Food, Glorious Japanese Food

Katano | Fall, 2000 | 24 years old

My host father was an executive of a bread company. Periodically he brought crates of extra bread home from work. It was the most wonderful and unusual experience for me because, although there were some breads I was familiar with, many of the items were completely different from anything I’d previously experienced. I loved one particular bread stuffed with red bean paste. It became a favorite staple of mine during my time in Japan. But there were all sorts of other breads totally different from those I’d encountered in the U.S…. it was as if the baker decided that, say, an omelet needed to be made into bread. Or that people really needed to have their sausage and eggs squeezed into the bread itself rather than simply sitting on top of a biscuit the same old way I’d always seen it. I came to imagine that the baker in charge of those creations must certainly look like a nutty professor, Einstein, or something equally as wonderful. There were normal items like muffins and Danishes. However, those “normal” breads in the crates my host father maneuvered through the door, while delicious, were not nearly as sweet or messy as those I’ve tasted in the U.S. I would have to say that, overall, the sweets in Japan were never nearly as sweet as they are in the U.S., but somehow they were always more satisfying, gratifying, and delicious!

I wasn’t allowed much of the bread at home. My host mother would let me have one or two and then she bagged it up and put it out of sight. She was a wonderful mother to me. She treated me almost exactly the same way she treated her oldest daughter. My host sister, the older of my two sisters, was pudgy by Japanese standards (which I did not understand at all because she was beautiful in my eyes). My host mother rationed food to both of us. I was quite fat by Japanese standards, even though I was nearing the thinnest I’d been in my life. I didn’t mind because I knew she loved me and wanted me to be better. I looked forward to the times that my host father brought bread home, though, because the next day my host mother would fill my bike’s basket with bags of bread. She directed me sternly to share all that she gave me with my friends at school. I definitely shared it, but I was also able to eat a couple more of those wonderful breads!

My experiences eating out were wonderful, embarrassing, and hilarious. The first time I went to a restaurant, I picked up one of the packaged foods in the display case and brought it to the cashier. I was quickly informed by my gaijin friend, who just wanted to laugh at me, that I wasn’t supposed to buy the display. I was just supposed to choose what I wanted from what was in the display. The cashier laughed behind her hand at me and the workers behind the counter turned to hide their smiles. It certainly must have been funny to see a chubby, blonde, gaijin trying to buy fake food. I learned quickly that most of the food displays in Japan are examples of what you can get; you’re not meant to touch them – much less try to buy them!

Okonomiyaki became my favorite food in Japan. I ate it anywhere and everywhere I went as much as I could. I purchased it from one of the small shops at the Hirakata-shi shopping center, which was nearly on top of the train station I traveled through most frequently. I preferred my cabbage pancake with octopus, but I would eat any version with relish. I liked it best with Japanese mayonnaise and this special brown sauce mixed together and slathered on top. I could easily eat two at any given time (not because I was that hungry or could hold that much food, just because they were that delicious!).

My host family did their best to expose me to various Japanese fares. My host mom prepared Chinese food at home, for the most part. She took cooking classes and created luscious dishes. One of my favorites was a tiny eggplant practically drowned in, what I later learned, was oyster sauce. She made sure to expose me to traditional dishes like soup with raw egg on top. She also made sure we had the dish in which you cook your own food in boiling water and eat it with rice. They did prepare okonomiyaki at home once and I thought I would die of pleasure right then and there! My family took me to a Korean barbeque restaurant and “tricked” me into eating cow’s tongue. Normally, I am very squeamish about things like that, but I’d already eaten it, loved it, and exclaimed as much – so when they revealed what I’d just eaten I momentarily balked and then smiled, laughed, and again exclaimed about how yummy it was. They gave me more and I happily ate it!

My host family also took me to a Chinese restaurant and a pay-by-the-plate restaurant. Now, by the time I went to the pay-by-the-plate restaurant, I’d already been to a number of restaurants with conveyor belt service. In the restaurants with conveyor belt service, there is usually a counter around the chef or one that goes from the kitchen to the outside of the establishment. A majority of the restaurants I’d visited on my own and with friends charged a flat fee for as many plates as you could eat within a certain time period (usually an hour). I had absolutely no clue that we would have to pay for the food based on how much we ate (and no one told me!). So, I ate and drank until I was quite satisfied, even a bit full, and then realized to my horror the reality of my situation. I had at least 20 plates! I don’t know how much my host parents paid for that dinner, but I know I will forever be more cautious when dining!

As a last note, if ever the opportunity arises, make sure you buy Melty Kisses. I’ve always loved chocolate, but I will forever dream about Melty Kisses, which are pretty much little square truffles that melt in your mouth. I was so lucky to be in Japan during the fall semester for myriad reasons, but particularly because I would never have tasted the most splendid chocolate to ever pass my lips if I’d attended school during the spring or summer terms because they only sell them during the winter. Melty Kisses are much like my husband’s homemade truffles, but because of the emotional significance of those packaged pieced of heaven, no matter how my sweetie perfects his concoction, they will always be second best! One of my dear Japanese friends brought two packages to me when she came for my wedding and I cried. It was an unexpected, yet treasured chance to taste the wonderful treats one final time. I made those morsels last. I think I ate my last bite two or three months after receiving the box!

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