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My Japanese food story

November 5, 2010

I’ll tell you the truth: for many years I thought I hated Japanese food.

When I first came to Japan I was a student and spent most of my time reviewing vocabulary flashcards and trying to memorize all of the daily use kanji. I was also more interested in certain aspects of Japan than others – I managed to go to a lot of rock concerts but I wasn’t particularly interested in cooking or eating Japanese food, especially since every time I ordered something in a restaurant it smelled and tasted like fish. Although I had expected Japanese food to be light and comprised of lots of vegetables, my experiences at the restaurants near my schools soon convinced me that Japanese food was greasy, salty, and unfriendly to anyone who didn’t eat animal products.

Obviously not meant for vegetarians…

Yet there were a few occasions during those early years when I actually enjoyed eating Japanese food. I gave weekly private English lessons to the family of a friend for a while, and part of my payment consisted of a home-cooked meal (which was always vegetarian in consideration of my diet). I found that I really liked these comparatively humble offerings of simmered vegetables, miso soup, curry rice, and rolled omelets – the sort of stuff that every Japanese mother knows how to cook and which appears regularly on every table throughout the country.

Things were somewhat different when I arrived in Japan for the third time at the age of twenty-four. I had started eating small amounts of fish and meat and was heartily sick of surviving on pasta and not knowing how to use seventy-five percent of the items that I saw at the grocery store. I decided to begin tentatively exploring the world of Japanese cuisine to take advantage of the ingredients around me and to see if could at least get comfortable with the basics. By this I meant the kind of simple dishes that my friend’s mother had made, not the complicated dishes served at fancy restaurants or the breaded and fried entrees that serve as lunch for legions of students and salarymen.

I began with absolutely no knowledge, but each discovery opened up a whole new dimension of this surprisingly varied and accessible cuisine. Working mainly from cookbooks and online resources I learned how to make dashi, how to select and use miso, how to choose fresh fish and seafood, how to cut vegetables according to whether they will be stir-fried or simmered, and above all how much fun it is to attempt to create a meal that is a harmonious combination of flavors and preparation styles. Although I had always enjoyed cooking this was when I began to do it in a more holistic way – to think of meal preparation not just as a series of unrelated recipes but as part of an interconnected whole that was influenced by which ingredients are in season and what sort of food the body craves throughout the year. Once I began thinking of my dinner in this way, even a simple bowl of miso soup was an expression of the philosophies of washoku (traditional Japanese food): an opportunity to savor fresh snow peas in the spring, myōga and okra in the summer, satsuma-imo (sweet potatoes) in the fall, and root vegetables like carrots and daikon radish in the winter.

Stuff like this used to really freak me out, which meant that I never had much fun staying at ryokan

I feel that Japanese food is colorful, nutritious, always inspiring, and the logical choice for me considering that I live in a country where many of the ingredients I grew up eating are pretty hard to get a hold of. But if I lived somewhere else I think that I would continue cooking according to the basic principles of Japanese cuisine even if I had a different range of vegetables to choose from. I don’t follow any rigid rules, though. I just cook what I want to eat and most days that involves a simple Japanese-style meal of rice, miso soup, pickles, simmered vegetables, and maybe a piece of fish or tofu. (But I almost never eat Japanese food for breakfast and when my husband and I cook together on weekends we’ve been known to make pizza, tacos, Chinese food, or macaroni and cheese.) I also think it’s entirely possible to cook Japanese dishes and serve them as part of a more Western-style meal if you don’t like eating rice and miso soup all that often.

In conclusion, I went from dreading any encounters with Japanese food to happily eating fermented soybeans and fish with the head still on. And if I managed to do so then I think anybody can probably find something about Japanese food that they like.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 12:45 pm

    It is really amazing to look back on how much you’ve learned since that hanami bento class we took together a couple years back.

    I think our experiences with Japanese food are similar, yet very different. While you have gone through a gradually progression, I think that I have stayed somewhat steady over time.

    I faced many of the same issues you did initially, but since I am far less strict than you were I never had a such a visceral reaction to it. From early on I was very interested in incorporating Japanese flavors and ideas into my cooking, but didn’t have the space and essentials required to really explore it.

    These days you are much more relaxed around meat and seafood, and thus more able to fully appreciate everything that Japan has to offer food-wise, while I have continued to appreciate, but not delve too deeply into it.

    I would like incorporate more traditional aspects of Japanese cooking into my daily life, but for now my cooking style seems to be pretty random with various ethnic leanings depending on what I have on hand that day, and the occasional straight up Mexican, Japanese, or Belizean meal. 😀

    • November 8, 2010 9:10 am

      Yeah, I think that bento class was actually something of a turning point for me…I’m not sure why exactly, but it was really inspirational for me to see a fellow American who is so knowledgeable about Japanese food. Plus it was the first time I had actually seen anyone other than myself make dashi in real life. 🙂

      I guess one lesson that can be taken from this is that it’s a bad idea to have a diet that is too strict because it can really cut you off from some experiences that might be positive. I decided I hated fish before I even tried it, and this made my daily life very difficult in ways that could have been solved by just being slightly flexible. Live and learn I guess!

      And yay for the Belizean meals!

      • November 8, 2010 12:55 pm

        It was totally a turning point for you. We both went in there with about the same knowledge of Japanese cooking, but you came out of it and kept learning. I’m sure part of it was the sweet gig you ended up getting because of that class.. but I think it just happened to get you at the right time under the right circumstances. 😀

        I think that there are very few areas in life in which absolutes are a good idea. Aiming to ‘be good’ 80% of the time seems just about right to me. It’s high enough to make a difference in your life, but low enough to keep you from missing potential positive experiences and not have to stress too much!

  2. November 8, 2010 10:52 am

    Ewwww, natto. :P”

    Aside from that (which I flat out won’t eat), uni & ikura (which my favorite sushi place sadly gives me a choice between in its tenchou omakase (chef’s recommendation) set, so I have to pick/suffer through at least one), there’s not much I won’t eat. Although I tend not to order fish much, unless it’s the only thing available (i.e. one of those ‘catch your own fish from a pool & we’ll slice it open & roast it right there’ kinda places), or comes as a ryokan meal.

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