Category Archives: Food

Stop, Thief!

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Despite it being the middle of November, the local supermarket currently has an extensive selection of tiny tomatoes. Customers can mix and match as we see fit, but they are horrifically expensive and to be honest, I’m rather tired of tiny tomatoes. (The plant in our garden is STILL bearing fruit!) However, while I consider myself something of an urban sophisticate, I realized much to my chagrin that I had never tasted a purple tomato. What if I were to run into, say, Brad Pitt and he asked me if I liked purple tomatoes and I wouldn’t be able to answer? This rankled.

At once, the curious kitten in me awoke, stretched and blinked her eyes. What might a purple tomato taste like? Grape Kool-Aid® (proudly produced by Kraft Foods since 1927)? A raspberry Popsicle® (accidentally invented by Frank Epperson in 1905)? An eggplant Pop-Tart® (Kellogg, 1964)? The mind boggles.

At the same time, there was something off-putting about the color; I have a bruise on my thigh about that shade. But still, I knew to the depth of my soul that I would toss and turn for nights on end and, if I were ever released into the sweet arms of sleep, my dreams would be haunted with angry killer tomato monsters chasing me down darkened alleys, leaving behind trails of purple-tinted tomato blood dotted with slippery seeds of Satan spawn.

I picked one up and held it in my palm. Then I tweaked off the stem and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like…wait for it…drum roll, please…

A tomato!

I was not disappointed; quite the contrary. There was once an Asian looking family in a supermarket in California, its members taking jars of things off the shelves, opening, tasting, wincing, and putting them back. Well, I can understand that. What if you tasted something that looked like tahini or miso but turned out to be Skippy® Super Chunk peanut butter (which is kosher and contains no cholesterol)?

Sometimes it is enough that things are what they are and are not trying to be anything else. If the eggplant Pop-Tart® scenario had played out, I could well have fainted right on the spot, then the tomato monsters would have gotten me for sure.

So now, if anyone asks, I can say I know what a purple tomato tastes like. I will sleep deeply tonight. And Brad, baby, bring it on. I’m ready for you.

 

The Path to Heaven is Paved with Blueberries

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In my opinion, there are few alimentary pleasures in the world greater than the almighty blueberry. It is a perfect little orb of delightful sweetness. Its delicate skin resists the teeth ever so slightly, teasing the palate and then exploding with juicy joy.

For many years, I had to live without them. They just weren’t available except at high end department stores where they cost just over the total of Greece’s national debt. You’d occasionally get a piece of cake with a blueberry or two on it but that was the extent of it.

Then a few years ago, they started becoming available all year. They travel well and it’s always mid-summer somewhere. I’ve bought blueberries from Chile, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, the US. But even those come in tiny boxes and cost…let’s say the national debt of Romania.

I sigh for American supermarkets where they practically give the dear things away.

blueberries in USPhoto by Marcellie  Used with permission.

So when I saw that Rodger was leading a Meet Up to pick blueberries, I jumped on the bandwagon.

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There were about twenty of us, a very nice group of people from all over.

blueberry crew

That’s me at the front crouched over, wearing my Cookie Monster hat and very cool retro RayBan shades.

Three trains and a bus got us to the “Yours Garden” farm where we paid about $20 to eat as many of the spherical delights as we could manage as well as pick about a kilo of them to take home. We were each given a plastic basket and then the farmer parted the mesh gates to heaven.

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It was blistering hot but it had rained the day before so the little round morsels of perfection were plump and juicy. Row after row of ripening perfection stretched into the distance. As I approached each new bush the lovely purple gems practically called out: “Pick me! Pick me!” It was gym class for fruit. The berries flew off the stems, half into my basket and half into my mouth, the occasional tart one easily forgiven by the next bite of sweet perfection.

When my basket was full, my lips starting to pucker and I looked like this…

Violet blueberry…I decided I was done.

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The fruit of my labor. Nyar nyar nyar.

There were blueberry pancakes for Sunday breakfast and a lovely blueberry cobbler is cobbling in the oven as I type.

Ah, rapture. Thy name is blueberry.

Another Grand Day Out

Destination: Yokohama

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Maya wanted to go to Chinatown and that seemed like a good idea, so we headed there in time for lunch.

The thing with Chinatown is there are about a gazillion restaurants to choose from. We knew enough to stay away from the fancy ones on the main drag (Bah! Those for the tourists!) but that just left a half gazillion smaller ones on side streets. I figured it was best to just dive in, so chose one because the woman standing outside trying to coax us in had a Chinese accent–usually a good sign.

We got lucky. We ordered and then indulged ourselves in a feeding frenzy worthy of several schools of piranha who had been locked in a closet for a few weeks. Chopsticks flashing faster than a Benihana chef’s knives, we devoured everything except the furniture. Yum! ‘Nuf said.

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So we hauled our bloated bellies toward Yamashita park and the port area where we saw a stingray. That doesn’t often happen. I morphed myself into E.T. to take the picture. (See shadow.)

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We next visited the doll museum which is rather boring but at least everyone else thinks so, too, so nobody was there. We enjoyed the peace and air conditioning.

Then there was this: Marine Tower.

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I have always avoided Tokyo Tower and have no interest in Skytree but we’d been looking for new experiences.

I had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

It’s only 94 meters tall. That’s about 30 stories. I’ve been up buildings taller than that. No bid deal, I thought. So we got into the elevator to go up. And the little glass box started to rise…and rise…and rise.

“Oh, cool. It’s a see through elevator. Love those. Look at the steel girders sliding by. Oops. What was that? My stomach just hit the floor. Uh-oh. Can’t breathe. Was that Willie Wonka and Charlie I just saw flying by? There goes the wicked witch on her broomstick. And wasn’t that Harry Potter chasing a Golden Snitch? This can’t be happening. Help. HELP! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

And then the doors opened. We crept out, hugging the internal wall. I could barely move and could feel myself shaking.

“Oh, no. That’s not you,” said the affable woman wiping fingerprints off the glass. “It’s quite windy today so this thing wobbles all around. I have to keep the glass very clean or people get dizzy trying to focus on the distance.”

Oh, my.  Do.Not.Retch.

And to add terror to an already frightening experience, there was this:

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Maya is not clowning. You step onto that sheet of plexiglass and your heart plummets to the depths of hell. You can feel your soul being sucked out through the soles of your feet. Not for the faint of heart, my friends.

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After a while, I did manage it, but what you can’t see is that I am staring resolutely into the distance, my white knuckled fingers making indentations in the wooden handrail.

Closed eyes, deep breathing and a meditation mantra are the only things that got me back into the elevator and down to street level.

Been there. Done that. Don’t ever have to do it again. Amen.

By comparison, the ride home on the nearly empty train felt like pure bliss. We were only going forward, not up, and the gentle side-to-side rocking was a comfort, not the erratic shudders of a spindly tower with the structural integrity of a Slinky.

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Maya has made an impressive effort to learn reading and writing. As we pulled into our station she turned to me looking perplexed and asked, “Garbage is dangerous?”

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Well, yes, that’s pretty much what the sign says. One of the things that makes Japanese so difficult is that even when you can read something, that doesn’t mean it will make any sense. While the illustration shows a relaxed looking hand calmly dropping a piece of paper, which didn’t strike either of us as particularly dangerous, what the text implies is that it is dangerous to toss garbage over the wall and into the street. The thinking is that if they use an illustration of, say, a tattooed thug tossing a beer bottle over the wall, then that’s what will happen. Or something like that.

(Gallic shrug.) It is what it is.

We ate, we laughed, we had a lot of fun. Once again, it was worth the effort and I’m glad we went.

P.S. Diana, this is for you. It’s the hotel where Napolitan spaghetti was invented. You’re welcome.

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Milk

One of the many middle aged blessings I have received from Mother Nature seems to be lactose intolerance. I am distressed about this for several reasons.

For one thing, it hurts and the accompanying gas can be…inconvenient.

For another thing, I’ve never had any sort of allergies. There are plenty of foods I don’t like and some I can’t eat, but that’s mental intolerance, not physical. For example, I don’t like any of the squash related vegetables–eggplant in particular is anathema–and you’re not fooling anyone by calling it aubergine. Please also keep your yams and zucchini to yourself.

source: images.clipartpanda.com
source: images.clipartpanda.com

I know where this aversion comes from. The rule in my family was you must eat at least some of everything on the table, and you had to stay at the table until you had done that. My brother and I both used to hide food in our pockets and then flush it down the toilet. I find it hard to believe that my mother didn’t know that, but if she did, I don’t know why she let us get away with it. At one point, she tried to forced me to eat a large pile of mashed pumpkin. I tried but resented every bite and eventually barfed. That wasn’t an allergy; it was sheer willfulness, and I’m pretty sure she never tried to force the issue again. I guess I had come of age in asserting my independence and she recognized that.

I adore Thai green curry but always pick out the eggplant. One of the waiters (I’m told both men and women are now referred to as waiters–is that right?) noticed and offered to have it made with cabbage instead, just for me, but I don’t care much for boiled cabbage either so told them not to bother. It’s not like I don’t want to eat eggplant, it just grosses me out. I hold nothing personal against the unassuming eggplant, either, and have nothing against other people eating them. In fact, they’re rather cute and I wish I could eat them. I had hoped that quitting smoking might alter my palate, so a few months ago, I bravely ate a piece of eggplant from a green curry and promptly gagged. I can eat Japanese pickled eggplant. Otherwise it’s hopeless.

Another thing about intolerance is that I don’t want to be that person, the person with special needs. As a kid, I was surrounded by a bunch of whiners who claimed allergies and wore that claim like some sort of honor badge. Their allergies were to be respected, catered to (literally), obeyed even. They had a sense of entitlement. “Look at me. I have allergies. That means I’m special.” I felt somehow inferior in my sturdy, healthy, non-allergic body. I realize now that was a twisted way to see the world, but I am a product of my environment.

Yet another thing is a joke that’s no longer funny. At one of the production companies I work with a lot, it is understood that I can’t work in the morning if there’s no coffee, and I can’t drink the coffee if there’s no milk, and the milk must be Oishii Gyunu:

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This picture isn’t blurry. My eyes were really tired.

They called the other day asking me to take a last minute job they knew I didn’t want to do. After I agreed, they said they’d be sure to bring the Oishii Gyunyu. I had to hang my head and admit that I could no longer drink it. With tears of shame in my eyes, I explained that I could only drink this stuff:

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For people whose tummies say ‘goro-goro’ when they drink milk

So I am distressed to have this lactose problem. How can anyone be intolerant of anything as benevolent as milk? It comes from breasts and human kindness; it is the source of the heavenly delicacies butter and cheese. Without it, the land would just be honey and Santa would have to eat his cookies dry.

This is so unfair.

Meditation Cat Says…

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She keeps getting hungry for things she can’t have. This time it’s an open faced roast beef sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes.

Stop pouting, silly girl. You can have that. Maruetsu has tasty roast beef and you can make gravy and mashed potatoes yourself.

But no, she says, it’s not the taste. It’s the experience. She wants the sticky vinyl booth seats, the Formica tabletops, the milkshake served in a tall glass, the waitress named Myrtle dressed in a pink uniform and coiffed in a beehive. Then she and her boyfriend Bobby will climb into his Edsel and head for the sock hop at the school gym. She’ll wear her poodle skirt and sweater set and saddle shoes.

You can see where this is going.

Meditation Cat says…

Dwell neither in the past nor in the future.
The past will always be what it was.
The future will always be ahead.
The present can only happen once.
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Bali in the Kitchen

As a kid, the only coconut I was ever exposed to was that horrid dessicated stuff people use to make bunny cakes look fuzzy. Cute, but it tastes horrible, although I might be able to get on board with the bunny butt cake. (Recipe on the Betty Crocker website.) That’s to look at, mind you, not to eat.

bunny butt cakeMy grandmother was a mountain of love who made the best gingerbread men ever but ruined her fruit salad by topping it with desiccated coconut.

Then I moved to Asia. Years ago, on a beach in Thailand, I saw a wizened old lady spend her days using a machete to mince fresh coconut meat that eventually became sweetened squares of heavenly delight. And then I discovered coconut milk curries, which I can’t get enough of. I regularly order green curry at the Thai restaurant in the ‘hood and eat my way around the despised eggplant. Only recently have I discovered the uncountable merits of coconut oil. I decided that coconuts merited more of my attention. I was therefore determined to figure out how to make the Lombok chicken, but the only thing I was sure of was that it had coconut milk in it.

I had my photo of the dish itself as well as my memory of how it tasted.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI studied the picture of the ingredients we’d used during our day at cooking school in Ubud.

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all choppingI called on Cutie McHottie’s beautiful smile for inspiration. (He’s the one on the right. I’m not in the group picture because I was off grinding peanuts with Cutie II, the one on the left.)

cutie BBQI studied recipes on the interwebs and then scoured my local supermarkets and veggie stands to find the stuff I’d need. Onions? No problem. Tomatoes? Check. Garlic? Got it. My confidence began to build…too soon. Fresh red chilies…uh…well… Fresh lemon grass…not a chance… Fresh galangal root…ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?????

As an extra kick in the rear, most of the recipes said that these ingredients would be available at my Asian market, which is funny because ALL of my markets are Asian and NONE of them had any of that. Chinese and Korean ingredients are readily available, but except for Nasi Goreng, Japan pretty much ignores Indonesia, at least from a culinary point of view.

I was not going to let that stop me. I am a strong, determined woman. I march into battle with my head held high, my dented armor polished. Like the bravest samurai of yore, I scarf down my rice balls in 30 seconds, retie my topknot, straighten my loincloth and dive back into the fray.

I squared my shoulders and made my way to the import store, where I found some coconut milk and an Indonesian sambal. I even found some jasmine rice to go with the finished masterpiece.

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And it was good. Really good. I have no idea whether I did it right. Maybe there is no right or wrong when one is winging it. At any rate, it tasted wonderful.

Isn’t that all that matters?

Forager Hike: Wild Mulberry Hunt and Ramen Museum Getaway

A few weeks ago, I joined a Meetup to go foraging for mulberries. I am a great lover of new experiences and when I saw the posting, I jumped at it. The thought of actually seeking out the humble mulberry had never occurred to me. Where I come from, we eat them, of course, but mostly they are a sign of summer that stains the sidewalks and soles of our feet.

So we headed for the Tsurumigawa river in the wilds of Yokohama, a group of about a dozen of us, hard on the heels of our fearless leader, renaissance man Rodger Sono. I had gone on his blueberry hike last fall and ate the luscious little devils until my lips and tongue were burning, so had worked myself into a berry anticipative mood. (See what I did there?)

That's Rodger at the far left, looking leaderful. When asked why he organizes these events, he said, "I like foraging."
That’s Rodger at the far left, looking leaderful. When asked why he organizes these events, he said, “I like foraging.” Good enough.

Unfortunately, the late spring weather had taken a turn for the predictably unpredictable and most of the berries were dried out, but it was fun talking to new people and a friendly old guy on a bicycle gave me some bamboo shoots.

Our final destination was the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, which really doesn’t have any business calling itself a museum. The pamphlet actually calls it “the world’s first food-themed amusement park” but it’s really just an excuse to sell ramen. There’s also, inexplicably, slot car racing. The only “museum” aspect is that the ramen shops are replications of those of 1958 Japan. The atmosphere is pretty cool except for the busloads of tourists eager to slurp their way to ramen nirvana.

ramen museum

Incidentally, they chose 1958 because that was the year instant ramen was invented. There’s also an instant ramen museum in Osaka. It seems that the father of instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, didn’t sleep for a year or take a day off while he dedicated his life to creating Chicken Ramen, at the time known as “magic ramen”.

Ramen is very much a part of Japanese culture. People of all ages consume it, breakfast, lunch or dinner. No proper evening of drinking and carousing would be complete without a visit to a ramen shop, which isn’t difficult. Most neighborhoods have several; mine has dozens. And instant ramen has achieved a status of nearly mythical proportions.Go to any supermarket or convenience store and there will be an entire aisle devoted to these dried nibbles, a mind boggling array of brightly colored, cheerful packages, which is odd because while the traditional Japanese diet is one of the healthiest on the planet, instant ramen is almost exclusively fat, salt and refined white flour.

I love ramen but can’t eat the instant stuff. A Japanese guy who spoke a little English once asked me, “What’s the difference between stupid and crazy?” I said that stupid is eating a McDonald’s hamburger and crazy is eating the paper it was wrapped in. I feel pretty much the same way about instant noodles and the styrofoam cups they come in. But I’m not judging. I love Kraft mac and cheese, and that stuff has about as much to do with real cheese as fish have to do with bicycles.

To each his own. We all have our comfort foods. For me, mulberries is one of them.

Lombok Magic

On Lombok island, we stayed at a boutique resort hotel called the Puri Mas. Run by a somewhat crazed Belgian, a former ballroom dance champion, it is made up of small bungalows that follow a winding path down a hill from reception past an open air restaurant to the ocean, where the surf seems to be up around the clock. I didn’t get a garden nor ocean view, but I did have…

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…a private, partially open air meditation space, which was…not unattractive.

Just up the road a piece from the hotel was its spa, where this guy…

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…pointed me toward this room…

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…where I had my first nekkid full body oil massage.

I lay down on the table. The massage guy touched my right shoulder and whispered, “Wow.” I whispered back, “Yeah.” And he said, “OK, its time for some Lombok magic.”

“Well, all right,” I thought. “I’ve heard variations on that before. We’ll see.”

And then he did. Hocus pocus. Abracadabra. Voila.

I don’t know how he did it. All I can say is he poked and prodded and climbed around on the table and on me until he gently tucked a misplaced muscle back into place. When he was done, I floated off the table and sat on the porch eating slices of papaya and listening to birdsong and feeling bemused. All I could think was, “Well, If that doesn’t beat all.”

Massage guy also recommended a special Lombok chicken dish, which I tried, of course, since he clearly had direct lines of communication with some greater good. There was an outdoor cafe just down the beach from the hotel, the kind where the roof is made of woven leaves and the floor is sand and the tables and chairs are pieces of bamboo lashed together.

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Perfectly complimented by a cool bottle of Bintang, it was grilled chicken breast in a spicy sauce similar to Indian butter chicken but made with coconut milk. I have forgotten what it’s called, so If anyone can tell me, or better yet find me a recipe, I will write an ode to the greatness that is you.

I know it will never taste as good in my Tokyo kitchen as it did when I ate it with sand between my toes and a touch of tropical sun on my nose and the lingering touch of Lombok magic on my skin. I learned this from the almighty Mai Tai, which is a delicate kiss from Adonis on a beach in Thailand but a sticky groping by a clumsy teenager in a bar in Roppongi, but I want to try to make it anyway.

I will try almost anything.

lotus poseYoga in the hotel ballroom: surreality at its best.

Love You, Honey

My mother raised me on whole wheat sourdough bread, which she baked in an old juice can so it was round and had a mushroom cap. She would make me round school lunch sandwiches with that bread, homemade mayo, and lettuce from the garden. Naturally, I was jealous of the girls with their Wonder bread/ketchup sandwiches.

Remember that this is the same dope who smoked for nearly 35 years. But I seem to be recovering from all those years of inhaling poison and still have low blood pressure, normal cholesterol, better-than-normal bone density and almost all my own teeth. I wonder how the Wonder bread girls are doing.

I do find myself with some of the normal complaints of someone my age, the worst of which so far has been belly pain. Two internalists found nothing wrong and shrugged it off. Another doctor suggested that it was merely gas. I tried medication but it had unpleasant side effects. So I tried organic coconut oil. The Shamen and Witch Doctors and New Agers and Voodooists were right. The pain is gone and the plumbing works fine.  ♫ Just a spoonful of coconut oil helps…

So while I was allowing myself to indulge in homeopathy, I stumbled across some other left wingers touting the virtues of organic honey. While it is not possible to get a decent cheeseburger in this neighborhood, we do have a shop that specializes in honey.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAWe were told that honey bred from the feathery shoots of the delicate acacia flower produces the best honey in the world. The ones in the middle and left are acacia, from Aomori and Iwate Prefectures, respectively. The one on the right is ordinary supermarket honey. According to the honey lady, the supermarket varieties are 4th tier mixed breeds not worthy of recognition. To be exact, she scoffed, “Hah. That’s mizu ame (sugar water).” To use a car analogy, the first is a Toyota Lexus, the second a Nisan Infiniti, and the third a Suzuki Rice Burner.

If you infuse a bottle of white wine with a handful of parsley, a little wine vinegar and some organic honey, you get Parsley Wine, the world’s healthiest sleeping pill, which also helps the liver do its job and strengthens the respiratory system. Yeah, it’s expensive, but to quote L’Oreal, I’m worth it.

The other night, I was invited to a fine dining experience in celebration of finishing a project.

Sugata

My colleagues warned me that it is difficult to find the restaurant. It wasn’t, but when I got there, the name was only written in kanji. I didn’t want to walk into the wrong restaurant, so I approached the man at the veggie stand across the street. There was the usual moment of panic on his face when he saw mine, but then I said, “Is that place called Sugata?” Big smile, bobbing head. “Oh, yes. That’s Sugata.” “Thanks,” says me. “I couldn’t read the kanji.” He looked genuinely surprised, which seems so odd. He didn’t expect me to be able to speak Japanese, yet somehow did expect me to be able to read it.

Fine dining doesn’t often cross my path, so I was delighted to accept, but wary. I’m a fairly picky eater and fancy Japanese food generally involves parts of sea critters I am not comfortable with, among other things. I am not a big fan of raw fish and never eat eggplant, but there’s a reason this stuff is so expensive. I ate and truly enjoyed all the sashimi (except for the squid shiokara: Wiki definition: small pieces of meat in a brown viscous paste of the animal’s heavily salted, fermented viscera. Can you blame me?) Other than that, it was dish after dish of the finest, freshest seasonal specialties, lightly seasoned and gently teased into palatal perfection. I honestly loved the octopus; the lumps of eggplant in a crabmeat laced soup even went down fairly smoothly.

My point is, just what is the best? Is it the world’s finest honey? The freshest sashimi? A Toyota Lexus? Or bread with love baked right into its mushroom cap?

P.S. Then there’s this:
http://www.upworthy.com/inevitably-someone-will-say-but-my-juice-cleanse-worked-no-it-really-didnt?c=ufb1

Grandmother Curry

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Grandmother Curry

I would bet a bazillion, no, a gazillion dollars that my grandmother never, ever, not once in her entire life, made curry and rice. And I’d be willing to bet almost the same amount again that she never even tasted it. But as I’ve mentioned before in these sacred pages, curry and rice is mac and cheese to the Tokyo taste bud, soul food, a taste of home, of childhood, of comfort, of permanence in this all too transient world.

What my grandmother did make was really great vegetable soup. I remember once, in my snotty childish way, I asked my mother why grandma’s veggie soup tasted so good (with ‘better than yours’ implicit). She just sighed and said, “She puts sugar in it.”

And that got me thinking about our relative attitudes toward sugar. I read recently that America’s obesity is not altogether our fault. Yes, fast food and large sodas and triple scoop ice cream cones are personal choices, but apparently there is hidden sugar in nearly every product in American supermarkets.

I think that’s less true of Japanese food. In traditional cooking, sugar is added to most dishes, but we’re talking a teaspoon of sugar in a dish that serves four people. If there’s dessert at all, it’s most likely fresh fruit. So while sugar is rarely added to main dishes in Western food, our desserts usually start with a full cup of sugar, often more, and don’t forget to add eggs, butter, cream and chocolate.

Thoughts of my grandma also brought back thoughts of childhood fun, like summer fairs and carnivals, where we ate cotton candy, candy apples, caramel corn–in other words, sugar, sugar, sugar. Of course, sugary things are available here, but it is not uncommon to see a kid at a summer festival happily chomping on a cucumber skewered on a chopstick, perhaps with a bit of miso or salt, perhaps plain. Healthy, cooling, sugarless.

I suppose it is possible that my grandma had a secret life where she made and consumed curry with gusto. Perhaps she spent her summers following the country fair circuit, traveling around dispensing curry and rice from the back of a brightly painted van. If she did, I’ll bet another gazillion dollars that she put sugar in it.