Jane Lawson has had a relationship with Japan for 20 years, and that’s a long relationship in anyone’s books. During a time when she needed to pull-back from her hectic life as a successful publisher and author, it was Japan and the city of Kyoto in particular, that the former chef turned to for nurturing and support and she has documented this period of time in her new book, Zenbu Zen, published by Murdoch Books.
“Kyoto envelopes you in a sense of calm,” she says on the phone from her hometown of Sydney, “and every part of Japanese culture comes back to food.” Towards the end of 2009, Lawson was overworked and wanted to break her routine and give a bit back to herself, “The people of Kyoto take time to restore themselves by surrounding themselves with beauty and nature,” she says. “I realised I needed that too.
“Kyoto is a city of texture. It’s like an onion, you peel off layers and keep chipping at it to find the core.”
The author – whose other titles include Snowflakes and Schnapps, A Little Taste of Japan and Cocina Nueva – readily admits she hasn't opened up so personally in a book like this before. Spending 12 months in Kyoto has resulted in a book that is a diary, a story and an insight into deliciously simple food of the region, where the complexity lies in understanding it. “I really liked cooking at home while in Kyoto and the recipes in the book are all about that,” she says.
And the recipes are simple, she tells us. Dashi, or as Lawson tells us more correctly katsuo dashi, is a vital key to the food across the country. “Dashi is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking,” she says.
She’s included five dashi recipes in the book, backed up by nurturing dishes suited to different times of the year. There’s the instant comfort of oyakodon (‘Parent and child’ rice bowl), the vibrant crunch of and story behind kohaku namasu (daikon and red carrot pickle) and countless others. Lawson takes you by the hand and allows you into a very special and telling time of her life.
Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson
Murdoch Books, $69.99 (HB)