Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from JapanAlthough I couldn’t attend this past weekend’s Maker Faire, with its inaugural section dedicated to food, I did have a chance to learn a few new tricks for the kitchen.

It’s not a recent phenomenon for cooks to hack their utensils and ingredients—Homo “Handy Man” habilis figured out that meat on the stick thing, Mongol horsemen multitasked by salting and tenderizing and cooking their meat under their saddles, and my mom catches plump frogs with her pasta colander—but the DIY movement has inspired a whole new generation to explore simple, cheap, ingenious ways to accomplish everyday tasks.

Anyone who stocks up on vinegar and baking soda already knows many of the old ways. On the glossier and quirkier end of the spectrum is Ito-ke no Shokutaku (The Ito Family Dinner Table). A wildly popular series, one of those only-in-Japan variety shows in which celebrities demonstrate useful tips contributed by its viewers, it once held the regular attention of nearly 30 percent of households in Japan. Websites, social clubs, and obsessions ensued. These tips are known collectively as urawaza, which deftly applies the word for “unmapped shortcut” to a secret trick.

Local writer Lisa Katayama bundled some of her favorite urawaza into a book, Urazawa: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan. My copy (kindly sent to me by Chronicle Books just in time for this posting) has a few pages marked for testing later: drink green tea after a garlicky meal to prevent a stinky mouth, scrubbing with eggshells to remove scorch marks on pots, tucking chile peppers in your socks to keep your toes warm. Others leave me scratching my head, like the suggestion to add olive oil to a glass of beer to reduce its foam; a spoon seems a much more respectful and easy way to remove unwanted head from a well-crafted brew. Still, Urazawa was a quick and fun read as well as a wonderful reminder to think creatively about life’s little challenges.

The interwebs, of course, has many pages dedicated to everyday life-hacking. Googling “food hack” taught me how to peel mangoes quickly and cleanly and how to start a fire with a Coke can and chocolate bar. Here in San Francisco, Mark Powell, a self-described hacker chef of the “anarchist food aesthetic,” has set up his kitchen lab at the Unicorn Precinct XIII in Bernal Heights. Chefs, of course, are famous for their trucs of the trade, though these days, nitrogen tanks and pressure probes seem to be more the thing than paper clips and flame-throwers.

I’ll leave you with a few of my own kitchen tricks, absorbed from my visits with aunties from Missouri to Malaysia.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor