Tuesday, March 07, 2006

maternal taste

My first conscious memories associated with food begin around the time I first left Japan and went to live in the United States. I was about 5 or 6 and one of the things I remember clearly is a sheet of cookies, fresh out of the oven, left on the kitchen counter to cool. It was a plain sugar kind and I can still recall the taste of that still-soft, slightly undercooked dough. Very few Japanese homes had ovens then and I remember marveling that my mother had actually made something we always bought in stores. It was my first brush with American baking and the classic Joy of Cooking, which remained my mother's main source and reference during those early Washington (DC) years.

So when I think of my mother's cooking it's not the usual mainstays of ofukuro no aji (literally, maternal taste) or comfort-food standards like onigiri rice balls, lovingly packed with salted hands (in the metaphoric sense too.) What comes to mind, rather, is a gigantic lime-green Le Creuset pot my mother must have picked up in an outdoor market (this was before people in Japan even knew about the cast-iron French cookware) and the big, dynamic things she used to make in it, like clear oxtail soup or a rich stew of browned-beef and potatoes, even after our return to Japan.

I think for my mother cooking was essentially a diversion from her work as a science researcher. She always had her antennas out and if something caught her interest, in people's homes or elsewhere, she would ask for the recipe or guess at ingredients and techniques, then go home and effortlessly re-create it. "Your mother is a good cook because she has brains," my grandmother would tell me.

If my mother's food tasted of new places and new people, my grandmother's cooking was all about nourishment and family. Each time I visit her she makes my favorite things and does the same for all of her four children and eight grandchildren. One of her specialties is tempura. I must've watched her a hundred times: breaking the egg into the flour, adding ice and water, giving it a deft turn with a pair of chopsticks. She would then drop into the batter slices of maru-nasu, round eggplant plucked minutes ago from the garden, or dew-fresh baby bamboo shoots that a neighbor had dropped by with that morning. She would stand in front of the oil, frying up batch after batch of crisp, golden tempura. We would sprinkle them with salt or dip in soysauce with grated daikon and gobble them up as fast as they arrived.

"Tempura is best when piping hot," she would urge. I never saw her eat it herself. She feasted instead on the shining, eager faces around the table and the collective sigh of contentment that followed. For me tempura represents a continuity with the past and above all, my grandmother's vast reservoirs of love.


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