Jan 3

The Rice Cooker Chronicles is a series of essays by JETs and JET alumni on the theme of cooking/eating and being alone in Japan. The brain-child of JETwit founder  Steven Horowitz (Aichi-ken, Kariya-shi, 1992-94) (and inspired by the book Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant), this series is curated by L.M. Zoller (CIR Ishikawa-ken, Anamizu, 2009-11), the editor of The Ishikawa JET Kitchen: Cooking in Japan Without a Fight. A writer and web administrator for The Art of Japan: Kanazawa and Discover Kanazawa, ze also writes I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about food culture in Japan.

New submissions always welcome. Just e-mail it to jetwit [at] jetwit.com.


Broccoli Lover Learns to BBQ

Part 1

by Clara Solomon (CIR, Nichinan-cho, Tottori-ken; 1999-2001), the Director of Counseling & Career Development at the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law. She previously worked for the Japan External Trade Organization, specializing in trade relations between Japan and Latin America.  She lives in Queens with her husband and twin daughters.

Many of my experiences in Japan are tied up in the experience of food and cooking. Sure, I have my fill of the standard repertoire of “how many weird things will the American try?” My favorite of those is the night I was out at a new inn in my town, one that specialized in fresh, local food, with a “high end rustic” slant. So, I’m out with some co-workers enjoying a truly delicious meal, when they put a plate of glistening, dark red sashimi before me and say “to-rai, to-rai” (try, try). I wasn’t quite sure what this fish was, it was darker red than any tuna I’d ever seen, so dark it was almost purple, or black. There were thick veins of white fatty meat running through each piece – it almost looked like raw beef, though I could tell from the smell and texture that it was fish. “What is this?” I innocently asked, knowing full well that they wouldn’t tell me until I ate it. This game was a favorite of my colleagues, and they again said “to-rai.” So, I tried it. The minute I popped the full piece in my mouth, the entire table burst out with giggles and choruses of “Greeenpeesu! Greenpeesu!” Yes, Greenpeace. Turns out, I was eating endangered whale, the fishing and eating of which Japan has long been at odds with environmental groups like Greenpeace over (not to mention UN conventions, and the opinion of much of the rest of the world, minus Norway and the Inuit). How was it, you ask? Honestly, not that memorable. For one, it was extremely cold, indicating that it had probably been frozen and shipped to my town from somewhere further south (so much for eating local). For two, I think I would have rather had a piece of fatty tuna, whose rich, buttery flavor far outshone this piece of whale.

I could go on for pages regaling you with stories about the strange things I was given to eat, and the strange situations in which I found myself eating them (wild boar on live TV, anyone?). But, when I think back to the essence of my eating, drinking and cooking in Japan, those are only the warm up acts, the comedy routines that politicians put into the beginning of their stump speeches to play to the base and entice the crowds to stick around for the meat and potatoes (not that I had a lot of meat and potatoes in Japan…). My story of food in Japan is one of cooking and sharing, and gaining not only friends, but also self confidence in the process. You see, I lived in a small town of about 6,000 people nestled in the mountains of Western Honshu. While the town had a sprinkling of ramen shops, bars, and the above-mentioned high-end inn, my choices for eating out were, in actuality, pretty limited.


Fortunately, I had always enjoyed cooking, and had the foresight to ship myself a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, so I was prepared to cook, well, everything. Or, so I thought. But this was, after all, my first time actually living alone and really fending for myself. And boy was I living alone, my JET home institution had graciously arranged for me a 3-bedroom, two-story house, equipped with a fully planted garden and a view of a rice paddy out of my bedroom window. A native of the NYC metro-area, I had never seen a potato plant until someone came in from wandering around my garden at one of my infamous yaki-niku barbecue parties holding a fistful of potatoes that he had apparently pulled up right outside my back door – who knew? We washed and boiled them and had a lovely potato salad with our bbq.


But, I’m getting ahead of myself. In the first day that I arrived in my little town in Japan, I hadn’t quite envisioned yakiniku parties on my veranda. Really, I hadn’t even registered that I had a veranda big enough for a barbecue grill. My supervisor and the local junior high English teacher, Naomi-sensei, met me at the airport, dropped my bags off at my new house, and took me right to the grocery store to buy some food. I was still reeling from the hour-long drive home from the airport, where we went deeper and deeper into the mountains, and further and further from the things I generally took for granted, like street lights.


As we drove into the little valley, and I saw my town nestled along the banks of the Hino River for the first time, I’d love to be able to say that I was instantly smitten, charmed by the small-town feel, the sun glinting off the river, the old ladies chatting in the streets, and the children catching dragonflies in the breeze. In fact, however, I was struggling to hold down a mounting wave of panic. I mean, I was born in Brooklyn for goodness sake. Sure, I’d spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in Maine, and had gone on some camping trips in the back-woods of Minnesota, but those were vacations, not long-term living arrangements.


So I was blinking back tears as I stepped into the grocery store with Naomi-sensei. At least the town had a grocery store, I thought to myself. Naomi-sensei was standing by my side as I perused the aisles of the Paseo for the fist time that day. I’d never had someone watch me shop for groceries before, and I was instantly conscious that I should be buying things that made me look like the responsible adult I was trying to pass myself off to be. Right. Well, responsible people eat vegetables, so I picked up some broccoli. At a loss for where to go from there, I pushed my mini-cart aimlessly around the store, and Naomi-sensei gently guided me towards the rice display. Right, in Japan, we eat rice – good thing I didn’t go for the bread aisle, or I would have never heard the end of it when the junior high English class got to the “Which do you like, rice or bread?” section of the textbook.


I don’t remember much of the rest of that shopping trip, but when I went to try to make myself dinner that night, I discovered that I had bought only four things: milk, eggs, rice, and broccoli. Broccoli omelets were my sole sustenance until I worked up the nerve to go back to Paseo for some reinforcements. By that time, however, I had already earned a reputation as Ms. Broccoli. Even two years later, after I had hosted countless dinner parties, and even taught some cooking classes at the local community center, people would stop my in the street or the store, and say “Ah, Kurara-san, I heard you like broccoli!” (Better than “I heard you like Doritos” or “I heard you like Colt 45,” I suppose, but still a strange thing to be confronted with on a regular basis.)

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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