it’s self-improvement month on pmk!

guess who is really awesome at taking food photos.

i’ll give you a hint: if you guessed me, you are absolutely wrong.

lately, i’ve been perusing all kinds of awesome food blogs in all reaches of the blogosphere, and quite a few have left an impression on me.  some of the huge ones that have really inspired me are one man’s meat, cottage grove house, and simple provisions.  every time i read those blogs, i think “jeez, look at these pictures.  there is no way in heck i could take food photos that look that good.”

but today, i finally thought, “maybe it is time to try to take some food photos that do look that good.”

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ketchup rice, television, and the usa.

the conversations we have while we eat are pretty amazing sometimes.

while i was at school the other day, i decided to eat my school lunch in one of my first grade classes.  i love eating with my first graders, and for the most part they love eating with me, too.  i always get bombarded with all kinds of awesome questions, and i am always more than happy to answer them.  “misha-sensei, what is your favorite color?”  “misha-sensei, are you married?  do you have kids?”  “misha-sensei, do you like mini-tomatoes?”  the list goes on.

a few days ago, however, i was shocked and a little saddened by a question a little girl sitting next to me asked.  about halfway through the meal (during which i was making faces and goofy jokes and thumbwrestling kids), she turned to me all of the sudden and asked, “misha-sensei, are you really from america?”  i was a little confused and taken aback, but i said yes.

what she said next threw me for a loop.  “but you aren’t scary.  americans are scary, right?”

as an american in japan, what do you say to something like that?  what can you say?

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reishabu, mk II: twice as nice.

i’d like to think most food bloggers would agree that often times, your first try is never your best.  some of the great food bloggers i read regularly don’t try to pretend they are perfect.  when they botch a meal, they write about how they botched it and what they will do next time.  mistakes, after all, are how we learn to cook.

after all, what is the point of writing recipes if you can’t revise them?  if you really love a food, i find the best thing to do is to cook it often and gradual refine it.  evaluate the recipe and isolate the parts you like and the parts you don’t.  replace some ingredients to make it more cost effective, faster to cook, or more impressive in appearance.

i’ve talked about reishabu as one of my favorite salads of all time on pmk (you can find the mark I recipe here), and as such i owed it to myself to give it another go.  normally, i just make a large portion for myself, but on this particular occasion, i happened to be making dinner for six people on a particular hot summer night a few weeks ago.  the response was overwhelmingly positive.

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“itadakimasu.”

don’t worry.  this isn’t a post about the japanese language.  i do my best to avoid writing those because they are, on the whole, excruciatingly boring for anybody who isn’t a devoted student of the japanese language.

this is a post about japan and its attitude towards food.   while it would be so easy to slam you over the head with one anecdote after another in an attempt to illustrate all kinds of taboos and mores, i am of the opinion that a single word might actually accomplish a deeper understanding of the lesson i want to convey.

when translated literally, itadakimasu means something along the lines of “i will partake.”  the phrase is beautifully vague and pretty darn confusing due to the omission of any discernible object which would undertake the verb “partake.”

japanese children say it before they dig into school lunch every day.  eighty year old japanese men say it before chomping down on a beautiful piece of sushi between bottles upon bottles of japanese sake.  itadakimasu is a word which transcends age in a highly ageist society.  it is used without thought in nearly every situation involving food or drink in modern japanese society, regardless of time of day, formality, or company.

when i ask the children i teach why they say itadakimasu and what exactly they are “partaking” in, they almost always give me the same reply: “we are giving our thanks to the nice old ladies that made our lunches from scratch.”  they aren’t wrong.  most people in japan use itadakimasu to mean something along the lines of “thank you for making this beautiful meal, i’m going to dig in now.”  based on such an explanation, the japanese stigma behind wasting food starts to make sense.  it is almost common sense that you should never waste any part of a meal that someone worked hard to prepare just for you.  in other words, it is bad to waste because it is bad to be rude.

they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right, either.  i fell in love with this word when it was explained to me by a weekend farmer and fellow teacher.  when i asked him what exactly he “partakes” in, his answer was simple:

a life.

he explained to me that every living thing in this world has a life, and in order to consume it, we have to end that life.  cooking is, in a way, a manner of manipulating the life force of this world.

he told me that this is the reason why japanese cuisine has valued the integrity of its ingredients for so long.  traditional japanese cuisine augments its ingredients, it doesn’t cover them.  some japanese people joke that the only spices they use are soy sauce, mirin, japanese sake, dried fish, and hot water.  and most of them, especially the elderly folks, know that there is more than an element of truth to such a joke.

when he explained all this to me, the real reason for the japanese stigma behind wasting food made sense to me all of the sudden.  it isn’t a waste to end the life of a living thing, make it into food, and then not consume that food.  it is a tragedy.  by cooking, we shape the life force we harvest from nature, and by eating, we give the action meaning.

if you have read this whole long-winded post so far, i have a quick favor to ask of you.  i’m not some weirdo who is going to demand that you start saying itadakimasu before every meal.  i’m not going to force you go out and become a vegan.  i won’t even tell you you should try to eat more japanese food.

all i ask is that every time you buy groceries, cook a meal, or eat at a restaurant, take a split-second to appreciate each and every one of the myriad ingredients.  because they are giving their beautiful lives to you in an effort to help you appreciate the beauty of yours.

love is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.

guess what?  i don’t like sweet foods.  sure, that might make me a curmudgeon.  yeah, you might be able to accuse of having lost touch with my inner child.  but in all honesty, right from the get-go, sweet was always one of my least favorite flavors.  i know lots of people are probably chomping at the bit, ready to lace into me for being such a cynic, but hold your horses and let me explain myself for a moment.

in my experience, the vast majority of sweet foods being produced en masse are highly processed.  sweet is one of those flavors that reminds us of “home,” and even if we didn’t have a mommy or a grandma who baked fresh goodies all the time, we like to imagine that we did when we bite into a tollhouse cookie or a little debbie snack.  commercials and marketing do their best to convince us that a tremendous room full of smiling grannies or joyous frolicking elves produce our snacks.  which of course could not be farther from the truth.

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