Photography by Ye Rin Mok
Naoko Takei Moore is a chef, cookbook author, and owner of Toiro, a haven for Japanese earthenware, kitchen tools, tableware, and pantry items in Los Angeles. To us, she is Mrs. Donabe — a champion of home-style cooking with donabe (traditional Japanese earthenware pots) whose food and travel blog we hungrily checked for new entries before the days of Instagram.
Naoko’s enthusiasm for donabe is contagious, and her passion for traditional donabe style cooking underscores how much she values the craft of a time-honored way of preparing a family meal.
We visited Naoko in the bright, open Toiro storefront on a Tuesday afternoon. After perusing the diverse selection of ceramics and imagining our next donabe already on our stovetop, we discussed how things grow better with age and carrying on tradition through modern and practical forms.
We follow your food and travel blog, Happy Donabe Life, and have enjoyed living vicariously through your meals. Do you have a favorite meal from recent memory?
I spent a night with the Nagatani family (the 8th generation producer of donabe and pottery products) at their home in Iga, Japan recently. They are like my second family, and they always treat me with a feast of all the beautiful homemade dishes using local ingredients. One of the dishes they made last time was wild boar hot pot. The wild boar was caught by a hunter (family friend) from the local mountain. It was super delicious.
Many of the ceramic wares in your store come from artisans with a long tradition and history. Do you find that the craft evolves as it passes down from generation to generation?
Yes, definitely. I learned from these artists that keeping tradition is not about just doing the same thing over and over for ages. It's about keeping the philosophy and techniques, and they must evolve at the same time, so the craft can adapt into the modern lifestyle. They need to be used to serve their purposes.
We imagine seeing a well-loved and often-used donabe inspires a similar warm and affirming feeling to seeing a well-loved handbag. Do you have an “oldest” donabe that you still use? How long have you used it?
My first Kamado-san (donabe rice cooker) is about 15 years old. I use it basically every single day, and often twice a day. It's got so much character now (with darker bottom and some chipped parts), and I love it more and more every day.
So much in Japanese cooking is about developing flavor through fermentation, a process that takes time and careful attention. We notice you are fermenting ume and kumquat shu right now, can you tell us a bit about the process?
These are extremely simple to make, and you just need the high quality ingredients and patience. You basically combine the ume (or kumquat) with rock sugar and shochu (Japanese spirit) and age for at least 6 months, but 1 year is better. My grandma and mom made ume-shu every year. Ume-shu is known for its remarkable health benefits. My grandma sipped ume-shu every night as an aperitif and she live healthy until a day before her 100 years old birthday. Also, one day, we found a forgotten batch of ume-shu from my parents' storage several years ago. The ume-shu was over 20 years old, and the color was so dark. We tried it and it was so rich and delicious! So, now we know that homemade ume-shu can age for a very long time.
In which season are you most excited about cooking and why?
I've thrown myself the same question before, and I concluded I love every season equally for different reasons. Winter is obviously a great season for hot pot, which is one of my favorite dishes of all time. And, winter fish are so rich and oily. Then, spring is all about feeling the new lives and beautiful green vegetables shoot up everywhere. I also love bamboo shoot and firefly squid, and anything sakura (cherry blossom) flavored food in the season. In the summertime, I love vibrant summer vegetables and also cold noodles. Autumn has great season for everything earthy (mushrooms, chestnuts, etc.).
What do you carry in your bag?
I am a minimalist, so I carry only basic stuff like wallet, tissue, wet tissue, pen, phone, and honey candy for throat (because often I talk a lot at work, too).
What’s your favorite thing about being your age right now?
I'm very independent. I make all my decisions and plans myself.