Chef melds flavors of Japan and the West
August 26, 2003
After 15 years in Japan, chef and author Eric Gower can whip up a fine-tasting Japanese dish.
His first cookbook, “Eric’s Kitchen,” written in Japanese, was for the adventurous Japanese home chef who wanted to experiment with ingredients widely available in Japan.
For his next project, Gower sought to expand his audience, but he also wanted to make a unique contribution to the kitchen — a traditional Japanese cookbook wouldn’t do.
“Just look on amazon.com, there’s a million of these books, and I’m just kind of bored by them,” he said in a phone interview from San Francisco. “I thought there’s got to be room for something a little different.”
Gower found that niche in “The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen,” his latest cookbook, which melds Japanese and Western ingredients and techniques into altogether new tastes.
“Ordinary Japanese, like people everywhere, come to like and expect the standard repertoire when it comes to Japanese food,” Gower writes in his book. “They learn from childhood that there’s a right way to eat almost anything.”
As an American expatriate living in Japan, Gower said he didn’t feel bound by those same rules. Through experimentation, he discovered, for example, that the sacred dish of Japanese white rice also tastes good boiled in carrot juice and water and mixed with Dijon mustard and bay leaves.
Gower, 41, moved to Kyoto after studying modern Japanese literature in college; the plan was to stay a year and improve his reading and speaking skills. He said he “found lots to like” and stayed in Japan for about 15 years before returning to San Francisco late last year.
Gower has no formal training as a chef, just years of experimenting in the kitchen.
He continued tinkering with food in Japan, a country he calls “a cook’s paradise.”
“I started experimenting with Japanese cuisine and ingredients because after having a great many first-rate but orthodox meals, I discovered it was fun to push the boundaries a bit,” he says in the book.
Gower’s recipes would likely be considered renegade in Japan: there’s scallops with miso and ruby grapefruit, and udon (wheat noodles) served with a sauce of figs and herbs, to name some combinations.
Gower said some of his Japanese friends were skeptical of his concoctions. But, as soon as they taste it, their conversion is “rapid, almost evangelical.”
“I think Americans tend to delight in breaking the rules. They take to this experimenting with greater ease. But they don’t have the historical weight of a lifetime of eating Japanese food,” he said.
Gower calls his new book a “best of” all the collective recipes he created in six months of nightly dinners with family and friends. “You keep refining, getting to know your own taste and pleasure perceptions better,” he said. “You see that other people enjoy the dishes, and you end up keeping track of what works.”
Even “total neophytes” can follow the recipe directions, Gower said. His goal is “to inspire home cooks who want to expand their repertoire, to enjoy the process more, and to cook great food without impossible amounts of time or hassle.”