Monday, May 07, 2007

Food at Family Gatherings, Part 1 (Japanese)

I often get questions/comments about my ethnicity. I am a mutt: half Japanese, half Mexican. Even stranger is my father is the one who is Japanese, not my mother. Until recently, the father was always Caucasian and the mother Japanese.

When I was in Kindergarten, all the kids in my class held a contest during recess where they tried to figure out "what" I am. They finally settled on Eskimo. I was very pleased to be an Eskimo because it was one ethnicity. I also liked the idea of people looking at me and thinking about snow, igloos, polar bears and wearing those hoods with fur around them.

My growing up years were interesting, but I'm sure not anymore remarkable than anybody else's. The place where this is NOT true is food, especially at family gatherings.

We would typically spend time at one of my father's sisters and then go to my grandmother's house during holidays like Christmas. Full on Japanese food and then full on Mexican food.

On the Japanese side of the family everything was very aesthetic. We had a wide variety of foods like turkey or ham, mashed potatoes and salad. We also had sashimi and sushi. My aunt, who passed away a few years ago, made two types of sushi. I don't even know what they were called, but they were very simple. Perfect, really. One was a brown ball with rice and raw fish inside, the other was eel in rice wrapped with those green seaweed sheets (Nori) and sliced. My aunt spent all of her growing up years and a good deal of her 20s in Japan before coming here. That woman made sushi better than anybody I know. None of this California Roll stuff or sushi rolls made to look like caterpillars. My aunt's sushi's were a study of simplicity, taste and perfection.

When I was a child I was a notoriously picky eater. I was one of those kids you just wanted to smack around at dinnertime because all I wanted to eat was Chef Boyardee Mini Raviolis (I still love eating them, by the way). To add insult to injury, I would not eat anything with fish in it. I tried eating my aunt's perfect sushi, but I was so grossed out by the thought of it that I couldn't. When I got older, I came around and was able to enjoy it.

As a teenager, I decided to be more open minded and try new things at my aunt's house during family gatherings. I tried raw octopus (I ate one of the legs, I could see the suckers on it), crab guts, my cousin's sushi (wrapped in grape leaves) and sashimi. I didn't really start to enjoy sushi and sashimi until I tasted super fresh raw tuna. Heaven.

The first time I tried crab was at my aunt's house on New Year's Day. My uncle had bought the just-pulled-from-the-water crabs at Fisherman's Wharf here in the City earlier that morning. My cousins were working on the crab legs with those little forks and nutcracker looking things. Intrigued by the process, I asked them what they were doing. They were amazed that I'd never had crab before and made me taste it. Yum! We spent the rest of the afternoon taking apart crab legs, dipping the meat in that sauce and chowing down.

To this day, there are other dishes that show up at each family gathering, but I have no idea what they are. They're definitely Japanese. I'll have to ask someone next time.

One odd thing I've notice about myself is I no longer say "shoyu." I say "soy sauce." I was raised from when I could talk to refer to Kikkoman soy sauce as shoyu even if I had to explain to everyone what I meant. Somewhere along the way in last few years I stopped saying shoyu. It's time for me to reclaim shoyu even if no one knows what I'm talking about. Perhaps someone will learn something new from my efforts.

My parents used to take us to a Japanese restaurant run by family friends. I didn't eat much, but I love Miso soup. They always included a lot of tofu in the soap for me because they knew I liked it so much. I was always disappointed that there was no Miso at my aunt's house with a huge block of tofu in it. Miso really reminds me of my childhood, as does rice and anything teriyaki.

Some odd things about me relating to Japanese food:
  1. I didn't learn to use chopsticks until I was in my early 20s when my ex-husband taught me. Everyone in my family always made fun of me because I had to eat with a fork. I think this partly explains by I really enjoy eating with my hands.
  2. Although I've been eating tofu since I was a very small child, I had no idea what edamame was until just a few years ago. I'd never eaten it before although it looked oddly familiar the first time I saw it.
  3. I used to enjoy eating Nori (dried seaweed used to wrap sushi) from time to time. We'd get it in a can and I would nibble on it here and there.
  4. My Dad loves eating kokos, some kind of pickled yellow vegetable. I still don't exactly know what they are. I like to eat them too with rice. The smell is bad, like smelly feet. They have a satisfying crunch to them, though, that goes great with rice.
I've strayed off the subject somewhat. Later this week I'll talk about the Mexican side of Miss Turtle's food growing up years.


anne said...

MT, I am really enjoying your blog again!

This post is great - how cool to have two distinct family backgrounds, with food and relatives to confirm your heritage!

Me, of boring northern european stock - no foods, no stories, no relatives outside of Minneapolis.

Lolabola said...

I am so hungry now. I can't imagine switching from Japanese to Mexican food. My stomach doesn't know what to do with that kind of holiday combination. Can't wait to hear about the other side.

The Kindergarten incident is oddly remniscent of a Degrassi episode I saw yesterday.

How cool to have such a background.