The Japanese Martha Stewart

Move Over, Martha — Here Comes Harumi

Last week, Harumi Kurihara, who’s often billed as the Japanese Martha Stewart, was in New York City to promote her new book, Harumi’s Japanese Cooking, her first to be released in the U.S. I was invited to join her for a private cooking lesson, but because the publicist’s invitation noted, strangely, that “Harumi is very attractive,” I didn’t expect a culinary demonstration so much as a date.

So when I arrived at the TriBeCa loft that was our tryst, half-expecting to see Kurihara alone in a candlelit room, I was somewhat relieved to see it buzzing with people, including her assistants, a translator, and the book’s publicist, among others. And there was Kurihara, looking elegant but casual in jeans and a fitted beige sweater, a long string of shimmering silver dangling from her necklace. Although she’s nearly 60, she looks more like 35. We sat down to chat about how this homemaker became a culinary sensation.

The Martha Stewart analogy is apt if only because of Kurihara’s mammoth success in Japan and the industry that has sprung up around her. Her first cookbook, published 20 years ago, has been reprinted 60 times and together her numerous cookbooks have sold more than 15 million copies. She has a quarterly magazine, a show on Japanese television, and 40 stores throughout Japan devoted to her brand of cookware. Yet while Stewart is stolid and businesslike, the Kurihara I met was laid-back and lively, if slightly drained from her hectic schedule. “I’m incredibly busy,” she told me through a translator. “Yet when I look back on my life, I feel very lucky.”

Kurihara has no professional culinary training, and learned to cook from her mother, who cooked only traditional Japanese food. But when Kurihara married Japanese TV newscaster Reiji Kurihara, she began to travel and to incorporate into her cooking the new flavors she came across. Her husband is popular enough in Japan that the media used to interview him at his home, and Kurihara would cook for the cameramen and reporters. They loved her food, and soon she was writing a page here and there in magazines, then a cookbook, then many more.

The food that made her famous is not typical East-meets-West fusion, but rather modern Japanese — it occasionally includes Western ingredients but remains firmly grounded in the cuisine and flavors of Japan. “When I eat something that I like,” she says, “my first instinct is to rethink it, to translate it into the Japanese experience.” For example, she enriches Scallop Sauté with Miso Sauce with a touch of cream and whole-grain mustard and dresses pasta with mentaiko (roe of pollock or cod, salted and seasoned with chili pepper), butter, and seaweed for Spaghettini with Fish Roe Dressing.

For my private cooking lesson, Kurihara whipped up Steamed-Chicken Salad with Sesame Sauce, steaming the chicken in the microwave and making the sesame sauce from scratch. She toasted sesame seeds until the whole kitchen filled with a nutty aroma, then started pounding them in an attractive Harumi-brand mortar. The publicist snapped a picture as Kurihara beamed at the camera, and I couldn’t help thinking: If she spoke better English, a certain American entertaining guru might be looking for a new job. Watch out, Martha, she’s learning.