The Rice Paddy Gourmet Who Is Also a Novelist
“One can’t deny a very special kind of aesthetic sense in Japan.” — Joan Itoh Burk
Joan Itoh Burk was born in New York City and lived in Somi, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, for thirteen years after she married the eldest son of an old landowning family in Japan.
During that time she immersed herself in Japanese culture and language, helped form an association of foreign women married to Japanese men and wrote extensively on Japanese food and cooking.
Itoh was very visible in Tokyo as well during the late 1960s and into the 1970s as the author of a column “Rice Paddy Gourmet” in the English-language Japan Times in which she described her life in Niigata, discussed Japanese food and cooking and provided recipes for Japanese food adapted to Western kitchens and cooking styles.
During this time Itoh was a frequent guest on Japanese television talk shows, discussing life styles and cooking and also active in a number of Japanese cooking-related media.
Itoh’s columns eventually resulted in a cookbook, Rice Paddy Gourmet, in which she presented many of the recipes she learned from her Japanese neighbors and in-laws and some which she combined with Western influences. In her books and columns she presented and adapted a number of dishes of the Niigata region for Western cooks.
Itoh’s recipes included suggestions for baking bread, making the yeast work and the dough rise when cooking in the winter in a drafty Japanese house. This was something she had probably done often and it no doubt helped many Westerners trying to do familiar housekeeping in the Japan of that era.
In 1980 Itoh produced an expanded cookbook, Japanese Cooking Now: The Real Thing, which contains 500 recipes. In her novel One Chrysanthemum she returns to Niigata with a story set in 1965 of a young Japanese woman Misako, a clairvoyant housewife struggling with visions of her husband’s infidelity. The story is one of mystery and romance that evokes the place of grace and remembered passion of Itoh’s own youthful years in Niigata.
Itoh later married a Canadian man, lived in southwestern Ontario, where she continues to cook Japanese dishes and is known as Joan Itoh Burk..
Her recipes were a pioneer effort at cultural translation, adapting Japanese home style cooking for Western cooks and kitchens and also subtly modifying traditional Japanese cooking styles with a Western influence. Recipes like Chinese Cabbage and Pineapple Salad are examples of her work, as is this very simple one for Crunchy Bean Sprouts, which definitely has a Western influence in its use of bacon:
Crunchy Bean Sprouts
- 3 slices Bacon
- ½ pound Bean Sprouts
- 1 long Onion, thinly sliced
- 1 or 2 tablespoons Soy Sauce
- ½ tablespoon Ginger Juice or ¾ teaspoon powdered Ginger
Cook the Bacon until crisp and take out of the skillet. Crumble the Bacon and set aside. Add the Bean Sprouts, Onion, Soy Sauce and Ginger Juice or powdered Ginger to the fat remaining in the skillet and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Drain and garnish the Bean Sprouts with the crumbled Bacon. Serves 4 as a side dish.
Ms. Itoh Burk continues on her creative course, and has recently provided a variation on this recipe, which works well with Burgers, a formula for a crunchy Bean Sprout Relish that makes use of Memmi Sauce and Wasabi.