Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Home is where the food is

There is a movie called, Spirited Away by a brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of my most favorite films in which the protagonist, Chihiro--an ordinary 10 year old girl-- is suddenly faced with a curse that turns her parents into pigs, and thrown into a world so strange so rapidly that all she can do is to try to survive without understanding what is happening. Then, about 20 minutes into the film, she is led by her guardian Haku to a safe place, for the first time. He hands her a rice ball to eat. Chihiro takes it, starts eating, and begins to sob uncontrollably.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I moved here when I was 15. I went to a boarding school in California, thousands of miles away from home. I spoke very little English, but having been raised by parents who were very international, bilingual, and survived World War II, I think I must have had the personality (or the stupidity) to just jump in. But during the first year here, I gained probably about 10lbs. I basically put on the "Freshman 10" in my sophomore year of high school. I was pretty skinny prior to that and being a dancer and all, I was used to that particular frame of mine, so this was a bit of a shock, especially to my mother who didn't see me for a whole year. "Well, you look...healthy," she said when we reunited.

In retrospect, this was a classic case of using food for comfort. Hmmm, let's see-I leave home, go to a new country that doesn't understand my language, meet a whole new set of people, get a room mate, eat in a cafeteria three times a day, and oh, sit in series of classes in which I would have to look up every other word, in order to even follow the question being asked, let alone answer any of them. No stress, not big deal. I was hungry all the time. And I tried and ate everything. And we snacked a lot in the dorm. And my exercise was cut down by about 80% coming from maneuvering around Tokyo every day to living on campus where everything was in spitting distance.

I missed my food. I missed having Japanese rice, my mom's cooking or anything that resembled Japanese food. My uncle would come by on some weekends and take me out to Japanese restaurant which was such a big treat. There were also a dorm staff who had a rice cooker and she would treat some of us to rice now and then. But that was it. I had no access to the things that provided me comfort everyday that I didn't even realize.

I totally get why Chihiro sobs in that scene. A rice ball, which is an equivalent of PB&J connects every Japanese person to their childhood when their moms made these for them. If someone handed me a rice ball after my first week in the US, I too, would have sobbed.

When I was a sophomore in college, I moved into an apartment. I then started cooking for myself. I got a rice cooker and with what I could afford at the regular super market, I started piecing together how my mother cooked. My mother is a spectacular cook. I enjoyed watching her cook, and because of that, always wanted to learn how. I started helping my mother when I was about 10 and she gave me responsibilities around the kitchen. I used to pretend I had a cooking show of my own. So with that, I relied on my memory of how things tasted, and I started cooking every day. Then my weight came off. It may also have had something to do with the schedule of a college student which included about 20 hours a week of rehearsals that included dancing as I was a theater major and living once again in a city. Regardless, the food gave me comfort in the right way and gave me back the body I recognized. I could still only afford to have sushi when my parents came to visit, but I was less desperate for my home because I could create that good, healthy feeling myself now.

I was starting to flirt heavily with my husband when I introduced him the book, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. During the course of the story, it talks about many great dishes but there is one in particular called, "Kastu-don" that is described in detailed. It's breaded, deep fried chicken breast marinated with eggs and broth, over a hot bed of rice. It's Japanese soul food. I was nervous about having him read this because he didn't know much about Japan or Japanese food and I
loved this book. My heart was going to be broken if he didn't like it. But he read it in about two days and told me that he really wanted to eat this. So I took him. We were living in Boston at the time and on the Cambridge side, there was a row of small restaurants in a basement of a building where they served foods like this in a most authentic fashion. I watched him eat every bite of it and when it was all gone, he told me that it was one of the best things he has ever eaten. I can't describe the relief I felt at that moment--this man that I was pretty certain I was going to marry just accepted my culture by eating it.

It's been over twenty years since I first started cooking for myself and I still cook almost everyday. It helps me to keep connected to my home, and now with a daughter, it connects her to it too. She seems to enjoy her rice balls, especially when it takes the form of Hello Kitty.

photo from http://www.imageshare.web


  1. Yes -- having just moved 2 weeks ago from Tokyo after 2.5 years of culinary awe, I am already missing all foodstuffs Japanese. Our dad is food-obsessed as well,
    and would talk about meals in Tokyo, now I know what all the fuss is about.
    And yes, Omousobi would make me cry too.


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