She once called Japan home. Now Fiona Uyema is bringing Japanese recipes to Irish kitchens with a new book, writes Margaret Jennings
IT’S a long way to Tipperary — from Japan, but for Irish cook, Fiona Uyema, who grew up in the small Shannonside village of Lorrha, that distance has been shortened by just the right mix of ingredients in her life.
As you might guess from her surname, she found love, at the tender age of 21, when she met her husband Gilmar, while doing an internship in a company in Japan as part of her international business degree at DCU.
Throw their mutual passion for Japanese cooking into the pot and their destiny was sealed.
That passion is now evident in the book that Fiona has just produced, called Japanese Food Made Easy, written just over 10 years after they both landed back in Ireland to get married and settle here.
Gilmar was born in Brazil as his grandparents emigrated there from Okinawa, a chain of islands off the south of Japan, famed for the longevity of its residents, which researchers have partially attributed to their diet.
His grandparents set up a Japanese food business and his mother worked there also — passing on to him a love of his ancestors’ food culture.
But what made Fiona more at home at cooking noodles than a pot of spuds?
It’s been a long way indeed, since she first had a “crazy” notion to study Japanese for her degree in 1998, she says. It was tough to learn the language at college but it led to her living in Japan for a year as a student and afterwards for three more years, teaching English in schools.
From an early stage she was lured by the Japanese food culture and being fluent in the language, was able to learn at grassroots level all about it.
And although she has never formally trained as a chef, to borrow from the t-shirt phrase, she has been there, done that and has the apron to prove it.
Her interest obviously first began with her taste buds, but she says that Japanese people bring the philosophy of “balance” to all their cooking which means they “eating with their eyes first — absorbing the colours”, as well as appreciating the blend of different flavours on the tongue. This initiation first started for Fiona when during her college year she stayed with a Japanese family.
“In the evenings I would sit at the kitchen table chatting to my homestay mother and watch her prepare that evening’s meal in her small Japanese kitchen,” she says.
Then, after completing her degree, aged 22, she went straight back to Japan to work.
“I decided to live in the countryside and ended up literally in the sticks, a beautiful area near rice fields, on the coast of Japan near the beach and mountains. I was the only foreigner in the village and my only mode of transport was a bike.”
She got involved in activities in the evening, including learning calligraphy and the elderly women attending also shared their cooking tips with her.
Returning home to Ireland a decade ago was a let-down, though, as Japanese ingredients were in short supply, but this is no longer the case. In her book she explains those basic ingredients and tries to “bridge the gap” between East and West.
AND there are, when you probe, similarities with Ireland; both countries are island nations with an abundance of seafood and root vegetables, but also seaweed, which was harvested by our Irish ancestors for at least 4,000 years.
Fiona says Japanese food is one of the healthiest diets in the world. It is low in fat, and provides calcium from tofu, seaweed and dark green veg, while protein is found in fish or soya-based products.
Green tea aids digestion, while miso — a paste made from fermented soybeans, salt, rice or barley and koji (a fermentation starter) — is high in antioxidants.
It was to miso, and other beloved Japanese foods, that Fiona turned for comfort, when recovering from treatment for ovarian cancer.
“I was really horrified when I discovered I had cancer at 28. I was thrown into the Irish public health system and the standard of food was appalling, especially after having chemo, which caused me to be nauseous,” she says.
Gilmar brought in a bento Japanese lunch box every evening while visiting her.
“I yearned for Japanese food, which is simple and tasty — it didn’t turn my stomach. Plain seemed so right for my body,” she says.
With the loss of one of her ovaries it was an “absolute blessing” that she afterwards got pregnant, against the odds, and now has two boys, Scott, 4, and Matthew. eight months.
While it took her body some time to recover, Fiona feels that Japanese food helped her heal.
“After my treatment I went back eating a 100% Japanese diet again. I definitely think it is full of antioxidants and anti-cancer abilities.
"The miso soup which I have every day, for instance, is good for your gut and I was on so much medication, my stomach was in bits.”
Now, little Scott is an enthusiastic Japanese food lover, too, bridging even further that link between East and West, that all began when his mum wanted to study something different for her degree.
Japanese Food Made Easy, by Fiona Uyema, €24.99 www.fionauyema.com
Seared tuna mango salad
When making this recipe make sure to lightly sear the tuna as I truly believe tuna tastes better either raw or lightly seared.
Once tuna is cooked it becomes tough and loses its flavour. This salad is particularly nice eaten while the tuna is warm, so don’t waste any time once it’s ready and try to eat it straight away.
Mixed sesame seeds to coat the tuna
Salt and pepper to season the tuna
100g fresh tuna steak/loin
A few handfuls of mixed salad leaves
1 ripened mango, peeled and cut into strips
For the dressing
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Mix together the sesame seeds, salt and pepper on a flat plate.
Place the tuna on the plate and coat each side in sesame seeds.
Heat a little vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan on a medium to high heat.
Place the tuna on the pan and sear each side lightly (less than one minute for each side).
Transfer to a chopping board and, using a sharp knife, thinly slice the tuna.
Place the mixed salad leaves on a serving dish along with the mango strips.
Carefully place the tuna slices on top.
Mix all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl and, just before serving, pour over the salad.
Negima Yakitori (chicken and spring onion skewers)
These chicken skewers taste much nicer if you use dark chicken meat. They can be cooked on a grill but also go really well on a barbeque during the summer months.
Makes 8 skewers
4 chicken thighs (skin and bone removed), cut into bite-size/ 2-inch cubes
3 spring onions, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 wooden skewers, soaked in water for 20 minutes.
sesame seeds to garnish spring onion to garnish
For the sauce
6 tablespoons sake
4 tablespoons mirin
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Put all the ingredients for the sauce into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil over a medium heat.
Reduce to a simmer on a medium-to-low heat for 12 minutes or until the sauce
starts to thicken (don’t reduce it too much or it will caramelise). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Thread the chicken and spring onion alternatively onto the skewers.
Heat the grill to a high heat.
Brush all the skewers with the sauce before putting them under the grill.
Place the skewers high in the grill to give a barbeque effect to the chicken.
Grill them for about 15 minutes, turning and brushing them with the sauce two or three times during cooking.
Garnish with sesame seeds and chopped spring onion.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved