An author's intention when writing a cookbook for the public is ultimately to integrate the cuisine with the lifestyle of their target audience, whatever that cuisine may be. The creative minds behind the Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes From a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider do just that, and as they explained from personal experience, they’ve come across the perfect word for the title accomplishing that intention - “gaijin”. Their book exemplifies their success in bringing Japanese comfort food to the hands of gaijin similar to them.

The Meaning

Gaijin literally means foreigner or outsider, it essentially suggests a negative connotation, i.e. “I am Japanese, and you are not”. It is very much about the crossing of borders – the "gaijin" authors who have learned from this culture and try to bridge the gaps between insider and outsider through food. Ying describes his idea of what a gaijin is by saying, "If we all think of ourselves more as outsiders in some way rather than defining an 'us' (insiders) and 'them' (outsiders)...then with curiosity, respect, and openness, we can all contribute to a more robust food world...we'll all do a little bit better”. Exploring Japan, Japanese people, and their ways has brought our two gaijin writers, Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying to establish a brotherly relationship that is clearly seen in the book.

Through their writing journey, it seemed the recipe-writer's-blocks and moments of discord only slightly outweighed the smooth flow of writing the book… But nevertheless, Orkin and Ying brought to life the perfect Japanese how-to guide. The two previously worked on another cookbook together, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. Their relationship developed over the course of this experience, in their words, "from strangers to almost-friends," and because of this Orkin asked Ying to collaborate with him on The Gaijin Cookbook. These two books are very much related, communicating not only recipes, but a deeper narrative which captures both Orkin and Ying's lives and friendship over the years. Looking past the gaijin phenomenon, however, all food aficionado's alike from all over the globe can agree that foods should be accessible, just as much as they are comforting, and Japanese comfort food should be no exception.

The Story

A theme that Orkin returned to over the course of the talk was when he arrived in Japan, it was impossible to get any information about how to cook Japanese food, much less in English. During his time there, Orkin would eventually open his own ramen shop, but when he was just starting, all the public information about ramen he found was lies, since each ramen chef keeps their ramen process top secret. It was because of the fact that the information was so inaccessible, that he wanted to share his own hard-earned recipe with everyone, and that was the idea behind Ivan Ramen. A similar sentiment developed to create what is now The Gaijin Cookbook – something ultra-accessible, something with recipes that anyone could make in their home's kitchen, and not just an intellectual book for already skilled chefs.

Alongside the processes and explanations inside, this book also illuminates the important similarity among all people that, after a long day of hard work and being away from home, they need to be able to come back and put food down on the table, quickly and enjoyably. The book includes simple, yet completely authentic comfort dishes directly reminiscent of Japan that keep Orkin's Jewish/American family close to Japan, such as Stir-Fried Udon and the Pork and Miso-Ginger Stew. When bringing together the recipes, Ivan Orkin builds Japanese techniques and traditions around the average American family. He does this by introducing and later normalizing some typical Japanese ingredients or methods that are assumed to be foreign to the readers of the book. This way, as the recipes progress, the amateur chefs can become more comfortable with them along the way.

The Outcome

In response to an audience member asking about fusions of American cuisine with Japanese at the end of the talk, Orkin emphasized that convenient cooking in general not only brings members of a family and other families together, but all countries or styles of cuisine. “There’s no such thing as fusion because there's no cuisine that has not been influenced by another.” This idea is something that influences all of Orkin's work. Both authors really highlighted the crossing of cultures with this book, and Orkin in particular, expressed that his main goal is always to share his passion for Japan, and to have people know more about the culture. However, at the same time, he didn't want to create something that was intensely reverential or fetishistic of Japan and Japanese foods, but rather to create a more open dialogue surrounding food and culture. 

A truly touching quote from Ying can nicely sum up the overall takeaway from this book. He brought up that because of all the work they did testing the recipes to find the right ones, his daughter "really and truly [grew] up eating the stuff in this book...and this is what my family [grew] up eating...and as a food writer, there's nothing greater that could be given." This book is a diary showing how families eat at home. It has comfort food for when you're sick, easy and quick dishes that can be made when you come home from work exhausted and have to make dinner, and "hacks" that can help make dinners a manageable, delicious, and family-friendly task. The driving theme of the book shows daily needs and responsibilities that are universal experiences which can be shared and learned from cultures across the world.