American food, Japanese style

As a cooking teacher in Tokyo, Hiroko Shimbo noticed a sharp difference between her Japanese students and the American expatriates who also frequented her classes.

“When you teach Japanese students, they are very quiet,” Shimbo says. “They don’t ask questions; they just listen to the teacher.”

Her expat students were another story. “They came to my class with tons of questions,” Shimbo says. “How do you make miso? Why are there so many varieties? Why do you use this particular shoyu (soy sauce) for this preparation? So many questions!”

Hiroko, an education major in college, had long been interested in the food and culture of her native Japan. Her students’ questions gave her the opportunity to visit and learn about 100-year-old miso breweries, artisan tofu producers and other highlights of Japan’s rich culinary culture.

When Shimbo moved to New York with her husband 14 years ago, that research became the basis for her first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen” (Harvard Common Press, 2000).

Although she still teaches traditional Japanese cooking, at the International Culinary Center in New York, Shimbo says that her own home cooking has changed over the years as she began to incorporate American vegetables and other ingredients into her recipes.

Her latest cookbook, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors,” (Andrews McMeel, 2012) combines Japanese and American flavors and ingredients to produce recipes such as the “sumiso ham sandwich,” a nearly classic ham sandwich with miso spread in place of mayo and “sukiyaki in an American kitchen,” a riff on a traditional Japanese beef dish. The combination is, apparently, a winning one; “Hiroko’s American Kitchen” just received the “Best American Cookbook Award” from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

— text by Domenica Marchetti

— AFR video by Carol Hallowell, shot at the Wythe Hotel, Brooklyn, NY

Makes 4 servings

AFR Tested

Sukiyaki in an American Kitchen

Sukiyaki is thinly sliced beef that is cooked in sake (rice wine), shoyu (soy sauce) and sugar. It is usually prepared at the table in a heavy iron pot over a portable gas burner, and it is one of the most celebrated dishes at Japanese restaurants in America. This adaptation, from "Hiroko's American Kitchen," by Hiroko Shimbo (Andrews McMeel, 2012) is more suited to an American home kitchen. It calls for chunks of beef, rather than thin slices, and can be made on the stovetop in a skillet. The "bbc sauce" (best basting and cooking sauce) in which the meat and vegetables are cooked is one of several base sauces and stocks featured in Shimbo's cookbook. It is a versatile sauce that can be used to marinate meat, fish, tofu and vegetables, and it can be added to stir-fries and braises. It keeps for months in the refrigerator and is a good all-purpose sauce to have on hand.


  • BBC Sauce
  • 1 cup mirin (sweet cooking wine)
  • 1/2 cup sake (rice wine)
  • 1/2 cup shoyu (soy sauce)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 scallions
  • 2 akatogarashi (Japanese dried red chile peppers) or 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

  • Sukiyaki
  • 4 large cremini mushrooms (4 ounces)
  • 1 small yellow summer squash (5 ounces)
  • 1 small zucchini (5 ounces)
  • 1 thin, long sweet potato (8 ounces), cut into large pieces
  • 1 bunch watercress
  • 4 cipollini onions
  • 2 pounds eye of round, cut into 4 steaks
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup BBC sauce
  • 1/2 cup sake (rice wine)


To make the bbc sauce, in a small pot, place the mirin and sake over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add the soy sauce, sugar and scallions and cook for 8 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool. Discard the scallions and add the chile peppers. You will end up with about 2 cups of sauce. Reserve 1/2 cup for the sukiyaki and refrigerate the rest in a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. (The sauce will keep for 6 months.)

For the sukiyaki, trim the bottom part of the mushroom stems and cut the mushrooms in half (or quarters if large). Cut the squash and zucchini crosswise into large pieces (about 1 1/2 inches long). Peel the sweet potato and cut into large pieces. Remove the hard bottom part of the watercress stems, and cut the bunch in half crosswise. Set the watercress aside.

Place the sweet potato pieces and cipollini onions in a large pot with cold water to cover and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add the mushrooms, squash and zucchini and cook for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms and zucchini to a colander to air-dry. Let the onions and sweet potato continue to cook for 5 more minutes. Using the slotted spoon, transfer the onions to the colander. Cook the sweet potatoes for 7 more minutes, or until tender. Using the slotted spoon, transfer the sweet potato to the colander.

Season the beef on both sides with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the beef and cook until browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes; turn and brown the other side for 3 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. Add the vegetables to the skillet and cook, gently stirring a few times, until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Cut each steak into large (1 1/2-inch) pieces. Push the vegetables to one side and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the BBC sauce and sake over the beef and vegetables and set the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the watercress and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce. Divide the beef and vegetables among deep bowls and serve.

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One Response to American food, Japanese style

  1. Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
    Domenica Marchetti May 14, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    I purchased Hiroko’s book while at the Food Book Fair. I’m an accomplished cook but I have to say I’ve always been intimidated at the thought of cooking Japanese food, which seems to depend so much on technique, seasonality, balance of flavors and presentation. Hiroko’s “American” take is more relaxed and accessible, while still staying true to the spirit of Japanese tradition. Anyone else out there familiar with Japanese cooking?