Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Japanese cuisine

Brenda Lou asked me recently if I grew up eating Japanese food or if I just learned to eat anything while I've lived here. Hmmm. No. I didn't grow up eating Japanese cuisine though I probably had more opportunities to try it than most people.

My mother did not cook Japanese food (she didn't cook much at all!). And my grandparents lived in the Midwest where there weren't any Asian grocery stores especially in those days. (Though my grandfather pioneered the use of soy sauce in the States.) But in my childhood we lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles and every couple of months we would make a jaunt to Little Tokyo just to look around the little shops and eat a tempura dinner. I remember thinking that miso soup was such a delicacy!

Our family was good friends with another Japanese/American family and though they didn't eat much Japanese food either, they had a Japanese grandfather who lived with them. When my grandfather would visit California the two families would get together and for Thanksgiving and the two grandfathers would speak to each other in Japanese. We'd have the traditional turkey dinner with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie... and sushi rolls with eel! I guess you could consider that pretty strange. I was rather proud of myself for being able to eat eel and would brag to my high school friends.

My father loved traveling and in my childhood we traveled to many countries all over the world in the summers so I learned that one was supposed to try almost anything. Japan probably had the strangest combinations but I remember Thai food as being so spicy we could hardly eat at all. Sour cream herrings in Norway, Mole (mo-lay) in Mexico, escargot in France. My father insisted we eat them all.

When I came to Japan I was offered soup that had fish eyes floating around in it (I screamed and the hostess "fished" the eyes out for me.) and odd smelling things with unusual textures. For example mushy potatoes called sato imo which are actually taro root that Hawaiians eat. Also natto which are fermented soybeans that smell to high heaven and are slimy and sticky and are the dickens to wash out of whatever bowl you've eaten from. Slimy seems to be very popular in Japan. Slimy seaweed, slimy greens, slimy fish. But all very good actually. Smelly is another one maybe because of the many types of fermented food.

Just the other night I cooked up smelt and I remembered first being served smelt. The family I was visiting just placed a plate of little fish in front of me that were bulging with fish eggs. Gulp. How do you eat these things? The little girl in the family who sat across from me just popped one in her mouth, head first and chattered to me with the fish tail wobbling as she talked. I remember so clearly thinking,

"If this child can do this then I can too." and I bit off the fish head and ate the dinner like a pro.

And that's how I ate this little fishy too!


Quilt Pixie said...

Not sure I'd enjoy many of the japanese dishes, but there is something to your childhood upbrining that I understand -- whether I enjoyed the food or not, I'd eat what was served with pleasure.

Yuki said...

I'm from Japan but grew up in the US. We ate mostly American food but my Mom cooked rice every single day with whatever we had. I looked forward to Christmas and Thanksgiving. Those days we had mashed potatoes! Yum

ttfn :) Yuki Nakamoto

Mrs. Goodneedle said...

I'm sure this is an acquired taste and skill! I have trouble with boiled okra because of the texture, I don't do slimy very well.

Diana said...

I love smelt, too, although we removed their heads before we cooked them. I'm not sure that having my food looking back at me when I'm eating it would be too appetizing. I haven't seen smelt in the stores for years. I wonder what happened to it?

Elaine Adair said...

???? -= I read the whole post but my face/mouth are all contorted ... having a little problem with slimy, and fish eyes and heads.... gotta admire other cultures and food habits, but don't gotta DO it. 8-(((

Rae Ann said...

No, No couldn't do it. Well maybe if it was the only thing left in the world to eat. Odd, being half Japanese and half Native American, one would think Fish isn't an issue. Wrong, still can't eat fish, but with eyes looking back at me, forget it. I'll starve.
Rae Ann

The Calico Quilter said...

A long visit to Japan just might be the diet plan I need! I seriously don't think I could do it. I know that's a wimpy thing for a 50-something person to say. I tried cooking whole fish but the eyes staring at me were too much to take. And I don't do slimy. It's nice to hear of brave adventurous people who take chances with their food choices. The most adventurous thing I like is the mole sauce. I tried Thai, and it's too spicy for me. I couldn't find a single Thai dish that didn't start me wheezing. Spicy salsa will make me do this, too. It's like an asthma attack. So I don't do spicy either.

BrendaLou said...

Thank you for answering my question! I grew up in Inglewood/Hawthorne area of LA until 1965 when we moved east to Redlands (my birthplace). We, too, frequented Little Tokyo. It was a treat for us. And Chinatown too. In all my years in So. CA I don't think I ever went to the farmers market or Olivera St. Not till I was in my 30's and lived in Northern CA. We have a good Japanese Restaurant in town and though my hubby isn't fond of it, I eat there often with friends. Thanks Tanya for the information.

Katie said...

Oh my! I can't do slimy. I have trouble eating Jello even. :-)