In October I was lucky to be able to travel back to Japan for work. I lived there for 3 years many, many years ago. The experience affected me in many ways, but it had significant impact on my cooking and eating.
For one, although I’d always like to cook, I was really cooking in Japan. I was responsible for all of my own meals and many of my favorite convenience foods were not available. I asked my parents to send me a basic cookbook and I used it to teach myself how to make some basics that I would crave now and then. I had a rare, small oven in a country where at that time it was not at all common. My most basic “banana bread” became sophisticated “banana cake” for my friends who had to mostly buy their desserts at pastry shops.
Secondly, one of the families I got to know well invited me to start meeting monthly to exchange cooking ideas and techniques. I had to up my game to be able to teach someone else how to make “American” food and I learned a lot about Japanese cooking. Another family often invited me to eat with them so I got to experience new dishes and then the father of the family helped me learn how to make fresh udon noodles. I got a lot of street cred, once back in the U.S., showing international students how to make fresh udon…
My neighbor also cooked a lot so I got to observe her ideas. She was also game to try new things, so in knowing me, she became a fan of unusual vegetables like zucchini and sweet peppers and she mastered several yummy pasta dishes I still make now and again out of nostalgia. At her table, I developed deep friendships that feel like family and ate some of the most incredible food.
Japan also cured me of the need to always have everything super hot at the table. Many times dishes are served after they’ve cooled for a while or even at room temperature. Sure, there’s hot food in Japan, but after a while, I realized nobody is super obsessed about it. Things can be prepared in advance. And sit around a bit. And still be delicious and awesome.
I also ate real rice. We were not rice eaters since my dad doesn’t like it and the closest I came to it was instant rice. I was exposed to lovely rice in my daily school lunches and in restaurants and with my friends. I began to experiment with my rice cooker and now I can make very good sticky rice. I pushed the envelope for myself and my friends by experimenting with “orange rice” (mostly butter and orange juice) in my rice cooker, but we all agreed the plain stuff was the best. I didn’t need the soy sauce drizzle that I might have wanted back at home. I love it plain. I craved it. Still do.
I also got over eating vegetables slathered in butter, cheese, or dressing. Japan gave me plain, clean vegetable flavors. Not always, but often. I learned to appreciate different flavor profiles where citrus or soy might feature more prominently than oil or other fat. I stopped needing butter in order to eat corn on the cob. I hardly put cheese on anything — partly because it wasn’t so available where I lived and partly because I didn’t seem to need it any longer to enjoy broccoli or cauliflower. Things just got simpler.
I am sure my ever evolving veggie obsession and appreciation for local things was spurred a little by my experiences as an eater and as a home cook in Japan. In this way, it was fun to go back and experience some great and not-so-great food again in Japan. I wasn’t able to eat all of the foods I craved, but we ate well. I realized again that every culture has its “fast food” that isn’t exactly home cooking but that even when eating fast, you can still eat pretty well in Japan.
Best, however, was a dish I loved from my “long ago life” that my friend Atsuko made for me this time: nabe. It’s such an easy concept. You put whatever meat and vegetables you want into a pot and boil them until they are cooked. You then put the whole pot in the center of the table. People then ladle out small amounts into small personal bowls. Some eat it “as is” and some use dipping sauces to add just a little flavor to the mixture. I like ponzu which is a sauce made with soy, probably a bit of fish broth, and a citrus called yuzu which is a very unusual citrus (maybe a mix of lemon, lime, and orange but the smell and taste is super unique). It adds just a little bit of flavor the lovely combination of things like chicken, cabbage, and the most delicious tofu! Our U.S. tofu cannot compare!!
It wouldn’t be totally accurate to say we ate our way through Japan. That said, boy did we eat!