Tag Archives: curry and rice

Eye Candy Is Just as Sweet

I had promised myself ever since my diagnosis that I would not allow cancer to define who and what I am, but I have to admit it’s an uphill battle. The treatment seems to have a mind of its own and it’s a daily chore finding ways to cope with it.

pink elephant The best analogy I’ve found is the one I came up with last November when I was first diagnosed. It’s a pink elephant. He is comfortably seated on my left shoulder, gently wrapping his trunk around my throat with a slightly sinister twinkle in his eye saying he could tighten that grip any time he feels like it. And although he is always there, and I am constantly aware of him, only a very few others can see him. I hold my piece as my friends complain about the shortcomings of their husbands or the broken headlight on the car or the lack of pistachio ice cream at the supermarket. Those things will pass. Mine will not. The pink elephant is there to stay.

So I am doubly grateful for the rare moments that distract me from his infernal, pink presence. One such happened a few weeks ago.

Ghost college

Nihon University is one of the largest in Japan with campuses strewn across the entire Honshu area. With it’s affiliated schools, kindergarten through graduate school, the student body includes over 100,000 souls. Earlier this year, they opened a small campus just a few blocks from my house. It only offers two majors, Risk Management and Sports Sciences. Not to be too judgemental, it’s pretty easy to guess which is which among the students. The skinny, pimply ones are the risk managers, the others do sports. Since it’s new, the number of student is still very small, so I affectionately refer to it as the Ghost College, but I assume they’re expecting more students, at least hungry ones, because there’s a rather nice cafeteria on the first floor of the main building. Open to the public, it’s wide and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls and plenty of seating. The food is what you’d expect: curry, ramen, curry with a pork cutlet, ramen with a pork cutlet, salad.

We sat down by the window so I could survey the view and I tucked into my curry. There were two rather large fellas seated at the next table. Judo, I’d guess. Then I gradually became aware of others seated around the room. The risk managers must have been busy managing risk because the room was packed with tidy, trim bodies, not a pimple in sight. And it wasn’t just the students, either. I noted leather-patched elbows and the occasional necktie on what must have been instructors, and they were just as tidy and trim as the students.

And then a young fellow a few tables away stood up. I noticed his form, couldn’t help it really. A swimmer, without doubt. As he turned away from his table, he happened to glance at me, and as he did, he smiled, showing straight white teeth, pink cheeks, and, Oh, God, spare me please, dimples. I nearly swooned, dropping my spoon into my curry and knocking over my plastic water glass to spill all over my plastic tray. But despite all that, and just for a moment, the elephant flapped his Dumbo ears and gently floated off my shoulder. Now I know why the caged bird sings.

The curry was perfectly edible and nicely balanced with a small salad. The eye candy topped it off as a calorie-free, but completely satisfying, dessert. And all of this for around $4. Who says Japan is expensive? And what price can you put on a moment of freedom?

What the fork?

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In Japan, curry and rice is nearly always served with a spoon. This makes sense when you’re eating something as drippy as curry. But my Western orientation told me that only babies and invalids eat from a spoon. The first time I was given a spoon I thought I was being insulted. But I learned that this is standard practice and in time got used to it. You certainly can’t accuse the Japanese of being backward or childish when it comes to food. These are the same people who can pick up a single grain of rice with a pair of pointy sticks, not to mention the inventors and/or perfectors some of the world’s finest delicacies.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I ordered curry and rice for lunch. The eating utensil it came with was wrapped in a paper napkin. Imagine my surprise when I unfolded it and found not the expected spoon but a fork. My colleagues, all Japanese, just shrugged and said, “That’s how they do it here.”

Just when I’m finally getting the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under me. Or maybe it was the tatami mat.

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.