whoever decided to call this stuff “fermented bean paste” clearly had no concept of what sounds appetizing and what does not. if i were asked on the street, “excuse me, would you like a bowl of fermented bean paste soup?”, you can bet your butt i would say no. but “miso soup”? i would be all over that like white on rice.
yeah, i know. it’s a great song, isn’t it?
don’t worry, this post doesn’t have anything to do with the 80s. it does, however, have to do with one of the simplest and most delicious foods japanese cuisine has to offer.
when my beautiful female better half came down with a nasty cold last week, i vowed that i would do everything within my power to make her better. did i bike to and from the store a bunch of times every day? of course. did i pick her up two different kinds of fruit tea so she wouldn’t get tired of drinking yuzu and honey all day? that’s a given. did i give her a neck massage and tuck her into bed every night? goes without saying.
but when your hubby tells you that they don’t want to eat because “nothing just looks that good,” you have to make some tough decisions. after all, you have to bolster their strength so they can fight off that nasty illness, but you can’t exactly go around making heinously spicy burritos or steaks without breaking their delicate little sick stomach. in such situations, i tend to turn a good friend of mine.
and that friend’s name is udon.
is this really happening? could the poor man be losing his pork-obsessed mind? is the title of this post just a clever ploy to entice naive and starry-eyed vegetarians to read my blog? who is to blame for this sudden and terrifying turn of events?
take a deep breath, and count backwards from ten. i’ll explain everything.
i assure you, this is really happening. don’t worry, i am not throwing in my bacon grease stained apron. i still love meat and i will continue to love meat. that being said, i am happy to inform you that i made a tasty dish without meat the other day, and i have no regrets. i have my purplish-grey, stinky, rubbery friend konnyaku to thank for that.
all it took to take konnyaku from a weird wiggly block of tuber jelly to a beautiful, savory, low-calorie treat was a flash boil, a quick marinade, and a few minutes spent over a frying pan. if any of that sounds interesting to you vegetarians out there, keep reading. i promise you won’t regret it.
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:
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.
i have this friend. two of my really close (canadian) friends who, at the time, happened to live right next to the snack bar he owned and operated introduced me to him. and when i first stopped by his restaurant, we instantly hit it off.
makoto has a little bit of a belly, a shaved head, and a laugh like a clown. i have never seen him wear any shoes other than sandals, even in winter. he loves to drink, he loves to sing karaoke after he closes up shop, and he loves to meet new people and ask them all kinds of questions (some of which are far from wholesome). he has a collection of cell phone photos of himself taken in public places during the wee hours of the morning, in most of which he is super drunk and as naked as a newborn child. in other words, he epitomizes the word goofy.
japan excels at mimicking the cuisine of other nations. in fact, it is often cited (by japanese people) that many foreigners come to japan to eat foods native to their own countries of origin. chinese people often comment that chinese food in japan is better than the chinese food readily available in china. similarly, restaurants which serve authentic italian and french cuisine are often top-notch (and super expensive).
but latin american cuisine, especially mexican food, is generally misunderstood. because i have often considered mexican food to be one of the cheapest and most delicious foods to make, this fact confuses and enrages me.
despite this, to seem more international, school lunches often include menu items such as “mexican pork saute” or “taco rice,” which are terrifyingly dissimilar to any latin american flavor profile i have ever experienced. which isn’t to say they taste bad. they just taste exactly like a japanese cook used the ingredients he had on hand to make something that vaguely resembled mexican food he saw in a picture.
tragically, on such days, i get to hankering for real mexican food, which is an itch not easily scratched in japan. hot peppers are practically nonexistent, fresh cilantro costs your first-born child, and tortillas are sighted about as often as big foot. and so, in such moments of desperation, i turn to my old friend tex-mex. no, it isn’t authentic mexican cuisine. but it is delicious, contains ingredients i can actually find, and is a heck of a lot closer to the flavor profile of mexican cuisine than the japanese knock-offs are.
and thus, the carnitas seasoned tex-mex slider was born.
i love japanese food. and when i say i love japanese food, i don’t mean just traditional japanese washoku. i love western cuisine-inspired yōshoku, too. japan has all kinds of awesome variations on classic american and european dishes, such as the curry filled donut (カレーパン), breaded pork cutlets (豚カツ), and spicy cod roe spaghetti (辛子明太子パスタ). some japanese chefs are protectors of art forms passed down for generations, while others are innovators using a relatively new palette of flavors and ingredients to make tasty new dishes never before heard of.
omuraisu is not, in my opinion, one of those dishes. it’s an omelette with rice inside. it was first pioneered in japan in 1900 in a restaurant in ginza called renga-tei. granted, it is popular among kids and super easy to make, but it still has an odious lackluster feel to it every time i see it in a restaurant. yeah, it might be swimming in a pool of demi-glace sauce or garnished with parsley or something, but it doesn’t change that fact that, at its core, omuraisu is just missing something.
when i did some thinking the other night, i realized why i don’t like omuraisu very much. as luck (or unluck) would have it, the fried rice portion of the rice omelette is seasoned with straight-up ketchup. and i don’t like ketchup. i dislike ketchup enough that i have regularly called it out as the worst thing to ever happened to sauce in the history of cuisine.
but i’m not a stubborn man. i’ve resigned myself to hating ketchup, but don’t want to not like omuraisu. so i pulled up my bootstraps, strapped on my cooking pants, and decided that i was going to make a brand spanking new omuraisu recipe that didn’t use a lick of ketchup, was chock-full of flavor, and implemented a plethora of ingredients that would turn the head of even the most stubborn omuraisu hater.
and here’s what came out of my noggin.