Interview with Hannah Kirshner | Water, Wood & Wild Things

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.

Hannah Kirshner: I’m Hannah Kirshner and my first book is out now it’s called Water, Wood & Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town.

Suzy Chase: Water, Wood & Wild Things is the engrossing brilliant book we need right about now. Part travelogue, part meditation on the meaning of work, and full of your beautiful drawings and local recipes. But first I want to tell you that I have been a huge fan of yours for years, since you were with Food52 back in 2016 and you would do these Facebook lives and I just adored your kitchen in Brooklyn. It was so organized.

Hannah Kirshner: That’s amazing, you know, broadcasting those I really had no idea who was watching in a way it just felt like I was alone in my kitchen. And yeah, it’s amazing to hear that you were watching and enjoying them.

Suzy Chase: I loved it. And you know, what’s so funny for the longest time I didn’t know your name was Hannah. I was like oh Sweets & Bitters is on.

Hannah Kirshner: Right, so that was the name of the magazines that I self-published. It just kind of stuck. Actually I chose the name when I was still, I hadn’t even started the magazines, but I was a baker and I was a bartender and I was doing some cocktail events and baking cupcakes and all sorts of things. Then I was like, well, this will just sort of work for whatever I do I think.

Suzy Chase: It was perfect. And I still just want to call you Sweets & Bitters.

Hannah Kirshner: Well, I think I’m stuck with it. So that’s good.

Suzy Chase: So in 2017 you did some videos for Food52 in Japan and my favorite of all time was when you went to Kathy’s Kitchen and Kathy does all this American baking and her cookbook collection was fantastic. She showed you a cookbook from when she was 10 that was all about Pennsylvania Dutch Baking. I will always remember that episode. I loved her shop.

Hannah Kirshner: She’s amazing. So Kathy is her American name, but her real name is Kei Yamaguchi and so she has this baking space in Kyoto. Now, I can’t remember if at that time it was her old space or her new space, but she sells baked goods and she runs baking classes. Most people in Japan don’t have an oven in their home kitchen. So she’s able to teach people and give them an opportunity to cook all these baked goods that require an oven and she has this amazing cookbook. I think she’s published two of them now called Friendship Cooking, where she travels around Japan and cooks with different friends and learns their recipes.

Suzy Chase: Let’s start off with your first foray into Japan. When you spent a month with bike, when you were 22, how did that come about?

Hannah Kirshner: At the end of college and the years that followed, I had started bike racing and I was working in a bike shop. I had actually applied for a Fulbright to go to Japan and write a graphic novel about bicycle culture, not surprisingly the Fulbright committee didn’t quite get it. And so I figured, well, I can’t afford to go for a whole year without funding, but I could save up enough money to go for a month. When I was writing the proposal, I had seen a flyer for a bike messenger race in Kyoto, and I contacted…there was an email on it I didn’t know who I was writing to, but I wrote to them, it turned out to be this man named Takuya and Takuya invited me to come and stay in this bike messenger house with his friends, as long as I wanted to. And so that’s what I did and as soon as I was there, I was just sort of immersed in that subculture going to bike messenger events. I got to go on a bike ride with a woman that’s a national champion in Japan, and I got to meet my favorite artist, it was incredible and I stayed in touch and stayed friends with those folks and Takuya who had been my host about almost a decade later, introduced me to Yusuke Shimoki who runs a bar here in Yamanaka Onsen. And that is the town that my book is about.

Suzy Chase: Yes. That leads me to my next question. How did sake and a dinner party in New York lead you to where you are today?

Hannah Kirshner: So Takuya had been telling me about this magical mountain town called Yamanaka that I had to visit. But at that point I was a food stylist in New York. I had met the man that would become my husband. You know, I had a full life so it was hard to imagine just going to Japan at that point, but he told me, well, the owner of the cocktail bar in that town Yusuke Shimoki he’s about 30, your same age, he really wants to come to New York. Can you host him? Meanwhile, what Shimoki had heard was my friends in New York really want to meet you. Can you go visit them? So I’m not sure if Takuya was an intentionally setting us up to be friends or what, but the did come to New York and I happened to be having a dinner party while he was there. And he basically had brought his entire bar to Brooklyn and so he unpacked multiple bottles of Sake, a whole set of different kinds of glassware and Yamanaka Shikki the lacquerware wooden cups that this town is famous for and then he put on this apron, it was one of those great Japanese apron, like half a waist apron that has like navy blue with the bars insignia and the white and orange and navy waist tie and I was like, where can I get an apron like that? And he said, you have to work in my bar. And I said, okay. And he said, well, you have to come for two months. Okay. And so it became a plan and I came to Yamanaka and apprenticed in his bar. I was here for about three months at that time. So, you know, working in the Sake bar immediately kind of made me part of this community. And it was not only a place to learn about that game. So I met all these amazing people like artists and craftsmen and farmers and hunters, and realized I wanted to learn about what they were doing too, and how it all wove together into the culture and community of Yamanaka. And that’s where the book idea came from.

Suzy Chase: So tell us a few of the jobs slash skills you learned that are in the book.

Hannah Kirshner: When I was apprenticing in the bar, Shimoki-san, very proudly introduced me to Takehito Nakajima, a wood turner and he invited me to his studio to try out wood turning, which at first I was actually not so sure, like seemed kind of scary to, you know, take a sharp tool and put it on a moving hunk of wood, of course I said, yes and it turned out that I loved wood turning and over the months and years that followed, he continued to teach me, I made various cups and bowls with him and that experience. And then also becoming friends with Mika Horie the paper maker and photographer. Those sort of came about organically through meeting them through friendships. Once I knew I wanted to write the book, I really set out to find people that represented sort of the essential material called the town. What were the things made harvested, farmed in Yamanaka that defined that place. So that included boar hunting, growing rice, growing vegetables, gathering wild edible. I took tea ceremony lessons, and then eventually I worked in the sake brewery.

Suzy Chase: So this all became your life. What was the pivotal moment for you when you said, I, I want to live here. Had you figured out at that point that you wanted to live there or were you just doing all of these jobs and learning these crafts under the mentors, thinking that you’re going to come back to New York City.

Hannah Kirshner: It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment coming to Yamanaka really felt in a way like coming home for me and connecting to a part of myself that I had sort of pushed aside and adulthood. I grew up on a small farm in the Pacific Northwest, outside of Seattle in a town called North Bend, which anybody who’s a fan of Twin Peaks will know as the place where Twin Peaks was filmed and my mother grew a lot of our own food. We had chickens, we had sheep for wool and also occasionally for me, and in a lot of ways that landscape really resembles Yamanaka too. You have this intersection of all these amazing micro-climates ocean lands and forest so the variety and freshness of ingredients for food is just incredible.

Suzy Chase: Japanese cycling friends were surprised to hear that you had grown up with cherry blossom picnics too.

Hannah Kirshner: Yea that’s right. We used to have cherry blossom picnics at the University of Washington. There are hundred year old cherry trees there that came from Japan. And so my mom used to take us every year for a cherry blossom picnic. You know, Seattle has, and the Pacific Northwest, in general has a really long history of the Japanese community there actually many different Asian communities, but the Japanese community in particular came right around the time that Japan was opening its borders for international trade and travel at the end of the 1800’s, it was sort of the end of the gold rush beginning of the logging industry and railroads and so all these workers were needed and a lot of Japanese young men would come over hoping to make their fortune and then go home. But many of them stayed and then brought wives and established a Japantown in Seattle so like even in my little small town, an hour outside of Seattle, we could get Yakisoba and Udon in the supermarket. And those were things that we ate quite often.

Suzy Chase: Fewer than 8,000 people live in Yamanaka and its surrounding villages and that number is shrinking and yet young artists, designers, and entrepreneurs move there to make a life in the countryside. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hannah Kirshner: So like a lot of rural towns in Japan, it can often feel like almost everybody in Yamanaka is elderly. There are not that many young people. There are not that many children, but Yamanaka has a 1300 year history of tourism because of its onsen, its hot springs and alongside that grew various craft industries like the wood turning because you could sell your wooden wares to travelers who wanted souvenirs. So students actually come from all over Japan to study at the wood turning school here in Yamanaka and even though the town is very isolated geographically, the onsen, the hot spring was sort of a retreat for physical and spiritual healing monks would come, merchant sea men would come in from the port to rest between trips so you always sort of had this exchange of culture here, even though it is a rural mountain town and I think the combination of those craft communities and just the character of the town really seems to draw a lot of young people who are interested in perhaps learning older ways or living a slower life or learning farming, both connecting to traditional culture, but also creating new things like even Shimoki’s sake bar. That’s quite unusual for someone in a small town to start their own business like that. Normally you’d either take over the family business or move to a city for a good salary man job, or to work in a big business where you could have like a good, steady income.

Suzy Chase: Did he ever tell you his story, why he decided to open the sake bar in the town? And because it seems like..

Hannah Kirshner: You know, he’s actually from the next town over Yamashiro and this is something really interesting. He said that he feels like Yamanaka is more open-minded that people are more willing to accept new things or that you can sort of try something without being sure if it will succeed.

Suzy Chase: It’s funny it’s just one town over.

Hannah Kirshner: Yea, but it really does. I mean, it’s one town over, but it feels quite different. I mean, maybe part of that is the history Yamanaka was known as a destination for healing and rest and Yamashiro was more of a red light district. And even now like Yamashiro has more big hotels, Pachinko parlors, karaoke, like more entertainment has a different vibe

Suzy Chase: Times Square versus the West Village.

Hannah Kirshner: Yea right. They’re like very nearby, but totally different.

Suzy Chase: There are recipes in each chapter, some foods rarely seen outside Yamanaka. Can you give us one example of a rare dish?

Hannah Kirshner: The one that’s in the book is called Suko and it made from the stems of taro, but this particular one pickle is made from zuiki, the red taro stems and I’ve never seen this pickle outside of this region though. The stems are sort of like spongy, almost that you peel them and then it’s like a sweet vinegar, pickle, and they’re bright red. They can be a side dish or they can be a drinking snack. They go really well with the local sake obviously that’s not something that most readers are going to be able to reproduce exactly if they’re not in Japan but I still think that there’s a value to having a recipe that explains how something is made that documents a local food that tells a story in some way. Like sometimes I think it’s frustrating when recipes aren’t translated to English because they wouldn’t be practical for us. I still want to know about it and so much of this book, both in the narrative in the recipes is about curiosity about how things are made and why they’re made the way they are.

Suzy Chase: I think that’s what I love so much about you is you have so many various different curiosities and it’s just fascinating. It’s almost like what’s Hannah into now.

Hannah Kirshner: It’s kind of a problem cause I get into all these different things and then I just like, can’t manage to keep up with them all

Suzy Chase: I love from the outside looking in, it’s like, oh, Hannah’s doing that and I can learn from her.

Hannah Kirshner: Well, writing is just about the best profession for that reason because it’s my job to be curious about things and learn about them.

Suzy Chase: In this book you limited your geographic scope to places you could reach by bike from your apartment, except for Chapter 9 Samurai at the Duck Pond. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hannah Kirshner: So about 20, 30 minutes west on the coast, there’s this duck pond where about 25 men carry on this sport. That was once a form of samurai skills training. So the story is that the samurai was returning from fishing at the coast and as he walked up over the sand dune, a flock of ducks flew over and he took his net and he threw it up into the air and he caught one of the dock. And from that, he created the sport where, as it exists, now you have this Y shaped net, the pole that you hold is wood. And then it’s got bamboo arms and a net like a fishing net stretched in between them. So they go up on the slopes on the hillsides, around the pond and as the ducks are leaving in the evening, they wait and they have the, the net like in front of them. The way I describe it in the book is like a tennis racket ready for a serve and then when the ducks fly over, bring it up vertically and toss it into the air. And the net comes up from below the dock, below their line of sight. And the duck flies into the net and it falls to the ground and is stunned. And then while it’s stunned, they strangle it, just tie a little string around its neck. So it is a very, very inefficient way to hunt and really is more about a sort of skills training. And I found for these hunters, it’s also just very much a way of being in nature and observing and being connected to that world.

Suzy Chase: What was interesting to read as these duck hunters are natural experts in the wind and the youngest hunter was 39. So these guys are old.

Hannah Kirshner: So Kawamoto-san, the man who brought me along, who I followed along for a season of hunting, the season goes from mid-November to mid-February. And he told me… he’s in his mid-fifties, I believe and so he’s considered one of the younger guys too. He told me it takes 10 years to get good at it. Plus you have to pay licensing fees. You have to have your nets. You have to be part of the club. You have to volunteer to take care of the pond. Like a lot of what they do is stewarding the landscape too. So it’s a big commitment. It’s a lot of money, a lot of time. And also the timing for hunting is like in the early evening, usually around five, like just before it gets dark. So it’s not really that easy to just take up the hobby. And I think that they’re struggling to find young people who want to join and continue it.

Suzy Chase: And there are two restaurants in the area that serve net caught duck, which I think is amazing.

Hannah Kirshner: As you can imagine, they don’t catch very many of these ducks. And they’re said to be especially delicious because the duck doesn’t know what’s about to die. So there are no stress hormones released. There’s no damage from, you know, shooting it with a gun or killing it in some brutal way. So the meat is really prized and only two restaurants in this area serve the meat. One is Bantei and the other is Yamagishi. So the signature dish at these places is a kamo nabe or a duck, nabe means pot literally, but it also means the dish that’s cooked in that pot. So usually like a hot pot, like a broth with various things, simmered in it. And there’s actually a very particular kind of nabe in this area called Jibuni. It’s a soy sauce based broth with various vegetables, sort of cooked consecutively in the broth and the meat is actually dipped in starch before it’s simmered. So it makes this little sort of coating that helps keep the broth flavor on the meat as it simmers in the broth. And then the absolute best part is that when you’re done simmering everything, you’ve got this concentrated stock with a flavor of the vegetables and the flavor of the duck meat. And you put either soba noodles or rice into that. That is absolutely my favorite part of the whole dish. It’s a little elaborate. And the restaurants that make it are very protective of their proprietary recipes, but Kazu Yamagishi the chef at Yamagishi taught me how to make a really easy recipe for these duck and scallion skewers that are in the book. And he’s that young Hunter that you mentioned the 39 year old, well, 39 at the time of writing. So I guess in his early forties now.

Suzy Chase: You have an author’s note in the back of the book that talks about how you had to go back to New York after the research for this book was done. And you didn’t know at the time that the pandemic would make it a year before you could return a year later, how is Yamanaka doing? And the crafts people, the artisans and the shop owners, the restaurant owners, et cetera, et cetera.

Hannah Kirshner: Yeah. Coming back here from New York after spending the spring and summer of 2020 in New York, it was the biggest culture shock. This time was how normal it felt here, although that sort of conceals the fact that people are really struggling economically without tourism, that a lot of the businesses rely on. Now, they’re having to rely on government subsidies to get them through the sake brewery. He expected to have a big year because of the Olympics. And then not only were the Olympics canceled, but restaurants closed during the state of emergency people. Aren’t going out to eat as much. So, yeah, they’re definitely struggling in that sense, but people are very stoic about it, but Yamanaka still has had no known cases of COVID-19. So it took me a while to get used to like, I’m still very careful here, but there are certain things where I feel like, okay, rationally the risk of having dinner at a friend’s house with like two people, probably more like the sort of normal risks that we choose to take. And it’s tricky, but, and I don’t really know why Yamanaka has done so well

Suzy Chase: At the very end of this book, you tell the story of Hato-chan a pigeon that kept you company. Can you talk a little bit about this pigeon?

Hannah Kirshner: Oh my gosh. I’m so glad that you asked this. So Hato-chan the name literally means like pigeon dear or pigeon sweetie. I sort of thought like, you know, in Breakfast At Tiffany’s she has the cat and she calls it cat because they don’t belong to each other. So this is sort of how I felt with the pigeon. I found her injured on the sidewalk here in Yamanaka, and like, we have doves here, but not pigeons and she looked fancy. So she looks kind of like a New York pigeon, but like fancier something’s weird here. And she was hanging around on the sidewalk. Like she was sort of like looking for help. So it’s like, this is an animal that sees people as helpers somehow. And so I picked her up and I brought her back to my apartment thinking like, well, maybe she’ll recover in a few days and want to fly away but I learned that she was actually a racing pigeon that had probably been discarded because she didn’t have the band that she would have if someone was actually keeping her for racing and she just became this lovely companion. Clearly she was a domesticated bird and it wouldn’t have been safe to release her. So she just hung out with me in my apartment and gradually got to trust being where she would come and eat my hand. And she would just kind of do her own thing during the day. I’d let her out of her cage and she would just walk around and she would like, come and check on me. Like, what are you doing? Okay. Now I’m going to go back to my thing. Uh, she was my buddy through those final solitary months of really getting the book done before my deadline. So when I was coming back to New York at the end of 2019, I needed to find some home for Hato-chan. I did look into bringing her back with me and that would have required her going through quarantine. And it would’ve cost like a thousand dollars. At least did not seem like a reasonable thing to do. So when I left Japan, I took her in a box on the Shinkansen, the bullet train. But this man outside of Tokyo who keeps pigeons, he was this Emirati Pakistani man who told me as we were going to take her to his house, that he believes that pigeons are close to the spirits. So if you want to talk to the spirits, you can talk to pigeons, any feeds the pigeons at the station. And he tells me that they come to him in his dreams when he hasn’t fed them in a while and tell them that they’re hungry. He was just so sweet. And so my Hato-chan went to live with this man outside of Tokyo. And she now has her own family there. She found a mate and she had babies and she has her own little family outside Tokyo now.

Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh, you have to write a whole book about her.

Hannah Kirshner: I actually wrote a graphic novel just to like entertain one of my friends. So, but I haven’t, haven’t finished that.

Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called Last Night’s Dinner where I asked you what you had last night for dinner.

Hannah Kirshner: I know that you asked this question and I was worried that I was going to be self-conscious about it and like plan my dinner so that I could tell you about it. And then I completely forgot until after dinner. Last night I had Yuba, which is like, when you make tofu, the sort of skin or skim that rises to the top, there’s like a a firm version. That’s kind of like a noodle. And then there’s a soft version that’s sort of like creamy and goopy. So Moriguchi-san, who is one of the craftsman in the book, he carves these wooden trays called Wagatabon, he brought me some Yuba from Kyoto. They had that and just rice and a very simple miso soup and a umeboshi pickled plum. Technically it’s not a plum. It’s close botanically, closer to an apricot, but that’s okay.

Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh. I have to tell you your easiest, fastest, best fried rice is my favorite. It’s garlic, ginger scallion fried eggs. And that’s it. And you say to use day old rice, because that’s the best who to thought that because you think it would be dry, but it’s not.

Hannah Kirshner: You have to use the day old rice cause otherwise it sticks to the pan and you get so mad. It, the worst thing, if you make fried rice with rice, that’s too fresh. And then you’ve just got that, that goop burning on your pan.

Suzy Chase: That recipe is so good. Thank you. Everyone needs to look that up after they get your book. So where can we find you on the web and social media?

Hannah Kirshner: I’m at SweetsnBitters sweets, the letter N, bitters on Instagram and Twitter.

Suzy Chase: The way live and create is incredibly inspiring to me. It’s reassuring to know that there are still places you can’t find on the internet. Thank you so much, Hannah, for coming on cookery by the book podcast.

Hannah Kirshner: Thank you so much for having me on.

Hannah Kirshner: I just want to add something to acknowledge the horrific violence that happened earlier this week in the context of the rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. I talked about the influence that Japanese and other Asian communities have had on the Pacific Northwest in talking about my book and that influence in the food and architecture and gardens and culture exists in spite of the terrible injustices against those Asian communities. I’ve written about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two and before that there was the Chinese exclusion act and of course, all that time, there was violence against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, vandalism, destruction of their businesses. And I think that history is so clearly still with us. I think we can look to Min Jin Lee or Cathy Park Hong written so eloquently about this Roxane Gay also. So if we’re interested in Japanese food, in Asian food and cultures, I think it’s so important for us to know and understand that history and to keep listening and learning.

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Suzy Chase

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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