Learning about Japanese Food

“Strong wine, fat meat, peppery things, very sweet things, these have not real taste; real taste is plain and simple. Supernatural, extraordinary feats do not characterize a real man; a real man is quite ordinary in behavior.”

-From the Saikontan, a prose poem written around the 17th century

I am going to Japan on Sunday, and I can’t of a place in this world that I know less about.  Japan is country that never came up at all in my formal education, except a brief cameo during a brief history unit about World War II, in which they appeared as horrifying villains.  Or maybe that was from watching the History Channel with my dad, or talking about the Japanese when I taught English as a Second Language at the Korean school. Old Mr. Kwan didn’t think very highly of the Japanese.  He was old enough to remember the  invasion, or, at least, to feel the effects of the invasion on his life and his family.

The Japanese Garden in Hermann Park, Houston.

The only Japanese books that I own are a few cookbooks, including the Time Life Foods of the World Japan cookbook- one of the best series of books of any kind to ever have been published- and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
I suspect that Japan will be the most different place that I have ever traveled.  I wonder if my trip to Japan will be a reprisal of the joyous awe and fear that I felt the first I time I ever left the country.  The edges of my world widened and spread, and my mind cracked a little further open in the struggle to be big enough to understand it all.  Or even to understand a little.

A Japanese maple tree in Hermann Park.

My perception of the world was so sensitive, so many details of that first immersion in Paris are printed deep enough on the inside me that I can conjure up specific smells, tastes, and images any time I want to return.  I’ve been back to France many times since that first trip, and I studied their during college.  But my first trip to France is the one that is most easily remembered.  Perhaps this is because I had beginner’s eyes.

Wisteria in the Japanese gardens.

So I have been flipping through pages of books about Japan, all written by Westerners.  One of the good ones, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper, quotes an old Italian proverb:

“Translation is treason.”

To translate is to change the fundamental genetic makeup of meaning to make it accessible to other ears. Any language teacher knows that within a language is meaning, and a language dictates the way a it’s speakers think and see the world.  So much of Japanese culture doesn’t translate, and whatever meaning exists in the original language seems to dissolve away by the time it reaches me in it’s new English get-up.

Homemade sushi.

“The aim is try to get a balance of color, cooking style, and ingredients.  Common sense will show you the way.”

-Shirley Booth, in Food of Japan

So I understand when I’m trying to learn about Japanese food  in Houston, I’m only getting a garbled, faint version of whatever Japanese food really is.  And one thing I’ve learned is that balance is a big deal.  Colors, cooking methods, and tastes must be balanced in refined Japanese cooking.

5 Colors

  1. black/purple
  2. white
  3. red/orange
  4. yellow
  5. green

5 Cooking Methods

  1. boiling
  2. grilling
  3. deep frying
  4. steaming
  5. raw/pickled

5 Tastes

  1. sweet
  2. salty
  3. spicy
  4. sour
  5. bitter

+awai +umami

In one of our Japan meetings, I asked the student travelers to get into groups and try to come up with a meal that would balance all of these fifteen elements.  My students came up with the following ideas:

1- A burrito with eggplant, tomato sauce, bell peppers (both yellow and green), sausage, and jalapenos, sprinkled with lemon juice.

2- Pickled cabbage, deep fried pork, steamed pork shumai, grilled eel, tom yum sauce, boiled cucumber, steamed rice.

3- =Grilled hamburger with purple onions and white cheese, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, grilled,  pickle spears, jalapenos.

4- Many skittles, cooked in all of the five methods.


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