Arts & Leisure

Traditional Japanese dishes cooked in a microwave oven

Posted on February 04, 2016

A JAPANESE inventor has married the simplicity of old Japan with the modern sizzles and bangs of the microwave.

JAPANESE CHEF and inventor Machiko Chiba demonstrated how to use her Cook-Zen to make traditional Japanese dishes inlcuding spareribs.
At a cooking demonstration by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of Japan at the 9501 restaurant in the ELJ Center within the ABS-CBN complex, the ministry decided to let Japanese chef and inventor Machiko Chiba demonstrate how to cook traditional Japanese cuisine -- inside a microwave.

Traditional Japanese cuisine, under the umbrella term “washoku,” was recently included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Chiba invented a cooking pot called the Cook-Zen, a microwavable cooking pot that can cook complete dishes. During the cooking demonstration, Mrs. Chiba -- assisted by her daughter, Akiko, a Juilliard-trained pianist -- made Green beans and tofu, Eggplant and chili, Clams with sake and garlic, Spareribs, Japanese roast beef, a Baked apple, and, in honor of her Philippine hosts, a Japanese-style adobo (meat stewed in vinegar). Most of the dishes were made with Japanese ingredients, although the ketchup she used (albeit of Japanese provenance) for her Japanese-style spareribs could hardly be called traditional.

The process for making the dishes was very simple: thanks to the Cook-Zen, the mother-daughter pair just mixed the ingredients well and popped them into the microwave, and most of the dishes came out in 10 minutes or less. The younger Ms. Chiba, explained for example, that dashi stock (made with kelp and shredded bits of fermented tuna) can take up to an hour to make on a stove, but took mere minutes on a microwave.

“When she was young,” explained Ms. Chiba about her mother, “she studied traditional Japanese cooking in different traditional houses... different famous chefs in Tokyo, Osaka... Kyoto, obviously... and she realized that everybody ha[d] one thing in common: they’re very, very good, but it was very time-consuming to make simple dashi stock, or simple black beans.

“Around that time, we were in America, and she went to the University of Pittsburgh, and she discovered microwave cooking,” said Ms. Chiba. Mrs. Chiba then went on to design the Cook-Zen, coming up with a polypropylene pot with two lids: one to keep the food secure, and the other to trap steam. “Everybody thinks that microwave cooking makes the food dry, and almost like beef jerky,” said Ms. Chiba.

While the audience might have been skittish at first, they were won over with the green beans and tofu dish, and craved for more of the clams in sake. The clams were expected to be rubbery, and yet, when they came out of the microwave, shell and all, they turned out sweetish with a bite. The meat dishes might have sacrificed a bit of their tenderness inside the microwave, but they remained moist and incredibly juicy: the microwavable pot allowed the meat and the vegetables to absorb all of the juices.

While microwaves scandalize some chefs and gourmets, Ms. Chiba gladly shared some of the people who have used her mother’s product. She said that the chef of the Imperial Hotel, one of the leading luxury hotels in Japan, has one in his kitchen. Another is the personal chef of the Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations. Said Ms. Chiba of the ambassador, “He promised that when he retires and the chefs are retired, he will use [it].”

“We’re not actually selling anything,” said host David Celdran. The Cook-Zen is not yet available in the country, and was simply brought over for the demonstration: no longer a demonstration of Japanese cuisine, one would think, but of Japanese ingenuity and creativity. Mr. Celdran said this during a particularly humorous moment, when Ms. Chiba showed the audience her mother’s patented measuring cup. She said that her mother always lost measuring spoons in transit, so her mother attached two little beaks at the side of her measuring cup, each small beak measuring one tablespoon and one teaspoon. Sometime during all this, the cup dropped to the floor, and Ms. Chiba picked it up, and held it triumphantly, intact.

“Inventions? I have many, many,” said Mrs. Chiba when asked how many things she has invented. She showed YouTube videos of her other inventions, such as plastic molds in the shape of cherry blossoms and cats, which can be used to shape Japanese sweets (wagashi) and even sushi.

“She does it when she’s sleeping,” said Ms. Chiba. “She wakes up, and she... writes down things.

“That’s why she does a lot of consulting... not only cooking; there was a printer company... they asked her to [become] a consultant, because my mother sees things... the printer people would [not] see,” she added.

Ms. Chiba gave a simple for the presence of Japanese ingenuity: “I think it’s in all of us in Japan, where... let’s say... a whiskey maker decided to make something that’s [the] best, they would fulfill it.”

As for the character of Japanese food, Ms. Chiba said, “They’re simple but they’re very subtle, which means you really get to enjoy each ingredient... In America, a lot of things [have] lots of sauce, lots of this... it gets a little bit too much, like a Hollywood movie. It’s so much action going on.

“In Japan, we constantly try to train our senses.”

She also discussed the synergy of technique and ingredient that meet in Japanese cuisine. “You know, it’s interesting. My mother always used to talk to my dear piano teacher... this is talking about pianists, but I think it relates to cooking, too,” she said. “When you see a talent... but if you don’t have the support... and a good teacher, it doesn’t work. So you have to have talent, good support... and lots of hard work.

“I think with cooking, it’s the same -- except, somehow in Japan, any restaurant you go, whether it’s high-end or very cheap... the food is always good.” -- Joseph L. Garcia