I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
Prior to moving to Japan, my knowledge of sushi was mainly limited to the elaborate makizushi (rolled sushi) available at most American Japanese restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these baroque concoctions of mayonnaise, avocado, and processed crab always left me feeling curiously unsatisfied and perplexed. In high school, a friend had introduced me to nigirizushi, but even then my palate was unable to find much pleasure in the unusual combination of sweet, salty, raw, and cooked.
During my first week of work at a large university hospital near Tokyo, my employer – the head of the orthopedics department – took me out to lunch at a family-owned sushi restaurant by the train station. After removing our shoes at the door, we seated ourselves on zabuton cushions at the counter, tucking our legs into the hidden compartment beneath the floor. I sat entranced as the owners’ son patted out fingers of warm, seasoned rice for nigirizushi. He worked in smooth, rhythmic motions, quickly dipping his hands in water before shaping the shari (vinegared rice). An assistant stood nearby, deftly slicing fish into perfect, tapered pieces. Soon we were presented with two ceramic platters, each of which held no fewer than ten pieces of sushi. Out of some mix of deference and ignorance, I followed my dining companion’s lead, beginning with the mild, white fish, moving on to more oily, flavorful varieties like mackerel, and finishing with the tamagoyaki (a sweet, layered omelet) and a nori-wrapped round of rice topped with translucent beads of ikura (salmon roe).
I first tasted ozōni, a comforting mélange of vegetables and broth topped with toasted rice cakes, in Hakodate, a charming port city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō famous for its squid and Western-style architecture. It was New Year’s morning, and I had arrived in Japan just a few days earlier. The previous evening had been a blur of rapid-fire Japanese, new and exciting foods (candy-sweet black beans! Bright yellow chestnuts and sweet potatoes! Raw quail eggs with soba noodles!) and unfamiliar etiquette. Of course, my confusion was compounded by jetlag and culture shock, not to mention a few sips too many of sake and umeshu. The next morning, after my attempts to watch the sun rise over Goryōkaku park were stymied by a blizzard, I felt a powerful craving for a hot, warm breakfast.
Growing up, there was nothing I loved more for breakfast than a bowl of sugary, crunchy cereal drenched in cold milk. It wasn’t only the sweet taste and colorful cartoon characters that entranced me; I also loved the ritual involved: unhinging the cardboard flap, rustling the plastic bag, hearing the tinkle tinkle of wheat flakes and puffed rice tumbling into the bowl, poring over the product-specific recipes printed on the side of the box. Ultimately, it was the process I loved, not the product.
As you might expect, my taste for cereal has since diminished, but there’s still part of me that craves breakfast food served in a bowl. In Japan, the answer to such a craving would almost certainly be ochazuke, an incredibly simple dish of hot tea over rice with a sprinkling of savory garnishes.
I was recently back home in Brooklyn for several weeks, mainly to take care of some important tasks to prepare for my new job here, like getting a Japanese work visa. In my free time, I found myself craving Japanese home cooking – foods like simply prepared vegetables flavored with dashi or miso, grilled fishes and meats, and homemade onigiri (rice balls). In Japan, it’s easy to obtain these dishes from takeout shops that advertise “auntie’s” or “mama’s” cooking. In New York, such a shop would be overpriced, not to mention difficult to find in the first place. Besides, if you have the right ingredients, it’s easier and much more fun to cook these dishes at home.
During my first few weeks in Japan, I struggled with something many other American expats experience: peanut butter withdrawal. Although I’ve mostly overcome that problem, I occasionally find myself pining for other Western foods. For example: cheese, once a refrigerator staple, is now a very rare luxury. However, as my culture shock diminished, my desire for these foods also waned.
Since I’d rather spend my money on gorgeous Japanese produce and sublimely fresh tofu than on overpriced foreign imports, my diet has inevitably changed. As an occasional vegetarian back in the States, it wasn’t difficult to make an affordable and protein-rich meal, thanks to the help of one key ingredient: the egg. Here, too, eggs are an important part of my diet. I often slide a fried egg over vegetables (see the recipe for kinpira gobo, below) to make a satisfying, healthy dinner. Other times, I’ll nestle a soft-boiled egg in a bowl of noodles for a quick lunch, or tuck a few slices of hardboiled egg and spicy daikon sprouts into a mayonnaise-smeared baguette.