Five Years in Japan: The Cooking Lesson

One hour after reciting our marriage vows my Japanese husband whispers in my ear, “Please, no more meatloaf, or mashed potatoes with gravy.”  Oh no! Now, what do I cook?

We first started dating six months ago, he took me to restaurants seven days in a row. I thought this must be getting expensive, so I decided to make dinner for him in his apartment. The easiest dish I could think of was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  He said, “This is really good,” and I felt proud of myself. Now, he knows I can cook. Apparently, I was wrong.

We meet in the student dining room at the University of Northern Iowa in 1980. I am a student trying to complete my double major as an undergraduate in Spanish and English as a Second Language. He has a female friend who lives in the same dormitory as I do.

It is a Sunday afternoon, and the kitchen area is open for students to cook. Every Sunday my dormmates and I make dinner for each other. Today it is our Japanese dormmate’s turn to cook. I spot Sumio standing in the corner of the kitchen grilling yakiniku, flipping pieces of shrimp, small slices of beef, pork, and chicken, and frying potatoes, carrots, and onions on an electric skillet. He reminds me of the chefs at the local Benihana restaurant.

He is the only male in the room. He doesn’t join the twelve women from ten different countries who are talking boisterously and commenting on how good the food tastes. The Japanese woman in our group who doesn’t know how to cook invited him to join us.  I ask him to eat with us, his handsome face turns dark red. He is easily embarrassed. He sits down, and we begin to talk. His native language is Japanese, and his English skills are minimal. He has only been in the US for one year and doesn’t have much contact outside of his office where everyone speaks Japanese.  I want to get to know more about him and his country. I am culturally intrigued and curious. We date for six months, he proposes, we get married and move to Japan.

One a month after our wedding, I arrive in Japan.  It’s Sunday morning, Sumio has the day off. I wake up in the morning to the smell of fish, which makes my nose realize I am not in the USA. Sumio is preparing grilled fish, miso shiru (a fermented bean soup), steamed rice and salad. This is not what I expected. I am trying to get a whiff of coffee, bacon, eggs, or cinnamon rolls. No such luck. I am now subjected to eating dinner for breakfast. This is something I will find difficult to get used to. Where are my Cheerios?

Sumio gives me my first cooking lessons. He is an excellent cook. That is why I married him. He tosses ingredients, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, mirin (rice wine) into a frying pan without measuring anything. I stand close by with my American plastic measuring spoons, thrusting them under the ingredient he’s adding.  “Wait a minute. How much does it take?” I ask. He answers, “This much.” He demonstrates by putting a gap between his thumb and index finger. I sigh and smile. I have to get this right.

The weekend is over, and Sumio returns to work and leaves me on my own. My mission for today is to prepare my first Japanese meal alone.  I have six hours to come up with an idea for dinner.  I sit in our small living room and flip the pages of my new five hundred fourteen-page cookbook, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.  The cookbook is a wedding gift from an excellent friend who wished me luck as she gave me a wink. Pictures of seaweed, wakame, bonito, tofu, harusame, shirataki, udon, somen, dance on the pages before my eyes. A mass of unfamiliar ingredients saturates the page. There are pictures of yellowtail, sea bass, red tilefish, unagi (eel), cuttlefish, squid, chikuwa, and crab stare at me. My only experience with fish is fish sticks and trout. Will I ever learn to prepare these kinds of fish?  Japanese squash, ginger root, renkon (lotus root), matsutake mushrooms, shiitake, bamboo shoots, daikon, gobo (burdock), and wasabi. The only vegetables in my past were frozen green beans, corn, and carrots. I am in panic mode. This isn’t fair. One of the reasons I married my husband was because of his cooking skills. I realize now some of the differences in cultural values between the USA and Japan. Japanese culture dictates that men work long hours, Sumio isn’t going to be doing much cooking. That is my responsibility.

I have my pencil, pad of paper, a cup of tea, and my cookbook on the “kotatsu” table nearby. The table is low to the ground, and I have to sit on the tatami mat and cross my legs. It is a position that is uncomfortable for a tall American woman of Irish/German descent.

I need help. I tire of staring at my Japanese cookbook. I feel overwhelmed with all of these exotic ingredients.  I take my pencil and pad of paper, put them in my purse and walk to my Japanese mother-in-law’s house, which is five blocks away. I use the time to practice the greeting, ojama shimasu. I must say this greeting when I visit anyone’s home.

I slide open the entrance door. “Ojama shimasu,” I announce my arrival, take off my shoes and put them in the getabako (shoe cupboard) located at the genkan. My mother in law presents me with a pair of red slippers. She sets them on the floor and indicates that I must put them on. I put on the slippers and follow her through the house shuffling my feet along the slippery wood floor into the kitchen. She is about 5ft 2 inches tall and weighs around 125lbs. She has short black curly hair and a friendly smile just like Sumio.  She is wearing a full-length white apron over her clothing.

His mother has offered to help me learn some cooking skills. She waves me into her kitchen, which is small, about one-third of the kitchen space in the USA. All of her cooking supplies are neatly arranged in cupboards and on shelves. It is an honor to be invited into her kitchen. Her kitchen is sacred, and no uninvited person is allowed to enter. Cooking is her job. Yes, I mean job.  Many Japanese marriages are arranged. The parents pick the spouses of their sons and daughters. They get married and form a mini-corporation. The wife is in charge of taking care of the family, educating the children, and cooking. The husband goes to work and hands all of his money to his wife. She then gives him an allowance.

It is 5:00 p.m., and she is preparing for dinner. We don’t speak to each other. She doesn’t speak English, and my Japanese skills are minimal. She touches my arm and points to what she is cooking. She is teaching me how to cook. That is the reason I am allowed in her kitchen. Guests do not enter the kitchens of their hostesses. It is a workspace and is usually a little messy because of so much preparation of food. My mother-in-law hopes that someday I will be able to prepare a meal for her oldest son.  She doesn’t want her son to starve. She hands me a cutting board and a very sharp knife. She places a cube of tofu on the cutting board. My first reaction is to give the knife back to her. I resist this temptation and begin to slice the tofu as carefully as possible. She closely observes me and smiles. I have never held a knife this sharp, and I am afraid I might cut off my finger. What is she thinking? I hope she approves of my cutting skills. I’m sure she never expected to be teaching her son’s American wife how to cook.

Sumio learned to cook when he was seven years old. Times were tough in 1962. Many people in Japan didn’t have money to feed themselves. Both his mother and father worked full time to make ends meet, and he was left to take care of his brothers. He would go out and find whatever he could. Sometimes he would steal food from the neighbors to create something to eat.

After two days of cooking lessons from my mother-in-law, I feel ready. I walk into a supermarket in Toyohashi, Japan alone for the first time with my list of unfamiliar ingredients. A woman stands at the front door. As soon as the door opens, she greets me, “irashai masse,” welcome. She is a greeter wearing a blue uniform with the name of the store, Ito Yokado, stitched in white on the left corner and white gloves on her hands. I have no idea where to begin. The store has four floors. The supermarket is on the first floor, clothing on the second, children’s clothing on the third, and furniture on the fourth. In some of the bigger stores the “already prepared “food is in the basement. This was my favorite place to visit. There were always free samples. I later learned that if I couldn’t cook it, I could buy it already cooked. I pick up a blue basket and proceed to walk up and down the aisles. I am the only “gaijin”( Foreign person) in the store. As I walk through the store, I observe that most of the women are wearing aprons. I am confused. Do Japanese households employ maids?

I can’t read any of the items. A square of tofu looks like a square of vanilla ice cream. I feel tense. Everything is measured in grams. How many grams equals a ¼ lb.? My recipe calls for ½ lb. of ground beef.  The recipe is for eight people, and we are only two. There will be enough food for four days.

Two hours and two grocery bags later I finally check out and walk home.

I read the recipe and begin dicing vegetables, frying fish, shredding cabbage, adding sauce. Did I add enough ingredients to the sauce? I can’t give it the taste test because I am operating in the unchartered territory. How is it supposed to taste? I make a clear soup, slice the tofu, and make a small salad with cucumbers and tomatoes. Did I add enough soup stock? It tastes a little salty. The soup simmers on the small gas stove.

It is 9:00 and the food is ready.  I lay it out on the table. The main dish is in the middle, the soup, salad, tofu, vegetables, and rice are placed around the main dish. Chopsticks are placed in front of the main dish. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I wait patiently for my husband to walk in the door. He arrives at 10:00. I greet him at the door. I take his jacket and hang it on the hook in the genkan. He removes his shoes, steps up to the floor, puts on his slippers, and walks down the short hallway to the kitchen. He washes his hands, sits down at the table, and waits for me to serve him. I put the plates one by one on the table. I place the chopsticks in front of the main dish in a horizontal position. I set the other dishes on the table around his place setting. I do the same for me. There is something green, something yellow, fish,  salad, and rice. I arrange it just like the photo in the cookbook. I am feeling pleased with myself. I am also feeling very anxious. What if he doesn’t like my cooking?

He picks up his chopsticks and gently picks up the food and puts in his mouth. I haven’t touched anything. I wait for his reaction. “What’s this?” he asks very carefully. I tell him it’s fried mackerel. He has a strange look on his face. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want me to feel bad. He says, “It tastes good.”  I know the taste is not what he expected. I cry. He reaches over and hugs me.

“It’s OK.” He says. Is it really OK?

This cookbook is not going to help me at all. Japanese don’t eat the food that is pictured here. It is for Americans who want to impress their guest by serving Japanese food. I want to make everyday food that my husband will like. Sumio tells me about a cooking show. I begin watching Kyo no Ryori every day.  The chef provides step by step directions on how to prepare food. I sit down with my pen and paper ready. I write down the ingredients. The chef on the show picks up each ingredient and shows it to the audience. That is the only way I know what the item is. I listen to the pronunciation of the ingredient and carefully translate it phonetically. The word “shoyu” becomes “show you.” I had to take notes fast, and the instructions are in Japanese.

After a few weeks, my cooking skills improve.  My husband is happy. He buys me a subscription to Kyo no Ryori magazine.  I begin to study the kanji characters for each ingredient very carefully. I make friends with some of the Japanese women in my neighborhood. We get together and share recipes. They teach me their tricks. There are no more surprises for dinner

My second challenge was making lunch which involves more time and creativity. I usually end up arranging the leftovers from the night before in cute little containers. I don’t know how to carve little hearts or flowers into thin slices of radishes. I am not sure if he ever shows his lunch to anyone. He probably eats in a corner secretly hiding the lunch his American wife makes. I can imagine him showing his lunch to his coworkers. I am sure they have a good laugh. I married a good-natured man. The lunches of his co-workers were made with great care by their wives who took cooking classes before they got married. There are so many cooking schools in Japan.  Cooking is a serious matter. It is the key to a lasting marriage.

I learn that Japanese cooking requires at least three of these ingredients in every recipe: soyu, mirin, tsu, and salt. I can only thank my husband for giving me the opportunity to learn about his culture by learning to cook.

I finally learned how to cook. My husband didn’t leave me, and my mother-in-law grew to like me.

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