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Interview with Rie Yoshihara / Small Color

img  Tobias Fischer

Let music be the food of love, Shakespeare once said. To Rie Yoshihara, meanwhile, lovingly prepared food may well be music for the body. Known outside of her native Japan primarily for her sound projects Small Color and Trico!, both of which fuse a poetic pop sensibility with tender folk timbres and disarming ambient arrangements, Yoshihara has recently made a name for herself at home by writing two books about food, both emphasising the creative aspects of cooking and the healing aspects of the right ingredients. And yet, she likes to think outside of these categories altogether: If we can see the artistic potential in every daily activity, our lives we be richer and living and creating will be one and the same thing. We spoke to Rie about the differences between European and Japanese food, the importance of sharing meals as well as her books.

You mentioned that you could see a clear relationship between music and food. Could you explain where you see the similarities a bit more in detail?
Music and cooking are very similar in terms of their creation. By touching and playing a musical instrument, its sound inspires me and then a song will be born. By touching and smelling or trying to eat food, its taste inspires me and then a dish will be born, too. So I should say that they are almost the same.

To create something is a very natural thing for me. It is part of my ordinary life. One of the reasons is that I am not good at routine work. A challenge to a new thing is more exciting than a mere repetition of the same thing. But a friend of mine said that to create something from scratch is most difficult in general. On the other hand, I think that most people might not be used to this. I recommend that you should strive to make something better and just enjoy it. If you always enjoy creating something, every single day will be full of stimulation. Beautiful tones and delicious meals will be born from such exciting days. To try to use our imagination on everything, we can be more creative. So I can say that cooking and music enhance each other. Of course, I am not saying only music and cooking. For example, yard work, handmade clothes and color-matching of interior are also important to my life as stimuli.

Do you feel as though particular dishes and particular music enhance and enrich each other?
It would seem to be a common impression that music and food are synergetic. It depends on factors like the time of day, place, season, how many people are involved and so on. If dishes are served together with music that matches these factors, it will be a source of great memories. A few days ago, I went to an old-style restaurant. The waitress's hairstyle was popular a long time ago and it looked wonderful. They were playing a continuous stream of old songs there. We had nostalgic dishes that we used to eat in our childhood. All the items were facing the same direction with the same nuance. We enjoyed our dinner very much and had a good time. However, sometimes I can not enjoy the dishes when the selection of the songs does not fit the situation. It is so sad for me that I know too much about music. If it does not fit, it is much better without music. The sound of cutlery and dishes, the sound of cooking from the kitchen, joyful laughter and conversation … they will be great.

In Spring of 2012, you travelled Europe with your duo Small Color. From your blog, I'm under the impression that it was just as much a culinary and social as a musical experience. How do you look back on that tour?
Thanks to all the encounters with very kind people, our tour was very attractive and exciting. It made it possible for us to have a lot of nice experiences not only through music but also with the culture of each land. I am always so lucky when I go on a journey. I can meet both delicious food and people who can cook delicious meals. Maybe it's because I love food and people as much as music. On our tour, there were a lot of impressive foods. Especially I can not forget a hearty home.made meal in the beautiful countryside of England. We were stranded, because all the airports were closed due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland. So my friend, Rachael Dadd, who is a very nice singer took us to her parents’ home near the airport while we were waiting. Her parents gave us a warm welcome with their kindness and nice home made meals.

We could also never forget the soup which healed the fatigue of the long journey in Sweden. After staying in England, we had to go to Sweden by train. We were so tired because it was such a long journey and all the trains were very crowded because of the traffic panic caused by the volcano. So the soup made by a gentleman named Richard, who is a very good cook, at midnight  treated us so gently. We felt as if we'd got to heaven thanks to its marvelous taste. In addition, I should talk about the healthy and vivid Bulgarian cuisine which was very different from other countries because of its warm climate and its particular culture.

Were there moments of culture shock?
We enjoyed wonderful meals, feeling each culture in every country. It was really exciting and interesting. All the dishes were very tasty, but there was one exception: Fried sardines served with lingonberry jam in Sweden. In Japan, fish and soy sauce have a good relationship and are considered inseparable. The combination of fish and sweet jam was quite shocking and unacceptable for us Japanese. But when I thought about it a little more, I realised that in fact, we use sugar with soy sauce in many Japanese traditional recipes as well. So I changed my mind and then decided to eat it. It was okay. But if I had to choose, I still prefer that sweet jam is put on crackers or bread.

I live in Tokyo, where prices are the highest in the world. So it was really amazing to see the freshness and inexpensiveness of vegetables and fruits in Europe. I always think that there is no better seasoning than freshness. I am so envious of markets in Europe that offer fresh vegetable and fruits easily even in an urban city. We were lucky to have white asparagus in season though I could not enjoy a homemade meal because we did not have much time in Germany. We went to a market in Berlin before our gig and found a big pile of white asparagus. I could not pass through without purchasing it. After our performance, at the house of our friend Midori Hirano, we tried to boil the asparagus immediately and eat it. A gentle flavor was steeping in the weary body. It tasted really well. In Japan, white asparagus is not in the limelight like the green one. So I could not understand at first the love for the white one by Germans. But now I can grasp their feeling better than before.

I should also talk about the amazing taste of cheese. The Japanese do not have the experience of cheese a lot because we only began to eat cheese widely after the war. I was surprised by the deep taste of orange cheese that we had as breakfast in the Netherlands. Also we had marvelous sandwiches given to us by the owner of the venue we played in Belgium. It was a very simple sandwich with only ham and yellow cheese. When you have such a simple recipe, each ingredient is really important. And I can not forget a white cheese called ‘‘cerene‘’ in Bulgaria. We could find it in almost every dish as seasoning. Its salt and taste enriched salads, baked vegetables and even stews. I was foremost impressed by the taste of individual ingredients popular in different countries rather than the specific cuisine. Of course, we Japanese also have good food and we can get all kind of food in Tokyo. But I felt that the best way to get to know its taste was to eat in the country where these dishes are rooted.

In our previous interview, you wrote: "In my Japanese lyrics, I often use a lot of metaphors. We Japanese like the truth to be wrapped up in an oblate. We don't particularly like showing it openly". Is the same true for Japanese cuisine? Or is cooking a way to show the truth more directly?
The Japanese are not good at talking straight. We sometimes even think that to speak in a roundabout way is a virtue. We want you to understand even if we explain nothing. Also we want you to feel even if we say nothing. The same can be seen in Japanese cuisine. A dish that is garnished with   seasonal vegetables and fruits and sometimes leaves and flowers of trees tell of the beauty of the season and hospitality to the customers without words. This is a nice way in Japanese cuisine, I feel. I also pay attention to use seasonal  food in my dishes. I just feel not to enjoy beautiful 4 seasons is so ''mottainai''. Oh, it is a way of thinking ''mottainai'' also seems to be Japanese. When I cook, I always use the whole of the ingredients because of ''mottainai''.

What, to you, are the fundamentals of Japanese cooking? What sets it apart from other regional cuisines you're aware of – especially other Asian cuisines?
The cuisines of other countries in Asia are very attractive. I have learned a lot about how to use herbs, spices and seasonings from Chinese, Korean,Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. I feel as if each amazing recipe turns their hard climate, hot or cold, to the advantage and enjoy a lot. What I learned about the other Asian recipes is that the Japanese do not rely so much on herbs, spices and seasonings. I think the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine is to use seasonal food, enjoy the flavor itself and cooking with Japanese soup stock (which comes from Bonito, kelp and so on). Herbs, spices and seasonings are needed only little. Unwittingly, these approaches have become a part of me. I became aware of this when I understood that my 1st son aged 1 year and 4 months loves my Japanese soup the best. So my recipes are really simple with fresh ingredients, Japanese soup and a few seasonings.

It seems that, on the whole, people in Germany seem to take less and less time for their meals, mostly eating while working or while on the move. How would you rate the importance of food and eating in Japan?
It is very similar in Japan. People who have a busy working schedule tend to eat quickly. Before I was the same when I was too busy at my work. Generally, the Japanese work extremely long hours. One day, if this continues, we will have lost our appreciation of good meals. It is such a pity. So I decided to make my own meals as much as possible. I try to use seasonal vegetables, consider health aspects, set my favorite dishes and plates and eat slowly with my husband even if I am busy. It is always a very nice time. I think that by having such a shared experience, our feelings get more calm and our communication will be better. And then we can get back to our busy work again.

In Japan, I think such a lovely time is still kept intact in some homes thanks to the hard work of mothers. Moms have to work hard in order to protect the health of their family. They are really busy not only in their own jobs but also by making many dishes in the morning and at night. Furthermore some mothers have to make lunch boxes for their children and husband. The amount of work that Japanese mothers have to do is too much. I should say that it is crazy! But I think that thanks to their efforts, Japanese meals as social functions are maintained somehow. As as just such a Japanese mother, I am trying to work hard everyday, too.

In which way, would you say, can the Japanese and European kitchen learn from each other?
As described above, thanks to the daily efforts of Japanese mothers, we can enjoy each season such as edible wild plants and bamboo shoots in spring, colorful and fresh vegetables in summer, very fragrant mushrooms in Autumn and Japanese traditional hot pot in winter. At some homes, you're treated to so many dishes that you might think every day's a birthday party. On the other hand, I want Japanese mothers who work too hard to know the German dinner. I want them to know that no cooking is not a bad thing. I heard that German dinner is really simple with bread, ham and cheese called cold meats, is that right?

Yes, it's called 'Brotzeit' ('breadtime') and still very popular in many families as an alternative to a hot dinner.
It is unbelievable because we Japanese focus on dinner the most in a day. If all Japanese husbands and children could accept cold meat, we'd be really thankful because moms can be freed from preparing hot meals after work. And one more thing: Many Japanese have missed something very important because they are distracted by the number of dishes: table coordinates. To show the dishes beautifully will add the good taste. If we can make nice table coordinates, we may not need to make so many dishes. I want Japanese to learn from European who are good at making nice coordinates and serving food beautifully.

If I wanted to learn how to cook Japanese dishes over here in Germany, what would you recommend how to get started?
If you want to learn to cook, I think eating is the best way to get started. To remember the taste on your tongue is the fastest way to learn. Is there a delicious Japanese restaurant in your town? I recommend that you go there often and feel its taste carefully and then reproduce the dishes you like. However, I think there are a lot of things you can learn from books, too. I also have learnt about overseas cooking from several books . For example, I've never been to India but I was interested in how to use various Indian spices. So I bought a big book about Indian spices written by an Indian woman living in Japan. I love this book. It is so good and useful. After trying orthodox Indian cuisine, I now enjoy using spices in this way in Japanese dishes. Books written by Japanese living in Germany are best. Because they may be written in an easy-to-understand idiom for Germans and use ingredients that are easy to get in your country. After studying, it is more exciting to be fused with your recipe and develop new one.

In Germany, the market for cooking books and food mags is exploding. Recipe collections and health issues are particularly popular. In comparison, in terms of food and cuisine,what are some of the topics Japanese readers are currently interested in?
Cooking books and mags are very popular over here in Japan, too. So a wide variety of cooking books is being released these days. I am always at a loss at the book store because it is so hard to choose between them. I think there is two types of books which are especially popular in Japan. One is about recipe which can be prepared quickly. As I mentioned before, almost all Japanese are extremely busy in their job and daily housework, so it is so important to use the time you have efficiently. On the other hand, simply because we are having such busy lives, there is also a counter-movement to reconsider and try to cherish our life and cuisine. Some things are very time-consuming or difficult to deal with, however, to know the essence makes our heart and life rich. It is really deep and attractive. I am interested in this way.

You recently had two books published by publishing house Konohana. Tell me a bit about the motivation behind writing the books and how you got in touch with Konohana, please. What was more exciting for you: Having your first cooking book published or your first CD?
Konohana Books have published my first cookbook. The encounter with Konohana Books came about because the company's president had been  looking at my blog. It was a blog for information about my performances and recordings, but I could not help but include photos of my cooking dishes. So that's how the president had become interested in my cooking.

To release something in this new field was very hard because I didn't have any experience yet. But nothing was more exciting than taking on this new challenge. I have not forgotten my exciting feeling when I released my first CD, but I have to say that to release 1st cooking book was more exciting. In my youth, I could not how to express my idea and feeling well, maybe most of young people feel the same. But now I know better about it than before. Also now I know its fun to do my works that I have experienced again and again in my life.

Tell me a bit about the different concepts behind the two books. I'm especially intrigued by your idea that rice can serve as a "medicine" to cure various kinds of illnesses.
I was lucky that I had a chance to release two cooking books. The title of the first is "Musician's kitchen," and the other is "Natural recipes for your body and mind". The former is written mainly about my lifestyle and introduces my dishes for each season with my photos and essays. It was very interesting for me to find that I had unforgettable memories related to each of the dishes I often cooked. By finding our more about intention when cooking, I was able to look back on my life. I would say this book is little bit different from others and probably not fit to serve as as a regular cooking book. For example, I did not attach a photograph to all the recipes. However, perhaps this simply serves to kindle the reader's imagination and might become a chance for my readers to try to cook my recipes.
The latter book is very practical, on the other hand. I am really interested in healing and the effects on our body and mind of ingredients and recipes. It is much better and more effective when we know more about the foods we usually eat. We eat living organisms such as plants and animals. They have appearance of their own such as color and smell in order to live. Various studies have been made about their effects to be helpful to human health. In this cook book, I introduce these effective foods in simple, easy way and enjoyable recipes. For example, Winter in Japan is very cold. So many Japanese woman are experiencing that their hands and feet are terribly cold. Ginger has a beneficial effect on cold. So I suggest to take ginger with one of the following recipes: ginger rice, fried vegetables with ginger or ginger chai tea. Recipe like these are very simple. So it is quite easy for the reader to try them as usual dishes.

What are your future plans in terms of music and publishing?
Next to music, I have many favorite things like cooking, DIY, gardening, handmade clothes and toys for my sons. I love to create something every day. So I think that there's a good chance that I will express my interest in different areas in the future, not just music and food. In fact, interviews in some magazine about gardening, DIY and handmade clothes have already begun. I have already written about my garden as a web series. I am really looking forward to have another chance and I am sure of that it will come soon. Of course, I want to keep releasing music albums constantly. Last October, my new album based on toy piano and toy musical instruments has been released by the label Novel Cell poem in Japan. Next year, I plan to release a new accordion album. To write songs and record them for me is not special anymore. It is an ordinary part of my life. Also cooking, DIY, gardening, handmade are my important daily life. What will I do tomorrow? What about the day after tomorrow? I might be of continue moving my hands to create what I want and feel until the end of my life.

Rie Yoshihara / Small Color interview By Tobias Fischer

For our German-speaking readers, an expansive look at Japanese cooking, including this interview with Rie Yoshihara, can be found in the article Japanisch Kochen by cooking magazine Gekonnt Gekocht.

Homepage: Rie Yoshihara / Trico!
Homepage: Small Color
Homepage: Konohana Publishing