Ohitashi

Ohitashi – a method of infusing lightly cooked vegetables with seasoned dashi – is one of the best-kept secrets of Japanese cuisine. Unlike Western techniques like roasting or sautéing, ohitashi gently draws out a vegetable’s inherent sweetness without sacrificing flavor or texture. Beautiful in presentation and subtle in flavor, it is perhaps the platonic ideal of a salad. Neither raw nor cooked, ohitashi inhabits a liminal space in the culinary spectrum. Both elemental and refined, it is a testament Japanese cuisine’s respect for vegetables and the land that grows them.

Fundamentally Japanese in its reliance on impeccably fresh ingredients, ohitashi uses a combination of dashi, shōyu, and mirin to permeate vegetables with notes of smoke, salt, and sweetness. (The “hitashi” in ohitashi derives from the verb hitasu (浸す), meaning “to dip” or “to soak,”, while the “o” is simply an honorific prefix.) Although the ingredients in ohitashi are generally cooked as lightly as possible, the technique is somewhat similar to nimono (煮物), in which ingredients are gently simmered with dashi and seasonings to amplify their sweetness, color, and texture.

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Wild Sustenance

Ramps & morels

Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.

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Coffee’s Comfort

Thanks for being patient with me, dear readers. New recipes and photos will be on the way soon. In the meantime, here’s a little food for thought.

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Several weeks ago, a friend brought an inspiring film to my attention. The film tells the story of Yoshi Masuda, whose singular devotion to coffee propelled him to pursue an unusual mission on Japan’s devastated northeastern coast. Following last year’s disaster, Masuda launched a mobile coffee operation, Hope Cafe, to provide victims with a hot cup of coffee, vintage gramophone tunes, and hopefully some semblance of normalcy and cheer. In the film, we see Masuda’s sunny yellow VW van making its way across the gray, rubble-strewn coast, puncturing the motionless, ruined landscape with an unexpected jolt of color and movement. He sets up shop along roadsides, in parking lots, and inside makeshift tarpaulin tents. Throughout the film, the scope of the devastation is only hinted at, but these scenes tell us everything: places of public gathering have all but disappeared, and only scraps of space remain. Given the circumstances, it is easy to imagine that the total functionality of the Masuda’s cafe – the impeccably conditioned van, the mechanical beauty of the coffee grinders and record players, and even Masuda’s own ritualized, precise movements – bring some sense of order to a place where the frailty of human structures has been painfully and violently revealed.

Although Masuda clearly takes pleasure in sharing his passion with others, he also recognizes the limits of coffee’s powers. Unlike food, coffee is not necessary to human survival; it is first and foremost a luxury, albeit one that is affordable, easily shared, and enjoyed by many. To this end, Masuda’s view of his operation is humble; besides coffee, he offers survivors a chance to return to everyday pleasures: good company, laughter, and the warmth of a newly forged friendship. Entering the cafe, customers transition from the sensory deprivation wrought by grief into a positively enlivened space: lilting notes from Masuda’s gramophone intermingle with the pleasingly rough sound of coffee beans in a manual grinder, a brightly painted red kettle offers a flash of color; watching the film, one can almost smell the heady, intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. With his perfect English, impeccably trimmed beard, eccentric glasses, and dandyish wardrobe, Masuda himself seems to bring a spark of frivolity to those whose lives have been reduced to the bare necessities of survival. Perhaps most importantly, Masuda’s “customers” receive the assurance that they have not been forsaken, and that small fragments of pleasure can still be eked out of their fractured lives. Armed with this knowledge, one hopes, perhaps the painful process of putting together the pieces can become slightly more bearable.

Finally, the film offers a personal tale of disaster’s regenerative possibilities. Through Masuda, we recognize how disaster forces us to question the purpose and significance of our daily actions. Faced with disaster, our first instinct is often to recoil in horror, thankful for our own safety. Next we give money, assuming this is the most useful way we can be of help. Unsurprisingly, these monetary gestures prove to be unsatisfying; as anyone who had ever given to charity soon realizes, the act is fraught with feelings of guilt, complacency, and denial. It is hard to argue with money’s efficiency and speed, but Masuda shows us that any passion, no matter how seemingly insignificant or idiosyncratic, can offer far more transformative potential. Although we may not all be able to follow his example, we could certainly stand to learn from it.