Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Food Post: Answers to the Age-old Question: "So What Do You Cook?"

To start things off, I'm not very much of a "foodie." I mean, I love eating yummy things as much as the next person, but aside from when I'm hungry, it's not on my mind, and when I am hungry, almost anything tastes good, right?

I don't have allergies and I'm not very picky. As a kid, it was drilled into me to  "eat at least three bites" of whatever we were served and to never, ever say "yuck!" or show on our faces what we thought. When I first came to Japan, I didn't really give much thought to the food I'd be eating. I already liked sushi, fish, and rice and could use chopsticks--thanks to living in the PNW--and I resolved to NOT be one of those people who goes abroad only to complain about how the food is not right or proper. It's like, what did you expect? If you can't go without your comfort foods for a period of time without making a fuss, you should probably just stay home.

I do miss things like bacon, bread that isn't white but is still sold cheaply in large loaves, dairy products and fruit that don't cost an arm and a leg, seasonal things like eggnog and peppermint icecream--funny how sometimes I get cravings for random things I maybe eat only once a year anyway when I live in this U.S.

However, cooking is another issue. It was maybe 2 months out from our wedding in 2014 that I realized "I'm going to have to cook and I don't know how to cook." There is definitely more social expectation for the wife to do most of the food work in a household, and I resent that my being female equates to having a duty to cook--I hate cooking and I hate supermarkets and I hate doing dishes--but since my being female and foreign in Japan also means I can get off work much earlier than Yuya can, I also have the most time to go shopping for food and prep it.

So yes I do all the supermarket and kitchen stuff in our family. It's not easy to cook every day though when

1. the staple ingredients I was used to are imported in very small quantities and are expensive, or simply unavailable
2. with no car, I'm limited to buying only what I can carry home by myself per shopping trip (it's about a 10-minute walk to the nearest supermarket, so it's not a bad distance)
3. the only oven I have is a tiny microwave oven and we have no space like a "pantry"
4. after work the last thing I want to do is buy/make food

But one gets used to it, and in our few years here I've developed a system for feeding ourselves. Things are sold in small quantities (i.e. the largest container of milk you will find is a quart-sized carton) and it's considered normal for wives to make a trip to the supermarket every day. Whole lotta nope. So I strap on a roomy backpack and try to buy at least 3 days' worth of food at a time. I like to think it has some health benefits! It's physically exerting to go grocery shopping, it keeps me from buying things not on my list, and it effectively means at any given time, there is no food in our house except ingredients that are all going to be made into the next 2-3 days' dinners and breakfasts (ideally lunch is leftovers). This means no junk food, no snacking, and less food waste I think. At least, our refrigerator is always quite bare when I have to go shopping again. Yuya likes snacking and often asks "isn't there anything?" "uhh there's leftover rice and kimchi" so he often buys his own chips and things to snack on. I do keep a bit of flour and sugar on hand and once in a while I'll make pancakes, or banana bread, or cookies for fun. Baking or dessert-making is always on a whim and commences at around 10pm though.

Anyway, now that I have assumed the status of "wife" people are curious and ask me what I cook, and ask Yuya what his foreign wife cooks (poor bloke I bet he doesn't get any proper miso soup because he married a foreigner), is it Japanese food or Western food?

Well, I do use a lot more ingredients and things I never imagined using or eating when I was growing up in the U.S. Those things include

-white rice almost daily (some people think poor Yuya, because they are particular about having rice three meals a day, every day).
-dashi soup stock, made from little freeze-dried fish I boil myself
-the Holy Trinity of Japanese cooking: soy sauce, mirin (a sugary rice wine), and sake
-tofu
-rayu chili oil
-kimchi
-random Japanese veggies like daikon radish, burdock root, goya bitter gourds, mushrooms of all shapes and sizes

But here is what a typical Japanese-style meal looks like:


This is actually considered a "Western-style" meal because the meat portion is tonkatsu, a fried pork-chop. A grilled fish or noodle dish would have slightly different side dishes to match, and don't forget the scripture, "to everything there is a sauce, and a tare for every purpose under heaven" --there will also usually be a specific dipping sauce or gravy depending on what the protein is.

And here is what my meals look like:


As these photos illustrate, I do NOT cook with these ingredients the Japanese way very often. A proper Japanese meal uses many little dishes of this and that, called okazu, to partner with the plain white rice which is the main staple. I can't really be bothered. For one thing, there's a whole lot of veggies to chop up small and I do not like tediously cutting up veggies. Most of the little dishes are also cooked separately from each other with different methods so it takes a lot of time and planning.

The Japanese way looks cute, it has the potential to be well-balanced nutritionally, and it's fun to eat. I had to laugh though at one of my Instagram followers who finally made it to her beloved Japan and was so excited to eat all the amazing Japanese food, until after a few days her comment was "it's not what I expected, it's always served room-temperature and it all tastes slightly of vinegar." Cracked me up, because I never thought of it that way before but it is true, especially if you're traveling and only eating supermarket bentos and fast-food-type chain restaurant teishoku (set menu?) places like Yayoiken or Sukiya.

That's another funny thing about Japanese cooking. It's the idea connected with bento boxed lunches that it's ok to leave food out at room temperature for a length of time and then eat it without reheating. It generally seems to work for people here but once in a while you do hear about a school-wide food poisoning epidemic caused by ickies in field-trip bentos. At college I was working part-time in the kitchen, so I got (a bit) strict about food safety. Things are defrosted fast and it gets frozen or refrigerated within minutes after cooling down from cooking, and is reheated to piping hot again before eating, and any bentos I make or buy I reheat thoroughly before eating. So far, neither of us have had any food-poisoning incidents in our years here...but for the grace of God!

***Story time***

My company has field trips "picnics" with the kids 6 times a year. Last summer we had a "barbecue picnic." The selling point was all-you-can-eat beef and sausages for the kids and staff. Whoopee! We staffers could at least chow down on as much barbecue beef as we liked, and get paid for it! But when we got off the bus and headed to the barbecue area, I was dismayed. Our staff that had arrived early to start prep was cutting up the meat with their bare hands. They were tossing it into big bowls that were sitting out uncovered in the sun. By time we got the kids settled and the fires started and their meat on the shishkabob sticks to start roasting, the raw meat had been out in the sun for 20 minutes. I resolved not to eat a single bite of it. Afterwards, a bowl or so of meat was left over. Our big boss walked by and glanced in it. A Japanese staff nearby dithered, "Oh don't worry we'll make sure there's no leftovers, right Leah?? Let's eat it all, yay!!" By now it had sat out in the hot sun for close to an hour. Nope. I'll help my coworkers do a lot of things but this was not one of them. Sure enough that poor co-worker had to take two days off of work from food poisoning the next day. I didn't hear of any kids getting food poisoning so I guess 20 minutes in summer heat was ok but an hour was too long and bacteria took over?

***end story time***

The way I cook involves 3 principles: 

1. the meal has to take less than 30 minutes to prepare from start to finish
2. it must require only one pot/pan to cook in and preferably one dish to serve it in
3. never use a whole package of meat for one meal

I didn't start out this way. At the very beginning of our married life, I was still stuck on cooking a more American way, i.e., that a main dish consisting of a big chunk of protein was essential. I was cooking up a whole chicken breast per person, or a whole hamburger patty, but found it difficult to stay in our food budget. Yuya told me, "Japanese people use a little meat at a time, mixed in with veggies and stuff, and with rice to fill up the corners."

I don't think he meant a stir-fry/donburi style but that's what happened, since that's what fit with our budget and my "cook as fast and simply as possible after work" lifestyle. I put an extra cup of rice in our rice cooker to help fill us up and reduce the amount of okazu. Now a package of two chicken breasts lasts for two meals instead of just one, and likewise a package of ground beef can provide for 2-3 meals. I generally just chop up the meat small, freeze what I don't use right away, and stir fry it with whatever veggies were on sale, using the Japanese Holy Trinity and other spices, curry powders, ginger and garlic etc. to change up the flavors. Tofu is super cheap and wonderful when the meat supply is running low but I still want some protein in the stir-fry. If I'm feeling fancy I might make a salad to go with in the summer or bowls of miso soup in the winter.

Poor Yuya? Well, he doesn't mind. There's a whole trope about Japanese husbands being very picky about their food, and insisting the miso soup is made the way his mother made it, etc., but Yuya isn't like that at all, and is happy with whatever gets served, especially if it's spicy. Everything tastes more interesting and allows you to eat more plain white rice without getting bored of it if it's hot and spicy. Curry powders and chili peppers are my best friend! My dishes are probably a good bit spicier than the typical Japanese housewife's.

So that's how I cook, or how I don't! It's not Japanese food really but it uses a lot of Japanese ingredients, since they are cheaper and more available than Western ones, in my own style to take the least amount of time and produce the least amount of dirty dishes as possible. Perhaps my idea of food is too practical. Food is fuel and energy, not a source of comfort or fun since it's not fun or comfortable for me to make it! My cooking (or lack thereof) probably reflects this philosophy. I wonder how our habits will change if/when we change countries...

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