Monday, January 4, 2010

In the kitchen: Japanese Cooking Classes!

Back in October, when I finally arrived at my apartment after a week of hotel living, I couldn't wait to get to the grocery store and start cooking my own meals. Foreign grocery stores are one of my favorite things in the world, and my first trip to Apita supermarket was a three hour affair. I wandered up and down each isle, squinted at the mysterious characters printed on packages and marveled at the huge selection of colorful, pickled vegetables in the refrigerator section. I was determined to cook only Japanese foods and filled my cart with miso paste, tofu and a two foot long bundle of skinny green onions.

Two weeks, and dozens of saran wrapped onigiri, later and I had completely exhausted my supply of Japanese recipes. I wanted to try new dishes but felt helpless, unable to read the labels on the bottles and jars in the grocery store. Was this mirin or cooking sake or vinegar? Defeated and frustrated, I turned to comfort food. I bought a package of spaghetti and the only Parmesan cheese I could find: a tiny, extremely overpriced, green can containing the dreaded Kraft Parmesan of my youth. I went home, locked the door, boiled up the pasta and ate the entire packet of noodles coated in butter and showered with processed fake cheese, salt, a shake of nutmeg and a drizzle of truffle oil that I'd smuggled into the country inside a pair of striped knee socks.

A few days later, I discovered that a foreigner-friendly community center near my apartment holds a free cooking class once a month. Unsuccessful in my attempts to find a cooking school, I couldn't believe my luck, and counted down the days until my first class.

The morning of class, I slid the paper screen door open and took off my shoes, adding my giant clown-like flats to the pile of teeny tiny boots and minuscule old lady loafers. Inside, a gaggle of hens in mismatched aprons were already peeling daikon and washing rice, clucking away and laughing in the large sunny kitchen. I was thrown an apron and handed a pile of shitakes to slice. The class was less of a formal class, and more of a let's-all-cook-together and eat lunch kind of affair. I watched the teacher as she poured mirin, soy sauce and sake, the holy trinity of Japanese cooking, into a hot pan of chopped greens before thrusting a pair of long wooden cooking chopsticks into my hands.

"You stir!" she commanded, a big watermelon slice of a smile on her shaggy bowl-cut framed face. 

The other teacher (far right in photo), who has since sent me an email declaring herself my "Japanese mother," proudly showed me photos of her baby grandson, but her face turned sour, and she clucked her tongue, before telling me about her other "bad son."

"He live in Tokyo and he has skin head! He in a band. Very loud. Not married. No good." A photo from her cell phone revealed a good looking guy with the cursed shaved head. She clucked again. "No good."

There wasn't a measuring cup in sight, so I took photos and tried hard to remember how to replicate the dishes we were preparing. Our little assembly line turned out savory foil packet salmon filets, smeared with miso, on a bed of caramelized onions and topped with shitakes, matchstick carrots and fresh parsley. We ate "good luck" rice, usually reserved for special occasions and served to girls after their first period, laced with red adzuki beans and sprinkled with coarse salt and black sesame seeds. I learned that the peels of a daikon should not be thrown away; they can be julienned and transformed into a side dish, along with the root vegetable's scraggly leaves, which are boiled, chopped fine and stir fried with the Holy Trinity and a small scoop of sugar. Lastly, we made a simple miso soup and tossed in all the extra veggies and plenty of chopped green onions.

The next class turned out to be a rare treat: we would be preparing a traditional New Year's Meal called Osechi. When I told my Japanese co-workers, they were surprised and impressed. Nowadays, most people order their osechi pre-made, giving the women a break from the everyday grind in the kitchen. Each item on the plate is symbolic of the New Year, and families across the country eat similar foods just like Americans on Thanksgiving. The meal is made up of many small components, varied in color and texture, and arranged artfully on the plate.

We started off  peeling: first the ginkgo nuts, collected from a nearby tree, were roasted until tender and threaded onto pine needles. Meanwhile, a couple of women peeled tiny boiled quail eggs, scored the tops, and carefully nestled a single salmon egg inside, like a jeweler setting a sparkling ruby into a ring. I was on fish cake duty, slicing the pink tinged loaves into half moons, and then making a few slits and transforming them into fancy fish cake twists.
There was a sort of stew packed with Japanese root vegetables, chicken, mushrooms and konjaku (one of my favorite Japanese food discoveries), teriyaki chicken and a shredded carrot and daikon salad. But my favorite part of the meal was the creamy black soy beans, sprinkled with Kanazawa's famous gold leaf.

At the end of the meal it was business time; I wanted to secure a deal with the two adorable teacher ladies. I wanted private cooking lessons. Once a month was not gonna cut it. They agreed, and no matter how much I tried, they insisted I only pay for the cost of the food.

This month: Project Eggplant!


  1. Jealous Jealous Jealous!

    Happy New Year!

  2. That's our girl! You Go, Cheese-chin chan!

  3. I still can't believe that put gold flakes on their food, so fancy. Can't wait to hear about your private cooking lessons and learn some eggplant secrets!

  4. More please! I need more of your Blog on my platter!

  5. I had that exact same parm cheese dinner after a few weeks in Japan, and I also was very ashamed of myself and yet, strangely defiant. Be strong.

  6. You tower over the women in the one photograph. Are you standing on a stool or are the other women realllllllly short?

  7. Realllllly short - I am barefoot in this photo! I am only 5'9" - not so Amazonian.

  8. In Japan - you are the Amazon. Might as well enjoy the view.

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