Friday, August 19, 2011

Learning to Cook

Almost every day for my first six months in Japan, the junior high office manager Mr. Nishimura asked me what I'd eaten for dinner the night before. He was convinced that my eating habits centered around peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pizza and he was giddy every time I admitted I'd eaten one of these things for dinner. In my defense, these were the days when you couldn't buy American peanut butter anywhere on the island of Kyushu so you had to buy it in bulk from the foreign food buyer's club. I made a shared order of peanut butter and spaghetti sauce my first month in Japan, and it lasted the entire three years I was there and beyond. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there are still some of those jars of peanut butter floating around Kyushu even now, more than fifteen years later. I had 20 jars of peanut butter. Oh, and did I mention there was only one "grocery store" (I use the term lightly) which was smaller than a 7/11 and carried a wide array of expired foodstuffs? So the combination of decreased shopping opportunity and increased peanut butter supply meant I did eat a lot of pb&j sandwiches those first few months in Japan.

It didn't take long for me to tire of the (very) few things I could make with familiar food available at the local grocery store. I had to branch out, like it or not.

The only reason I survived my first year in rural Japan was thanks to the generosity of my neighbors, the Ishida's. They were Japanese, but due to the fact they had only moved to the town a few months before me, they were outsiders there, too. Mr. Ishida work for the national government helping monitor the environmental impact of large construction projects, and he'd been given a three-year assignment in the dam division of our city hall. Mrs. Ishida was a stay-at-home mom. She couldn't drive so she did all of her shopping and errands on foot with the baby strapped to her back, which meant she could often be seen trekking up and down the mountain carrying massive loads of food. Eventually, she learned to drive. In Japan getting a driver's license is not only astronomically expensive, the discipline from the driver's ed teacher was also fear-inducing. Apparently, it was enough to make a grown woman cry, which she did on numerous occasions.

Anyway, Mrs. Ishida decided I needed cooking lessons. So, once a week, I would go to her house to learn how to make a dish of my choice. She taught me how to make miso soup, champon, curry, okonomiyaki, chawan mushi, sushi, omu raisu, and several other things. The catch was that she didn't speak any English and my Japanese wasn't all that great. Further, many of the ingredients were foreign to me and all of the measurements were in metrics. Thus each cooking lesson became a dizzying array of new information hitting me at once and by the end of each session, I had no better idea of how to cook than before I started. I did, however, get to eat a lot of really great food.

Eventually I learned to cook. In fact, I became better at making Japanese food than I am at making American food. Too bad I can't buy any of the ingredients I need for Japanese cuisine here in rural mid-America!

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