Joan Itoh

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

Ingredients:

  • 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

Method:

Long Onions - Naga Negi

Long Onions – Naga Negi

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.

Another Itoh favorite is Saba with a Western flavor. Another great favorite is Soused Mackerel Japanese Style.

 

Maneki Neko, the Japanese Beckonong Ca

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15 thoughts on “Joan Itoh

  1. Thank you for your kind words about me and my work. Nice to know one is remembered in such a nice way.
    Yes, I have been living in Brantford Ontario in an old Victorian house since 1981. Big old drafty houses in very cold climates seem to be part of my karma.
    Here in Canada………….I have written about Japan…….mainly my novel One Chrysanthemum. I have just started a column in AFWJ”s (Association of Foreign Wives of Japanse) bi-monthly JOURNAL.
    I still love to cook. My dinner guest friends say I run the best Japanese restaurant in town.
    For nineteen years I wrote a cooking column for the BRANTFORD EXPOSITOR and often took that opportunity to introduce my local readers to Japanesse food.
    Still use bean sprouts. Newest way is bean sprout relish. When doing hamburgers on a grill……shake up some MEMMI sauce with WASABI in a glass
    jar. When your hamburger are done……..throw soybeans on the hot girll…
    cook for a minute or so……sprinkle with the wasabi sauce…….toss well and pile soy bean relish on the burger. The burger doesn’t have to be meat……..fish on the grill really take to the spicy soy bean crunch topping.

    Best regards,
    Joan Itoh Burk

    • Ms. Itoh,
      Thanks for your kind words. The Web site is still under development, so it was a little surprising to hear from readers at this stage. Especially such a distinguished one. I had no idea you were likely to see it so soon, if ever.
      I am building a Web site devoted to the foods and cuisines of the Pacific Rim, from the standpoint of aesthetics – that is, just good cooking – and healthy lifestyles. It’s still in the early stages and I’m working on developing content.
      Some of the main categories are the Great Cuisines, Ingredients and Materials, and the Master Chefs.
      Yesterday, for example, under Ingredients, I have been editing an article on Bear’s Paws in Chinese cuisine, relying heavily on some Chinese-language materials on the topic I read some years ago. This will need to be paired with its exotic parners, Bird’s Nests and Shark’s Fins, but really I need to return to the basic ingredients, which are in fact much harder to discuss. Like tofu.
      Your post was included in the category of the great Master Chefs, people who have made a special contribution in their cooking or writing, especially in the fusion area, which I think has an undeserved poor rap.
      Joan Itoh naturally came to mind in the chefs category, if only for such cross-cultural innovations as Irish style oden. And so it was a delight to hear from you. Thanks for sharing an updated recipe.

      Iverson Moore
      .

    • I just found (and bought) a copy of Joan Itoh’s book “Rice Paddy Gourmet” at an estate sale in a teeny, tiny town in Arkansas. I live in Alaska. I’m thoroughly enjoying the book; I’m just a few pages in and can hardly put it down. Joan is a great writer.

      • Yes, she is. Her novel might be of interest too. I like the fact that her cookbooks contain background on the culture and environment in which she lived and which serve as the framework for her recipes. These run from Swedish Rye Bread, to an Irish version of Oden.
        Thank you for your comments, which are very helpful.
        Please feel free to revisit the site when you have time. It’s still under development, but recently posted articles on topics including Litchi and Lemongrass, as well as some thoughts on using Ginger and making Bento lunches.
        If you’re interested in Japanese food, you might be interested to know that recent research in Japan is finding out ways people can help avoid Alzheimer’s disease – just by using chopsticks in a special way. And since the condition takes decades to develop, this is something that people in Japan are starting to do in their 40’s. I’ll start publishing a series of short articles on the topic very soon.
        Your comments and suggestions on any of these posts would be most welcome and helpful.
        Thanks again and happy cooking!

  2. Hello Joan, I was an avid reader of your column in the Japan Times during our stay in Tokyo from 1971 to end of 1974. I often envied your being in such an intensely Japanese surrounding. My husband and I met in Toronto in ’67 and moved to Tokyo in ’71 where we married in Dec. ’72. We have just returned from a 40th anniversary trip to Japan and while there, I remembered your column and wondered what happened to you. After returning to Switzerland where we live, I looked up on the internet and found out you now live in Brantford Ont. I was quite surprised, because I grew up in Brantford and went to Pauline Johnson CVS until 1966 when I moved to Toronto and met my (future) Swiss husband. He was sent to Tokyo by his company and I went with him. We married in Ikebukuro in 1972.
    I come to Canada every year and would love to meet up with you for a chat in Brantford if you wouldn’t mind.
    Please let me know if I would be allowed to contact you for a possible meeting next time I am in Toronto.

    I am amazed that I found out where you are and that you ended up in Brantford.

    Looking forward to hearing from you, Katharine Peter (Burnside)
    katharine.peter@ggaweb.ch

    • Ms. Peter,
      I was thrilled to see your post and hope you are able to make a connection with Joan as a result of my Web site. The site is still under construction and needs to have a lot more basic content related to its major subject installed before I attempt to publicize it. Still, once you publish a post on an Internet site it’s out there and visible to anyone who’s trolling.

      So one day recently while I was working on some more basic topics, an unseen force seemed to inspire me to do a short post on Joan Itoh under the Master Chefs category. Perhaps because I was looking at a yellowed clipping from the Japan Times of a story she did on beansprouts and was thinking what a pioneer she was in that period and what a great resource for so many people who followed her. So I filed the story in the Master Chefs Archive and moved on to other things.

      You can imagine my surprise soon after to get a comment from Joan Itoh (now Joan Itoh Burk) herself, from Canada with her delightful comment about her karma of living in cold drafty houses and a new recipe for beansprouts. I intend soon to edit her new beansprout recipe and put it up in a format that people can easily use.

      I hope that the two of you are able to get together in the not too distant future and would be happy to help in any way I can.

      Once again it’s impressive to see how the Internet can be a force to link and network people and ideas.

      Iverson

  3. What a kick to find that Joan Itoh, who was a hero of mine when I was a young wife and mother in Tokyo in the mid-1970’s, is alive, well and happy. I, too have gone through some life changes, but those years were unforgettable. Hurrah for bean sprouts in big tubs of water, for the yakimo man in his little truck (selling barbecued sweet potatoes), and cloth diapers that looked like dish towels until folded like a piece of origami, ending up with plenty of padding where your baby needed it most. Bravo to Joan, too, for her enduring spirit!

  4. Ms. Gerner,
    Thanks for the input. I’d be interested to know how you happened to come across the post? Also, any comments you might have on the content of any of the other posts, relating to Japanese cuisine or other topics, would be most welcome. I enjoyed your comments on life in Tokyo during the 1970s. As you probably know, many things have changed in the Japanese lifestyle in the interval. One of the biggest ones I’ve noticed is the impact of the cell phone on everyday life, as elsewhere. One big difference is that talking on cellphones in public – for example, on trains – is so severely restricted in Japan. Everybody seems to send text messages instead, but at least it’s quieter in the trains than in many other countries. This is just one of the Japanese innovations that should be exported around the world!
    Best regards,
    Iverson

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  9. Chef Iverson

    Haven’t read posts from you in a long time. Could be because
    I haven’t been looking enough these past two busy years.

    Do you still find time for writing…. The Pacific Rim or other?

    Hope you are thriving.

    Best,

    Joan Itoh Burk

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