Jan 16

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 2

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.

Read Part 1 here.

Living in a small farming community has a lot of advantages, I soon learned. For example, I was at the town festival in August shortly after arriving, and casually mentioned to one of my farmer neighbors that I liked sweet corn. I woke up the next day to find about 15 ears of freshly-picked sweet corn on my doorstep. Even when I didn’t particularly like something, I would often find that a kind neighbor, perhaps worried about my over-consumption of broccoli, had left bushels of it at my front door. I guess they’d heard that Americans eat a lot, because they would leave bags stuffed with enough eggplant, cabbage, and carrots to feed a small army. (Why, I often wondered, had I not moved to rural Tuscany, where I could have gotten donations of sun-ripened tomatoes, basil, and fresh bufala mozzarella?).

So, to the cookbooks I turned. I can confidently say that Mark Bittman is a god – did you know that his book lists not one, not two, but nineteen different recipes for eggplant! Before moving to Nichinan-cho, I’d hated eggplant, but with the bounty at my doorstep, I learned to love it – curried, roasted, fried, parmesan-ed. I tried it all until I found my favorite recipes. Another benefit to living in a small town is that there isn’t much else to do, so I had ample time to experiment in my kitchen. Even the TV options were limited, as I really only got about 4 channels reliably, two of which were NHK. (And, yes, I’ll admit it now, there were some home-sick moments in mid-winter, when I rushed home after work to catch the NHK broadcast of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” just to watch something in English).

I cooked. And cooked and cooked and cooked. I became more ambitious, venturing into beef bourguignon (or as close to it as one could get in rural Japan) and triple-layer chocolate cake (also a challenge when your oven is the size of a microwave). Of course, even with an amazing recipe for eggplant Parmesan (with home-made tomato sauce, naturally), one small gaijin girl cannot possibly consume 15 eggplants, 3 cabbages, and a pound of carrots alone, especially not if she hopes to stay “small.” (Small being, in the land of 4’10” women, a relative term.) What to do?

I began inviting people over. I didn’t really know anyone, but there weren’t really that many people under the age of 40 to choose from, so I went ahead and invited all of them. Thus the beginning of the yaki-niku parties.

Well, it wasn’t actually the beginning of my infamous barbecues. Not quite yet. You see, although I was fluent in Japanese, I hadn’t yet gained the trust of my co-workers. Most of whom were skeptical about house parties with the broccoli-loving American. At first, only one person accepted my invitations, and I knew enough about life in small town Japan to know that it would be a very bad idea if “he” and I had dinner together alone in my house. The gossip would be never ending. So I kept trying to invite people over with different menu items. One night was beef stew, the next night was tacos, another night was cake and cookies. Not one broccoli dish on offer, and still very few takers.

In the end, my co-workers were swayed by the promise of beef. My veranda truly was a sight to behold. Big enough for a large grill, cooler for drinks, and at least ten chairs, it was a barbecue lover’s dream come true. My coworkers (all of whom knew where I lived, naturally) must have been waiting for me to figure this out, because they jumped at the invitation when I invited them over for yaki niku. Or maybe it was because I was finally inviting them for Japanese-style food, rather than all of that weird American stuff I kept offering. Either way, they showed up for that first party and had a blast, eating, drinking, and telling jokes until well into the night. It was such a joy to have people over, eating food I had prepared, and enjoying themselves, that I resolved then and there to have more yaki niku parties at my house. Like, every week if I could.

Eventually, I gained a reputation as a good hostess, and more people accepted my dinner invitations. I became proficient in Japanese drinking games, and they became fluent in singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” My Japanese neighbors and co-workers grew comfortable with me, even bringing dishes to share, sometimes experimenting with new recipes of their own. I got them to try non-Japanese dishes, while they introduced me to new Japanese ingredients and recipes. We became friends over food, and some of my colleagues became close enough that they would occasionally just show up unannounced at my door on a Friday night with all the fixin’s for a yaki-niku beef bonanza on my veranda (mini-keg included!).

Through our shared meals, we developed a close bond, discussing frustrations and upsets, hopes and dreams. This was the life I had envisioned for myself when I picked up that bunch of broccoli in Paseo on my first day in town. Little did I know that I would need to give up the healthy, responsible food and branch into the art of Japanese barbecue to get me there. While I was busy putting on the façade of a confident, independent, broccoli-eating adult, I learned that all it took was to open myself up to new foods, new ideas, and lots of friends to become who I really wanted to be.

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