While working on my article about matcha and the Japanese tea ceremony, I came across a wealth of tasty recipes created, photographed and filmed by Namiko Chen on her “Just One Cookbook” blog. Born and raised in Yokohama, Nami now lives in San Francisco, where she cooks Japanese dishes for her family, friends and blog followers. For “The Ethnik Plate” she agreed to answer ten questions. Here is our conversation about Japanese cuisine: 

You use matcha, or green powdered tea in some of your desserts, such as green tea chocolate (video above). Can you explain the difference between cooking and drinking grades of matcha?

The matcha used for drinking during sadō (Japanese tea ceremony) and cooking is actually the same powder from the same plant. There are, however, different grades of matcha. Think of beef in the US, some of which is rated USDA Prime, Choice, Select and Standard. The high grades of matcha are for drinking and the lower grades are used for cooking. High grade matcha tends to be bright green. Regardless of the grade, remember to use your matcha powder quickly after opening as it will oxidize and lose flavor.

What’s the secret to a good matcha latte?

A simple recipe like this to be good requires best ingredients: good matcha, fresh milk, and most importantly the right temperature of water. You never want to use boiling water for matcha. Use water between 170-180ºF to bring out the flavor. 

Where do you buy your matcha?

I don’t buy drinking grade matcha as I don’t practice sadō and I don’t drink matcha by itself. I usually buy my culinary grade matcha from my friends at Season with Spice, an online Asian spice shop. They have a very good matcha powder they get from Japan. Before they started their business, I bought Maeda-en brand culinary grade matcha from Japanese supermarkets.

Do you make any savory dishes with matcha?

One common way to use matcha in savory dishes is to dip tempura in a mixture of salt and matcha powder and I do that too. However, with its slightly bitter taste, matcha is mostly used for sweets and rarely used in savory dishes.  

Do you use any of your grandmother’s recipes?

My grandmother was a housewife but she had a helper, so she didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. However, she loved and knew great food. I learned most of my cooking skills from my mom and both of them heavily influenced my cooking.

What’s cooking in Japan during winter?

We enjoy different kinds of nabe dishes. Nabe means hot pot in Japanese. We set up a portable stove and donabe (a pot made out of a special clay) at the dining table where everyone cooks vegetables and meat or seafood in a special broth. One of the most popular nabe dishes is Shabu Shabu, we cook thinly sliced beef and pork in kombu based broth. There are many Shabu Shabu restaurants around San Francisco as the popularity spreads outside of Japan.

Each cuisine has its trinities (i.e. garlic, lemon juice and olive oil in Lebanese cuisine). What are three essential ingredients that make a Japanese flavor base?

The three Japanese essential ingredients are soy sauce, sake, and mirin. With these three condiments, you can make the popular teriyaki sauce as well as the majority of Japanese food.

Your husband is a Taiwanese American. Does he have a culinary contribution to your kitchen or to your blog?

Unfortunately, not too much, he is the official food taster though. We have pretty authentic Chinese restaurants around where we live so we usually eat Taiwanese or Chinese foods outside. However my husband loves and is great at barbecuing (my children and I gave him a “BBQ King” apron on Father’s Day in the past!).

Please tell me about your e-book.

It’s a collection of easy and simple recipes that my family, Just One Cookbook readers, and I love the most from my blog. It has over 90 pages of photos, recipes, and instructions for Japanese appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, rice & noodles, and dessert. It also includes 12 pages of Japanese cooking basics and pantry items. If you are new to Japanese cooking or if you visit my blog and don’t know where to start, this e-cookbook is a perfect start to cook Japanese food at home.

If you had to choose one dish that represents your home, what would that be and why?

That would be korokke – Japanese beef and potato croquettes. My mom always made excellent korokke and this was my favorite food growing up. They are one dish that I look forward to whenever I visit my home in Japan. Now my children love this dish as well so I’m happy three generations are enjoying the same recipe.

Thank you Nami!


I have a thing for dumplings. No matter how long I reflect upon a restaurant menu, I end up ordering wonton, gyoza, samosa, empanada, ravioli, pierogi (of course) or any other kind. I am always curious about the ingredients used in the filling, cooking techniques—was it steamed, boiled, fried or baked?—the sauce that sometimes accompanies my order and the look of pleats that seal their edges. Yes, I like to analyze them perhaps even more than I want to admit. 

Making pierogi was the second kitchen task given to me by my mother when I was about five. My first task, which almost completely discouraged me from cooking, consisted of beating the egg whites. It turned out that because of my food allergy, when tiny particles of egg foam landed on my skin they triggered an itchy red “polka dot” rash and big tears. My mother soon reassigned me. Making pierogi was easy on my skin but technically way more difficult and time consuming than whipping up meringue for an apple pie.

In our tiny kitchen, where two people wouldn’t pass without bumping into each other, my mother, my father and I stood side by side working in a dumpling production line. My mother was in charge. After mixing flour with yolk, salt and water, she rolled out a thin layer of what would soon become dumplings’ soft shell. When a piece of elastic dough started looking like a large irregularly shaped lake covered by flour dust, my father equipped with a teacup quickly cut out the circles. Those perfectly round discs of dough had to be filled and sealed by my inexperienced little hands. 

My first pierogi had too much filling and would’t fold in half. Whether it was ground beef and spice, mushroom with sauerkraut or farmer’s cheese and potato mush, no more than a small spoon of it could fit inside. Once I got the right amount of filling, pinching the edges of the dough in even intervals was my new challenge and it was a tough one. “They look a little off,” my father used to laugh about my pierogi’s style. He lovingly helped me figure out the water resistant twist of dough that would disable dumplings from splitting open in their boiling water bath. He even tried to imitate my uneven pleats that differed from my mother’s orderly ones. At the table, when our dinner was already garnished with browned bits of onion and golden butter drops, my father and I played a game of guessing which pierogi were his, my mom’s and mine. 

I still admire the perfectly shaped half moons, pea pods and big hugs, but only the less perfect kind brings my childhood memories back to life.


photo by Daniel Lane/Pono Photo

I asked my fellow writer and namesake Marta Lane whom I met during a food writers workshop to share on The Ethnik Plate one of her festive fish recipes. She conjured up a Hawaiian paella and a personal story behind this exotic dish. Here is her post:

My mother was born and raised in Barcelona, Spain, where paella is the National Dish. Each paella is made in a large paella pan and starts with a base called sofrito. My aunt begins by buying the freshest ingredients possible and, in her 4-foot diameter pan, cooks meat and shellfish. Setting those aside, she adds onions, tomatoes and garlic and simmers until the mixture is transformed into a sweet and unctuous paste. At this point, she stirs the rice through and tops it with water. It bubbles, uncovered and untouched, until most of the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Five minutes before serving, she adds the meat and shellfish, covers the pan with a dishcloth, and lets the steam rewarm, but not overcook, the shellfish.

While I was growing up in Colorado, my mother made her version of this classic dish at least once a month. Mom left out the seafood because dad didn’t like it. Instead, see filled it with chicken and vegetables. Sometimes, she’d add rabbit if she found it in the frozen section of the grocery store.

Today, I live in Hawaii, so my version has fresh Hawaiian fish and local shrimp. To give it a Hawaiian twist, I add fresh pineapple, which plays well with Spanish olives. Kauai Shrimp come with their shells and heads still attached, which is how the Spanish eat them. You can of course remove them to make eating easier, but you’ll lose a lot of flavor. In addition, I believe getting your hands dirty while eating is fun and adds to the enjoyment of a meal.


“May we invite Ela for a traditional Polish dinner?” asked my husband after he had returned from his school one summer afternoon. Ela, just like Jay, studied at the Polonicum Centre of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Warsaw. She was from Israel and had a relative who lived in the western part of Poland—her main reason for immersing herself in the brain flexing activities of the more-exceptions-than-the-rules Polish grammar course.

“Of course,” I cheerfully replied while quickly going through a list of what's traditional and not porky. After eliminating the obvious: smalec (rendered pig fat), kiełbasa and schabowy (pork breaded cutlet), I settled on steak tartare followed by chłodnik, or chilled yogurt-beet soup garnished with hard-boiled egg. For our main course we could have staffed rolls of beef in wild mushroom sauce on top of kasha, or earthy buckwheat groats. It would go so well with my father's crisp dill pickles and my mother's tangy beet relish... “Oh, and she doesn't eat meat at all,” added Jay.

No problem. We could still serve chłodnik but start with grilled oscypek, or sheep cheese instead of raw beef mince. As the main course without meat perhaps a savory buckwheat babka with buttery mushed potatoes, eggs and farmer's cheese would do. A creamy mushroom sauce and... “She is actually vegan,” murmured Jay.

Well. I continued stripping our dinner menu down again. Cold yogurt-beet soup had to go. Kasha with pickles and colorful veggie salads would fill the main course plate. And we end with blueberry filled pierogi, their dough kneaded without eggs. Wait a second. A clear barszcz, or Polish borscht could stay. Polish cuisine offers so many variations of beet soup that we actually have a meat- and dairy-free barszcz, however it is traditionally served during a Christmas Eve dinner. Or whenever we have a vegan guest from Israel or from anywhere else.


“What will we do with all that grain?” I thought to myself when my husband brought home a 20-pound bag of rice. He acquired it during a white elephant Christmas gift swap last December. For those who haven't played, “white elephant is a game of exchanging gifts by basically pulling them out of each other's hands

The holiday “stealing” presents party was practically over when Jay arrived to his office late that day. Everyone had taken what they wanted and no one wanted a big bag of rice. It was something that couldn't be easily re-gifted just like the legendary white elephants given by kings of Thailand to their rivals. Unlike those rare and expensive to keep Thai mammals, our sona masoori rice from India turned out to be a tasty filler for our food budget holes and cracks. 

The unwanted gift also encouraged us to culinary adventures as we started scooping rice down from that huge bag. At first we ate it plain, cooked and topped with a vegetarian version of lecsó that resembles ratatouille minus eggplant (you may remember from my previous post that Jay is not a big eggplant fan). This Hungarian classic in its original rich version clogs your veins with lard and bacon fat. In my opinion lescó doesn't really need any meat but let's go back to rice. 

As time went by, imaginary trips with our free grain took us all over the culinary map. We explored the taste of South India, Spain, Cuba, Iran. Rice was a perfect sponge for a soupy chicken curry putting down the spicy fire of this Indian dish that landed on our unaccustomed tongues. The white grain turned yellow when cooked with saffron, meat, vegetables, beans and a dash of paprika. With a rabbit shortage at the grocery shop nearby, paella valenciana, or famous Spanish rice dish made only a single appearance giving place to an easy to assemble New World disharroz a la cubana con fríjoles negros, or black beans and rice Cuban style. Yellow was also the color of fragrant Persian rice pilaf with crisp bottom of the pot layer and sweet and nutty garnishes on top. 

We ate rice almost daily: in soups, salads and sides. Any ricey leftovers turned the next day into exiting “new” meals like rice pudding, rice staffed peppers or rice balls. And fried rice became the signature dish chez Madigans soon after our dinner at Side Street Inn in Honolulu. The restaurant's take on this Asian staple combines hot linguiça (Portuguese pork sausage), salty dashi (Japanese soup stock) and sweet char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) into one beautiful plate which we tried to recreate.

Inspired by but not limited to the Side Street Inn's version of fried rice, we keep experimenting with other ethnic ingredients and at this point only a few more cups of sona masoori rice left at the bottom of that 20-pound bag.