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Artful Cuisine

August 14, 1986|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

. . . I believe that it won't be long before Western chefs can cook Japanese food better than Japanese chefs . --Chef Minoru Yoneda

As much as Japanese chefs are savoring Western food, many Westerners seem to be increasingly favoring sushi, tempura, tofu, yakitori, sashimi and miso. The boom in Japanese restaurant dining is reflected in the number of books on Japanese cooking that have appeared recently. In flipping through these books, the artistic values of food, its preparation and presentation seem to be the theme of most of the authors. Here are four outstanding examples:

Step-By-Step Japanese Cooking (Barron's: $24.95, 192 pages), is written by Lesley Downer, Japanese chef, and food writer Minoru Yoneda, head chef at the Yamato Restaurant in North London. The authors write: "In Japan food has perhaps a wider significance than in the West. It is not just to fill the stomach and keep the body working: It has an aesthetic, ritual and social role to play too."

For Western cooks this aesthetic element in Japanese cuisine makes it seem difficult to prepare it at home. The authors collected traditional as well as popular recipes, which they beautifully illustrate in the book in finished stages. They also provide some how-to photographs, making it easy for the home cook to follow the recipes.

The book is divided into "Basics" and "Recipes." Included in the "Basics" section are typical Japanese ingredients and utensils illustrated in full color. There is also a chapter on preparatory techniques, which includes photograph illustrations on slicing fish and poultry, as well as artful sculpting of vegetables. The section on Japanese menu planning, table presentation and etiquette is truly of creative value.

The "Recipe" section follows the order of traditional Japanese table service, starting with the basic stock dashi to other soups, followed by sashimi, then simmered, grilled and fried dishes, salads, rice and noodle dishes, and finishing with a section on pickles. With attractive use of simple natural garnishes, even a basic clear soup turns into a work of art as seen in the book's beautifully -styled photos.

Japanese Cooking (HP Books: $9.95, 176 pages) by Susan Fuller Slack follows the publisher's effective cookbook style that is geared to easy reading. It provides recipes with informative details on ingredients and methods to help the cook. The cookbook very well reflects the author's four-year residence in Japan while traveling extensively all over the country as a military wife, studying and teaching Japanese and Chinese cooking.

Although based on Japanese tradition, the recipes, according to Slack, "have been developed with an awareness of changing trends and practicality for the Western kitchen." She adds that the Japanese style of using lighter foods such as tofu, sea vegetables, fish and low-salt miso could certainly replace the high-calorie and high-cholesterol foods in the American diet.

The lavish cookbook is highlighted by a collection of pretty food set-ups projecting freshness of foods and authenticity by way of traditional china and prop accessories. Recipes range from popular Japanese favorites such as sashimi, sushi and tempura to interesting modifications reflecting Western and Chinese cuisines. For instance, elegantly presented scallop blossoms with raspberry-sesame sauce indicates Franco-Japonica, a growing trend in Tokyo restaurants.

Aside from a glossary of ingredients and equipment, the author includes Japanese knives and cutting techniques, tips for brewing tea, chopstick etiquette and a lot of cooking tips and variations in each chapter. The section on garnishes is particularly interesting with easy-to-follow techniques.

Practical Japanese Cooking, Easy and Elegant (Kodansha International: $22.50, 151 pages) is written by Shizuo Tsuji and Koichiro Hata. Tsuji is president of the largest culinary school in Japan and author of the best-selling book, "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art." Hata is head chef at the same cooking school, author of many Japanese cookbooks and television personality.

The recipes are more traditional but one gets inspired and gathers a lot of culinary guidelines just by looking at the lavish illustrations. Dark tones of meats, fish or usually non-photogenic food brighten on dainty Oriental and contemporary Western plates, with contrasting garnishes and dramatic photography. Each recipe comes with a small introduction featuring a little history, tips or serving suggestions. There is a calorie count per serving at the end of each recipe.

Bento or box meals of small dishes for lunch or picnics are effectively illustrated in the book, giving the reader ideas for various combinations and presentations. Finally there's a section on cooking tips and ingredients, with pictures and product detail and usage.

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