tails on “the shrimp tail dish”. Of course …

Many of us who buy Japanese knives, bento boxes, pottery, lacquerware, ironware and so on don’t know how to properly care for these expensive items. But even some Japanese aren’t sure of how to treat their cookware, author Akiko Hino writes in the preface to How to Care for Japanese Kitchen Utensils.

“In older times, knowing how to care for kitchen utensils was something we were expected to learn from our mothers and grandmothers. These days it is harder to pass on this kind of everyday knowledge to younger generations. I also was not taught much by my mother about how to look after kitchen utensils, but have been fortunate to learn from excellent teachers – the makers of kitchenware. When doing some research on the information I gathered from the makers I visited, I was surprised to find that many of the things they told me were supported by theoretical chemistry. It seems that ‘to know its material’ is the key to mastering the tool. ‘Taking care of tools’ is sometimes understood to mean ‘keeping them neat and clean’. However, I have often heard the makers say, ‘You will spoil the charm of your well-used tool if you bring it back to brand new condition.’

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“The texture and char­acter of the tool develops as we use it over time. The true attraction of well-used tools lies in those added qualities as well as their practicality. Your kitchen utensils can continue to improve and become better than when you first used them.”

Hino describes the history behind the utensils and introduces the reader to some of the craftsmen who make them. Urushi lacquerware, coated with the sap of the urushi tree, seems fragile because it’s light and thin, but it’s actually very durable, and, its maker says, the best way to maintain it is to use it every day rather than only for special occasions. With handmade woven bamboo baskets, the enemy isn’t oil stains from food; instead, we should worry about residual moisture after washing the baskets, because it can make the bamboo mouldy. We learn that new clay pots (donabe) need an initial sealing process – cook rice gruel in it – which creates “good cracks” (as opposed to the bad cracks you get if you drop the pot). These good cracks, Hino writes, are the “secret to enjoying your donabe for many years”.

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The section on wrought-iron pans is fascinating. Making the pans is hard, hot work: the craftsman heats the metal until it’s glowing, then hammers it, repeating the process until the desired shape is achieved. When you buy this type of pan, it needs to be properly seasoned: washed first, heated and rubbed with oil, then used to fry vegetable scraps, which are then discarded. The pan is then ready to use.

Other subjects include iron teapots, copper saucepans, wooden rice containers and enamel pots.