I was a little shy as a child,” says food stylist, chef and author Aya Nishimura, “often day-dreaming in my inner world. I guess I haven’t changed much since. I loved reading books, painting and collecting things like beautiful leaves or seashells. I wanted to be a painter. I think that my current job is not too far from it, as when I’m food styling, I often feel like I’m painting on a plate.”
As a food stylist and home economist, Japanese-born, London-based Aya’s esteemed client list includes titles such as Jamie Magazine, the Observer, the Guardian, and the Telegraph. Now, Aya’s got a title of her own by way of her first cookbook, Japanese Food Made Easy, published by Murdoch Books in April. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I ask Aya why she thinks that it’s been so well-received.
“To be honest, this is my first book, so I had no idea what to expect,” she says. “I think that people like the simplicity of it, and that my book has both traditional and modern Japanese recipes.”
The book brims with classics like ramen and sashimi dishes, along with lesser known staples traditionally eaten at home like bonito flakes and kakiage fritters. Aya even guides readers through the process of crafting sauces such as teriyaki and miso paste—and better still, versions that are healthier than those bought in stores.
So, what should every wannabe Japanese chef have their pantry?
“Dashi. You can, of course, make it from scratch, with dried bonito flakes and kombu seaweed, however, there are very good quality dashi packs—like tea bags—that are easily available nowadays. I highly recommend it. It’s a very handy thing to have in order to cook quick, Japanese food.”
As for coming up with recipes, Aya says that she’s inspired by hints in everyday cooking and tries to take pictures whenever she can. “I’m currently plotting for my next book and trying to gather ideas!” she reveals. “London is an amazing place to encounter new types of cuisine and recipes. I often get inspired by foreign ingredients.”
Aya believes that because so many people associate Japanese food with high-end restaurants overseen by chefs who have spent years honing their “exquisite skills”, they are often put off even contemplating attempting the cuisine at home. “But Japanese home cooked dishes are really simple and easy,” she says. “Since I moved to London, I have been preparing dishes that are as quick as possible, using local ingredients. I wanted to introduce this to others, share how to do it, especially for those that are afraid that it may be beyond them.”
How helpful was your food styling experience in putting the book together?
“It was really helpful. As I’m working in London, I’m lucky enough to have chances to cook and do food styling for many different types of cuisines and I’ve learnt a lot from it. Many of my recipes are inspired by those new foreign ingredients, too.”
Do you test your recipes on friends on family?
“Yes, I always need a second opinion. My partner is the best taster and I think that he is very happy about his role!”
Aya tells Verve that she fell in love with cooking as a little girl and can still vividly recall the cover of one particular children’s cookbook that was her most treasured. Now, when she’s not preparing food either for consumption or photography, she says she’s most likely to be chasing after her own one-year-old daughter. “And, when she’s sleeping, I’m trying to look after my garden. I’m really into it at the moment.”