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Sonoko Sakai Transcript

 “Finding One's Voice Through Food” Transcript

Claudia Fleming: Hi, I'm Claudia Fleming, and you're listening to Radio Cherry Bombe.

Kerry Diamond: Hi, Bombesquad. Welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe. The number one female-focused food podcast in the universe. I'm your host, Kerry Diamond. On today's show, I'm sitting down with Sonoko Sakai. The cookbook author whose latest book is Japanese Home Cooking, Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors. It deserves to be an instant classic.

Kerry Diamond: Sonoko has an incredible story that involves lots of moving around as a child, working in the film industry as a grownup, and ultimately, finding her voice through food. Let's thank today's sponsors, Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School and Emmi Cheese from Switzerland. You folks are the Bombe.

Kerry Diamond: Some housekeeping. The official Cherry Bombe membership is finally here. For $25, you can become a card-carrying member of the Bombesquad and enjoy special access to all things Cherry Bombe, like special member meetups. You only have a week or so left to get a founding member card, so don't delay. Visit for more.

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Kerry Diamond: Before today's show, let's hear a word from our pals at Emmi Cheese from Switzerland.

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Kerry Diamond: Here's my conversation with Sonoko Sakai.

Kerry Diamond: There are so many places we can start and we've got a lot to cover. The place I wanted to start and Jess is going to laugh because I love to talk about people and their pets is you dedicated your cookbook to your dog-

Sonoko Sakai: I know.

Kerry Diamond: … who you lost a few years ago.

Sonoko Sakai: I know. I had the most amazing dog. We rescued her and she was with us for almost 18 years.

Kerry Diamond: Tell us her name.

Sonoko Sakai: Anna. It was the year that Angels, the baseball team won the World Series so my husband named her that, but she's a girl and she was a human. She was like a human. She really understood and talked to you and a very, very intelligent, kind dog and, oh, my god. We gave her the most incredible funeral.

Sonoko Sakai: My husband's a sculptor and he actually built the most beautiful coffin and we buried her at our ranch. I covered it with flowers. Lavenders that I grow and we mourned for about six months or more. But it was hard. It was really hard. But I extended her life by a couple years making onigiri and my husband would take it to the ranch with her because she felt better when she was at the ranch. She could run and chase the rabbits and even when she was like starting to not walk that much, if she saw a rabbit or a deer, she would just get up and run until she fell.

Sonoko Sakai: The onigiris were really great. I would post those on Instagram and people thought they were for humans but I made the most incredible onigiri and my husband wanted me to put a recipe of that onigiri in the book but I already put more recipes than I was contractually allowed so I just did it as a memoir.

Kerry Diamond: What kind of dog was Anna?

Sonoko Sakai: She was a mutt. She was probably a little bit of Pit and we think it's like a Blue Heeler, but I don't know what she was.

Kerry Diamond: Did she keep you company in the kitchen?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah. She was so good. She's just waited. She never took away food from your hands. I have a husky that would bite you and eat the bread or anything. I have two cats too or I had three but I lost one. But, yeah, they just are constantly begging for food. She wasn't like that. She waited.

Kerry Diamond: You're an equal-opportunity animal lover?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: I love all animals too. I didn't tell our radio producer this. I came very close to adopting a dog the other week and I-

Jess Zeidman: I saw on Instagram...

Kerry Diamond: … I thought the better of it. Only because I travel so much right now and I have the world's most wonderful cat who is almost like a human and I was like, "She's enough work right now."

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. I just got a text from my husband who's like, "I'm leaving for the ranch, and by the way, you should really get someone to take care of the cats because I don't have time."

Kerry Diamond: Thanks, honey.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. Just making sure she has, they have water and, yeah, so I had to send somebody up. That's good. That's okay.

Kerry Diamond: Do you cook for the cats?

Sonoko Sakai: No. I just give them bonito flakes.

Kerry Diamond: I never thought to give my cat bonito flakes.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. They love bonito flakes. If you go to a pet store now, you could pay $25 for a bag of bonito flakes that you could buy at a Japanese grocery store for about $6.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, that's funny. Okay. I'll see if Dusty likes bonito flakes.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, they love it.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. Good tip. Thank you, Sonoko. Okay. Also, reading your intro, you grew up all over the place.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: San Francisco, Mexico City, on and on. Why did you travel so much as a child?

Sonoko Sakai: Because my father worked for Japan Airlines and he was one of the first generation of executives to be sent overseas to work and open the route, reconnect the route between Japan and the rest of the world, and so he came to New York but before Japan Airline was even flying here, and I was the firstborn American child of five children.

Kerry Diamond: So you were born in New York City?

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: That's amazing. Where did you live in New York?

Sonoko Sakai: Kew Gardens, and my name Sonoko is actually child of the garden.

Kerry Diamond: Was it difficult as a child moving so frequently?

Sonoko Sakai: Yes. It was because every three to five years, my parents said, "Okay. It's time to move again." But I was a curious one of the five kids and because I was a girl, not a boy. The boys were sent to boarding schools or they went to live with the relatives and the three girls say, "You're just coming along because eventually, you're going to be groomed to be our, a wife and just stay with us."

Sonoko Sakai: They never even thought of putting us into boarding schools. It's a sink/swim situation because we went from one language culture to another, English-Spanish, Spanish-Japanese, Japanese-English.

Kerry Diamond: How many languages do you speak today?

Sonoko Sakai: Three.

Kerry Diamond: You wrote something beautiful about your mom in the introduction. You said, "I watched my mother maintain a Japanese kitchen wherever our family lived which was often a challenge. She was an ingenious and resourceful cook who managed to make Japanese meals without having access to Japanese ingredients." I loved that because I feel like people think today, you need this huge pantry to make all these different types of foods.

Sonoko Sakai: No. My mother actually walked into the New York kitchen, my father was like a bachelor for a little while, and she walked in with my baby brother and all she saw in the pantry was a bottle of soy sauce and what she saw was these empty aluminum foil containers-

Kerry Diamond: Take containers.

Sonoko Sakai: ... takeout containers of Sara Lee's, frozen dinners and he basically was-

Kerry Diamond: Your dad was eating frozen dinners?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah. That was like the modern thing to do in the '50s.

Kerry Diamond: That's what they used to do back then.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. But he just poured some soy sauce on it and he said, "That's good enough for me. That's Japanese food." But back then, it was harder. We waited for those care packages to come, but my mother made do without a lot of things though that I actually have access to these days. It's amazing what you could have today.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, absolutely. Do you remember when you say that she set up a Japanese kitchen, what did that mean back then?

Sonoko Sakai: Basically, that means that she had a rice cooker and I was born on the year that the rice cooker was invented. I'm not going to even tell you what year that was, but it was in the '50s. That was like a godsend thing for her and, yeah. If you have rice then in Japanese culture is basically a rice culture. All our fermented seasonings are made with rice sake, miso, vinegar, right?

Sonoko Sakai: We eat rice and that's the centerpiece so everything else is basically something that enhanced the flavor of rice, so with rice, we were in good shape. Maybe it wasn't always short grain rice but…

Kerry Diamond: Do you remember your mom's specialties?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my mom's specialty, lasagna with rice.

Kerry Diamond: No.

Sonoko Sakai: No, seriously.

Kerry Diamond: She made lasagna with rice?

Sonoko Sakai: Yes.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. Walk us through that.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. I don't talk about it in the book but she actually learned how to make pasta probably from like meeting an Italian person here and it's cheesecake pasta and apple pie. Lasagna was one of her specialties and she made the bechamel sauce, and she made a tomato sauce without garlic because garlic is not, non-existent in Japanese traditional cuisine and even when we lived in Mexico, she just didn't like the flavor of garlic.

Sonoko Sakai: We had a garlic less lasagna with rice but plenty of cheese and bechamel sauce.

Kerry Diamond: Was the rice in the lasagna or on the side?

Sonoko Sakai: On the side.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, on the side.

Sonoko Sakai: But we made huge mounds of rice and the lasagna-

Kerry Diamond: I love it.

Sonoko Sakai: … and if she served lasagna without the rice, we didn't think it was complete.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, that's so funny. Don't get excited, people. There's no recipe for lasagna in the cookbook.

Sonoko Sakai: No.

Kerry Diamond: But there are a lot of other wonderful recipes.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: Lots of them. The book is so gorgeous.

Sonoko Sakai: Yes. Beautifully photographed by Rick Poon. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: It feels as much travelogue as-

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: … cookbook.

Sonoko Sakai: For me, it was kind of like honoring the people that had provided the food, the ingredients to me. In California, I wanted to explore that further, deeper, the rice farmer, Koda farms or the people that harvest seaweed. It's not something that they have recently started. They've been doing this for decades. I just didn't know that they actually, there was a history of seaweed cultivation. As I explored these areas, I learned so much in my travels.

Kerry Diamond: Seaweed certainly is having a moment though.

Sonoko Sakai: Isn't it? Yeah. I think in a good way. I think it's an alternative to… Well, it's maybe a cure for what our planet is facing. We could make our planet healthier if we actually depend not only on sea, on the land foods, right? More sea vegetables and vegetables and Japanese have been eating, depending basically on seafood for hundreds and thousands of years. I eat seaweed every day.

Sonoko Sakai: I'm trying to encourage people to incorporate that into their cooking. That's a very easy way into Japanese cooking by the way. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: I know where to get dried seaweed. You can get dried seaweed pretty much any supermarket these days, but I often wonder about fresh seaweed.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. You could see them, they're salted in the fresh section. They'll say fresh wakame, some of the other varieties. I think people in, harvesters in Maine are even offering fresh seaweed so maybe not to the consumers too much, but I think it's going to start happening because it's very nourishing. We're just learning. It's more actually healthier than land plants.

Kerry Diamond: My mom thought it was crazy but I, when I was in Maine a few summers ago and we were walking on the beach, I had, for some reason, I was like, "I just know we can eat that seaweed." I picked it out of the water and just ate it. My family was like, "You're kind of crazy." I was like, "No. That's not, it's not crazy."

Kerry Diamond: We had gone on a foraging class and learned how to forage wild blueberries and different kinds of roots and things and I was like, "This is no different from what we just learned." It was a type of seaweed that anchors itself to rocks. It was beautiful. It was like a sea lettuce.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah. They are so beautiful.

Kerry Diamond: Yeah.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. There's colonies of them in different varieties and the wild nori is like on the rocks and I was… When I was in north of Mendocino in California, I went to this beautiful like a tide pool and we went harvesting but I've never seen such beauty and they're amongst like the anemone and the crabs and the sea urchins and they're all sort of… It's a… What do you call it? An ecosystem that supports each other.

Sonoko Sakai: If you take one thing away or too much of one thing, then it's not going to survive. Yeah. When we were harvesting the wakame, the harvester was telling us, "Okay, just don’t pull out the root. You have to just trim it and then let the seaweed regenerate itself." I never learned that in Japan. I just see them hanging, right? This is where I actually for the first time in my life see how seaweed is harvested. It was amazing.

Kerry Diamond: How about rice? You said people have been harvesting seaweed for a long time, you just didn't necessarily know them. I know of some folks down south growing rice.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yes. Yes.

Kerry Diamond: But how widespread is rice production in this country?

Sonoko Sakai: Well, the Japanese-Americans is one example of people that have been growing rice in California for, since the early 1900s and it turns out that Koda Farm is the oldest farm family that has been growing Japanese-style rice. They had to actually breed it in a way that would grow in that particular area of Dos Palos, California. But Keisaburo Koda happens to come from the same village of my family, my paternal side of the family and that, and one of my uncles was on the same boat to America.

Sonoko Sakai: Keisaburo Koda stayed. My uncle went back to Japan. He didn't like America too much. Keisaburo became the king of rice, rice king, and to this day, three generations later they're known to grow some of the best rice, medium grain Japanese Koda rice and I, that's the rice that I use. I actually talked about the story that my mother would buy that rice and take it to Japan as a souvenir. Really good rice.

Sonoko Sakai: We actually reunited in the '60s, my father went to visit Keisaburo and Keisaburo was inviting Japanese, young Japanese farmers to show how he was growing rice in America in big scale, right? Thousands of acres but it's an amazing family story because they had lost a lot during the war. They lost thousands of acres during the internment camp and when you talk to any Japanese-American person that's been here for two, three generations. They have that dark period where they lost a lot of their belongings, their farms and nurseries and, but they persevered.

Sonoko Sakai: It's called gaman. Perseverance and I really, and they're just an amazing group of people and when we moved back to America in the '70s, they were very kind to us and a lot of the traditions that I thought I'd have lost or Japanese people had lost were actually preserved by these people. We were… Even the language. I was saying to my mother, "God, they speak good Japanese. That's very old fashion." It's just like they were like frozen in time.

Kerry Diamond: Wow. Did you have relatives here during internment?

Sonoko Sakai: No. My family went back. They were in Japan. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. Your childhood in America, let's fast-forward to you as an adult. You worked in the film industry.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, my god. Yes.

Kerry Diamond: It's a big leap but let's go there.

Sonoko Sakai: I know. I know.

Kerry Diamond: Because we have a lot to cover. How did you get into the film world?

Sonoko Sakai: Well, I was actually in education and my idea was I was going to become a diplomat and work in Foreign Service. I work for UNESCO. I had like these big international dreams because I travel so much.

Kerry Diamond: But you studied international…

Sonoko Sakai: Relations.

Kerry Diamond: … relations. Right.

Sonoko Sakai: It's like the most obscure major to major in college. But I just thought that because of my upbringing I could do something international but I didn't know what that would be. But I decided to go into education and I was working on my PhD at UCLA, but my parents cut me off. They said, "We're not paying for grad school. If you want to go to grad school, pay it yourself. We have four other kids to support."

Kerry Diamond: That wasn't so cruel.

Sonoko Sakai: No.

Kerry Diamond: It's not like they cut you off-

Sonoko Sakai: No. They said, "It's time for you to come back to Japan. We'll arrange a marriage. You'll meet the best potential husband. You don't have to be the Foreign Service person. We will find a diplomat…"

Kerry Diamond: They were still banking on you being a housewife?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah.

Kerry Diamond: Even then?

Sonoko Sakai: Of course. Well, that's what people, parents of conservative families would expect their daughters to become, right? Or like a school or something but they wanted me to come back to Japan because I was the eldest. I said, "No. I'm not coming back to Japan."

Sonoko Sakai: I had to find a job and I found it in Film School. This professor was just, took me, Lou Stoumen took me under the wing. He had won two Oscars and documentary filmmaking and just showed me his archives of beautiful photography and books and here I was just being an assistant but I also cooked for him. I would bring him bento boxes and little, make him miso soups and he's like, "God, you cook so well."

Sonoko Sakai: Also, at the same time, trying to find my voice in English. I was still not… I didn't have the confidence to express myself in English. He says, "Well, maybe you could find your voice through cooking. Why don't you write a cookbook?" I started writing a cookbook and that was the cookbook I wrote 35 years ago called The Poetical Pursuit of Food, Japanese Recipes for American Cooks.

Sonoko Sakai: It was the most esoteric book you've ever seen. There was a lot of poetry in it and I've always like bring-

Kerry Diamond: Literal poetry?

Sonoko Sakai: Yes. I quoted different poets or something and had illustrations in it and I think I was ahead of my time. People didn't even… I actually was invited to New York to do a TV show, to do, to make miso soup and the host actually turned his head when I made the bonito flake dashi stock, because it's fishy.

Kerry Diamond: Yeah.

Sonoko Sakai: It's fishy. For like 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning to make that soup, they weren't used to that so he didn't appreciate it and I could just… I just saw that expression, I go, "Oh, my god." It's just not… I'm just like, I have a long ways to go to convince people that Japanese home cooking is really delicious, but today, I teach cooking and there's so many people that just love that-

Kerry Diamond: Yeah. When did the tide start to turn?

Sonoko Sakai: Well, it took a long time because I wrote that book when I was in my early, late 20s, early 30s is when I came out and I got-

Kerry Diamond: Tell us the title again. Could people find it on eBay?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah. You could. Yeah. It's quite a collector's item. It's called The Poetical Pursuit of Food.

Kerry Diamond: The Poetical Pursuit of Food.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. It's political. It's poetical. It's tongue twister. Poetical Pursuit of Food, Japanese Recipes for American Cooks.

Kerry Diamond: Okay. So get on eBay, everybody.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. It's a Potter imprint and-

Kerry Diamond: Oh, it's Potter. Wow.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. It was a really good book. It's over 300 pages and a lot of the commandments and things I wrote in that book is still basically the same things I believe in. I just got older and more mature and I see things a little bit differently but-

Kerry Diamond: How so?

Sonoko Sakai: First of all, I see things differently because I have more experience as a cook. As a cook, I've traveled a lot. I've tasted different foods. I've gone back and forth and picked up on things and learned how to put my hands in flour and make noodles from scratch or if you go back to that original book, you just see me doing recipes, right? I didn't make the fermented rice brand base in the way I do it now.

Kerry Diamond: So you make every component now?

Sonoko Sakai: I do every component because it's possible and people want it. I mean, my fermentation class, oh, my god. They know more about me. It's like, "Do you have a cozy room and do you like inoculate your rice?" I go, "No." My husband is a sculptor and he, has his little temperature control room for his epoxy but I said, "Why don't you build me a fermentation box?" "It's so easy for you, just make it yourself."

Sonoko Sakai: I've learned to do a lot of things by hand-

Kerry Diamond: You are a DIY queen.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. Before that word was invented. My grandma was that way, people in the old times they all did it that way. You don't have to be an artisan to be an artist. Everybody did things. I think all of us, right? All of our grandmas did that because they didn't have the convenience of fast foods or if you didn't make your own pickle, you didn't have the pickle like umeboshi, pickling plums or so, that's what I grew up watching and I wanted to figure out a way to do that on my own.

Kerry Diamond: You do this cookbook but you're still pursuing a career in film?

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yes. So, I was thinking, "Do I pursue food?" Because I had written this cookbook but I have just had a one-year-old baby and my husband's a sculptor. We're both struggling. I didn't have a washer/dryer, going to the laundromat, and I said, "I think I have to just continue my work in film." I was basically a golfer like a secretary and because I speak these different languages, I found my way into selling movie rights to the international market and that's how I got my foot in into the door.

Sonoko Sakai: That just became the more serious, but my parents didn't think it was a good career to pursue because they said, "Why don't you get a real job, a film job? Why don't you just like… Why do you drop out of UCLA?" I said, "Well, I couldn't afford it anymore and I just had to be more practical."

Kerry Diamond: Any big moments from your film career?

Sonoko Sakai: Well, I produce several films but they kind of all flopped but the last one was… I was actually proud of it. It was called Blindness and it was… The book was written by Jose Saramago who won the Nobel Prize. It was with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal-

Kerry Diamond: Oh, great casts.

Sonoko Sakai: … and directed by Fernando Meirelles who did City of God and it was like a dream project, but it got released in Cannes, opening film. The timing was bad because my filmed open on the week the market crashed. October 2008 I think and it was very unfortunate because the Chihuahua, Beverly Hills Chihuahua was a huge hit. People wanted to go to comedy, they didn't want to see a dark film about the epidemic of blindness and that's what we were suffering from.

Sonoko Sakai: We were suffering from the epidemic of not seeing. It was all about greed and the greed was winning. It was too close to the reality and the movie was dark. But it was a major, it was a big movie that just didn't work commercially and I just dug a big hole and I was like… I thought I should jump into that hole because it was hard.

Sonoko Sakai: As a producer, you're raising money and you have a lot of responsibility. So much pressure. I just said, "Okay. I have to find a way to heal myself." What I did is I went back to cooking.

Kerry Diamond: We'll be right back with Sonoko Sakai after this quick break.

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Kerry Diamond: There's a beautiful Japanese restaurant called Kamonegi in Seattle.

Sonoko Sakai: She's my friend.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, is she? She has those beautiful videos of making noodles.

Sonoko Sakai: Mutsuko Soma. Yeah. She contact me. She found me on online and she was trying… I was doing already some soba and she's, "Where do you get your flower?" I said, "Right from Washington where you are." I introduced her to the producer and we actually went to the region where a lot of the buckwheat is grown and actually exported to Japan.

Sonoko Sakai: She says, "Oh, maybe I could get a mill and I could keep that buckwheat here." The two of us, we started collaborating with each other and she came out to LA for a month and worked with me on my pop-up, and then I would go up there and we work with the Bread Lab. WSU Bread Lab where they have cultivated over 150 varieties of buckwheat. We are both sort of grain geeks, soba geeks. But she's doing very well.

Sonoko Sakai: I'm so happy for her because she's still in her mid-30s and she's taking this quite seriously. She's this tiny little person but she has so much energy. I'm actually, I have one of her, the natto, fermented soybean recipe in the book. She has a natto soba that's all gooey.

Kerry Diamond: Oh, I didn't try that one.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh.

Kerry Diamond: I tried the Kamonegi dish.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yeah. The one with the-

Kerry Diamond: The signature dish with the duck.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. She's good. It has a great atmosphere too, right?

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. It's a quirky space.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. She renovated all by herself. I saw her painting.

Kerry Diamond: Amazing.

Sonoko Sakai: Her husband is an artist. They're really a creative couple.

Kerry Diamond: Well, tell her the Bombesquad sends their love.

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: We can't wait to come back.

Sonoko Sakai: Definitely.

Kerry Diamond: Absolutely. We have barely talked about this gorgeous book, Japanese Home Cooking, Simple Meals Authentic Flavors. What made you want to write your third cookbook?

Sonoko Sakai: Well, the second one is a tiny little kind of a gift eBook but it was a way for me to get back into writing and I thought onigiri is a good place, but I've been thinking about wanting to write another Japanese home cooking book because I just didn't see anything out there in the market that really covered the pantry in the way that I felt needed to be covered, clear instructions, illustrations, and so I've been dreaming about it for 30 years.

Sonoko Sakai: I've come up with so many different angles and titles and, but I was deeply involved in movies, right? But I was always cooking. I never stopped cooking. I didn't go out and do something else. I've always done what I've done. But after I left film, I started teaching. I spent-

Kerry Diamond: In your home?

Sonoko Sakai: Yes. I started with the noodles because I really got involved in noodle making, and then I thought, "Okay, bring that back." Then, when you do noodles, you also have to do the soup. Soup is the dashi. You basically have to really understand the fundamental of the Japanese pantry and the seasonings and the stock.

Sonoko Sakai: I said, "Well, this is… My learning process is something that could be also converted into a teaching thing," and because I needed to find a way to make a living again. I thought, "Oh, I'm going to start teaching some weekend classes and ask my friends to come and see if they can guide me," and that just like started to grow in an amazing way. But I would pack my Prius with like my pots and pans and travel 400 miles all over to go to San Francisco, fly to Seattle where my son is and travel to Chicago and started just like sleeping on people's couches but also like, and bringing all my equipment but, then people started to take me serious.

Sonoko Sakai: It took me 10 years though. It's a long process. It's not glamorous like the movie business. It's very, very low-key but there's something very sincere and honest and there's just about it that I kept going and I realized that I'm at an age that you can't be a chef at the age that I am but I could.

Kerry Diamond: You mean a restaurant chef?

Sonoko Sakai: Yeah. Like a serious restaurant and I don't want to be… I mean, I thought of maybe a little soba shop or something and like Soma Matsuko from Kamonegi and I talked about, "Well, what could be good for me?" But put that aside for now, but I'm just happy teaching, and so, and I am at my grandmother's age when I first walked into her kitchen. I have a lot of energy because I-

Kerry Diamond: We can tell.

Sonoko Sakai: You could tell, right? My publicist can't believe that I've been doing all these demos and I'm still at it. I know I could maybe live long like my grandmother, who lived to 102 and she-

Kerry Diamond: Wow.

Sonoko Sakai: She was cooking till 100.

Kerry Diamond: Wow.

Sonoko Sakai: I still have several decades to go.

Kerry Diamond: Tell us the best way to approach your book because not every book is front to back.

Sonoko Sakai: If you're going to start, I devote a lot of time in the fundamental part, the pantry. I said I teach every weekend and people, a lot of people who've never taken Japanese classes before but what they do is they come into my pantry, they come into my kitchen, and they look at the shelves full of fermented stuff and they smell something different and I want them to become familiar with that, and not feel intimidated.

Sonoko Sakai: They go, "Oh, that's just soybeans and salt and water put together and you could make miso in six months? Wow. That's not too bad." A lot of these pickles are pretty simple actually. It's just salt, right? Or vinegar and Japanese spices and… We don't have that many spices. Curry is an exception but that's an imported food that came later on, but if you look at the five basics seasonings. It's miso, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, and sake mirin. Sake mirin is the fermented five seasoning that's made with rice except for the sea salt.

Sonoko Sakai: Other than that, we don't really use that much, maybe a little chili and some wasabi and ginger, but our cooking is about respecting the ingredient, the natural ingredient. I don't like to fuss with fresh fish or a beautiful tomato. If we have the chance of just eating it, sliced and raw. That would be priority number one, and then that's what my grandmother used to say about fish. We live by the sea so we would go and get the fish directly from the fisherman, out of the nets when they're still alive and come back and make sashimi with it.

Sonoko Sakai: But if it stayed in the fridge for a day, then we go, "Let's grill it or let's simmer it." She had like the different techniques but five techniques that I would interchangeably use and I talk about the principles of five different principles but so, I want you to go through the pantry and read. You should spend a lot of time in the pantry I think, with any, I think cuisine.

Sonoko Sakai: You have to learn some basics, and then go visit a market and call me if you have questions. Then, using that basic five seasonings and the principles that I go through, then you could… I have pantry recipes. I called them okazu. But okazu means a number of dishes and what we like to do in Japan is you have your basic grain, a bowl of grain, like rice, and then you have side dishes.

Sonoko Sakai: The centerpiece is never a big piece of steak. It's not a huge piece of protein. Actually, it's the grain with the vegetables. Then, you have maybe a little piece of fish. You make a variety. We like variety of dishes and I think it's more nutritious, and so what I do in the pantry section is to give you some simple dishes that you can work with using dashi, the stock.

Kerry Diamond: Is there a recipe that is really close to your heart?

Sonoko Sakai: They're all kind of close to my heart but just start with miso soup. Miso soup is what I make every day for my husband. Without miso soup, he can't start his engine. I think it's a breakfast food that's very nourishing and it's easy. You could do a cold brew with kombu and just make miso soup. If you could learn how to make a good stock, you've actually captured, you understood 50% of Japanese cooking and just throw in some vegetables.

Sonoko Sakai: My husband makes his own miso soup now, broccoli every day. I said, "Why do you eat so much broccoli?" He says, "I just have to chop it up. It's too much trouble to find other vegetables." I said, "I can't believe it." But, anyway, he likes his miso soup and when he comes back from the ranch, I make him a more interesting miso soup but I just think that soup is very important.

Kerry Diamond: Before you go and I know you have to leave in a few minutes, we did not talk about your green activism.

Sonoko Sakai: Oh, yes.

Kerry Diamond: You call yourself a green activist. What does that mean?

Sonoko Sakai: When I was pursuing my interest in buckwheat and soba noodles, I met Glenn Roberts from the Anson Mills and also people like Steve Jones from the Bread Lab. But Glenn said, "Why don't you plant, get some farmers to plant some heritage grains?" Including buckwheat in California, in Southern California, because nobody's doing it. Most farmers in California are busy making cash crops that are like fruits and vegetables and nuts.

Sonoko Sakai: But California used to be a grain-growing region and after the Industrial Revolution, everything moved west, and so this is a chance for us to revive this industry which can also serve as a… These grains could serve as a cover crop, as a rotation crop. Actually, where I have the ranch in Tehachapi there used to be, they used to grow rye and wheat and you could see fields of rice, wild rice that we actually harvested and we made bread with it.

Sonoko Sakai: It was so delicious. We started an experiment with a handful of farmers and that was about 11 years ago, and today, it's… You could find the grains at the farmer's market and people are milling-

Kerry Diamond: Amazing.

Sonoko Sakai: … and using-

Kerry Diamond: What towns?

Sonoko Sakai: Tehachapi. The Hollywood Farmers Market, the Santa Monica Farmers Market like the Tehachapi Grain Project is the ones that I was really involved with. Yeah. Alex Weiser, the farmer from Weiser Family Farm said, "I don't know, but why don't we experiment with one row and we'll learn with each… We'll invite people, chefs and bakers to see if it grows."

Sonoko Sakai: We had no idea what we were growing but Glenn gave us really, and like Abruzzi rye and Red Fife and Sonora wheat that was actually from the Southwest Region and these names of grains that we've never really worked with before but they're amazing.

Kerry Diamond: Wonderful.

Sonoko Sakai: I think it has changed the flavor of bread and noodles.

Kerry Diamond: Wonderful. We're going to do a little speed round before we officially let you walk out the door. Favorite kitchen utensil?

Sonoko Sakai: A strainer.

Kerry Diamond: A treasured cookbook in your collection?

Sonoko Sakai: My first cookbook.

Kerry Diamond: Good answer. Song that makes you smile?

Sonoko Sakai: A mariachi song. I grew up in Mexico so there are songs like Cielito Lindo. It's a mariachi song but it's one of the first things I ever learned how to play on a guitar so it makes me happy.

Kerry Diamond: Amazing. All right, we'll jump to the last one. If you had to be trapped on a desert island with one food celebrity, who would it be maybe?

Sonoko Sakai: Maybe I would pick Hosokawa, my soba master, but he would be very grouchy. I don't know. But he would be complaining the entire time about something not being fresh enough but if it's on an island maybe we could fish together or something. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond: You're remarkable. Thank you so much for being on our show.

Sonoko Sakai: Thank you so much.

Kerry Diamond: That's it for today's show. Thank you to Sonoko Sakai for stopping by. Be sure to pick up her beautiful new book, Japanese Home Cooking at your favorite indie bookstore. Thank you to Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Schools and Emmi Cheese from Switzerland for supporting Radio Cherry Bombe. Be sure to subscribe to Radio Cherry Bombe wherever you get your podcasts.

Kerry Diamond: You can also rate and review the show and leave a suggestion about future guests, future topics, anything you like. Our show is edited, engineered, and produced by Jess Zeidman. Cherry Bombe is powered by Audrey Payne, Kia Damon, Donna Yen, Maria Sanchez, Nancy Pappas, and our publisher is Kate Miller Spencer. Our theme song is All Fired Up by the band Tralala. Thanks for listening, everybody. You're the bomb.

When Harry Met Sally Clip: I'll have what she's having.

Lee Kalpackis: I'm Lee Kalpackis. I am a freelance recipe developer and cook in New York City and you know who I think is the bomb, Doña Angela. I love her cooking show on YouTube, De Mi Rancho a tu Cocina. Doña is such a warm and sweet personality and her traditional Mexican recipes are incredible. Watching her is totally mesmerizing and I cannot get enough. Thanks, Doña.