I was born and raised in a small town called Sakai, Kainan City, Wakayama prefecture in Japan. I am the baby of the family with an older brother and sister, and my grandfather also lived with us. I was really close to my grandfather and went everywhere with him, sitting in front of him on his motorcycle. He was so proud of taking me with him to see his friends and his relatives.
My grandfather had a good size vegetable garden in a plot of land nearby, and grew all kinds of vegetables from tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plants, daikon radish, sui choy cabbage, peas, to beans and you name it. I went to his vegetable garden with him or sometimes stopped by there on the way home from elementary school knowing he was there. I loved helping him in the garden, especially harvesting vegetables and tasting those beautiful cucumbers and tomatoes and other vegetables which tasted so fresh, sweet and rich in their own flavours. That taught me which vegetables are in season. Cucumbers and tomatoes don’t grow in winter. Daikon radish and sui choy cabbage get sweeter in cold winters after first frost. Vegetables might not look perfect or pretty, but they always taste delicious and beautiful in their own way.
Apart from vegetables, there were fig and persimmon trees, and a bamboo grove beside his garden where he would lay in specially chosen logs to grow shiitake mushrooms. We harvested young bamboo in spring, plump and sweet figs in summer, big and meaty shiitake mushrooms in fall, and rich orange colored persimmons in winter. Just being in his garden, I could feel the beauty of the four seasons, watching the colors change with my own eye, smelling the freshness of spring and feeling the crispness of winter.
Once we brought them home, my job was to clean and wash the vegetables. We had a little water hose outside of our house which of course had only cold water and I remember my little hands freezing so getting all the dirt off the vegetables was never easy. This whole process from planting, harvesting and cleaning gave me precious time with my grandfather and taught me nature’s beautiful life cycle.
I started to cook at an early age and my mom enjoyed having me in our kitchen. Watching her different cutting and cooking techniques, multi-tasking and smoothly flowing from cutting board to stove is how I learned to cook.
Vegetables from my grandfather’s garden turned into delicious dishes in my mom’s magic loving hands. Dishes like simple and fresh cucumber sunomono salad, eggplant with goma (sesame) miso, simmered daikon radish with squid, as well as the Japanese staples: rice and soup, meant there were always a number of small dishes on the table.
She let me taste her dashi stock, miso soup, sauce for stewed fish and whatever we were cooking, scooping a spoonful into a small dish for me. When I tried to season by myself and asked her to taste mine, giving her a spoonful of soup in a small dish, if she liked it, she nodded and said “Oishii” which means delicious in Japanese and that made me so happy and proud.
I still cook the same dishes my mom used to cook for us for my husband and children now, and it brings back memories of my family. Telling these memories to my children makes me feel fulfilled and loved. I hope they do the same for their own children and feel the same I do.
In Japan, a bowl of rice and soup are staples at every meal. The particular recipe and flavour of miso soup in particular vary from house to house and region to region. Each house has their own specific flavour of miso soup, and each family grows up with that particular taste. When you get married, it’s common for wives, who are now responsible for making the miso soup for their new household, to adjust how they flavour the soup so it matches what their new husband grew up with. Wives adjust the recipe to their husband’s family’s miso soup flavour. My husband is from Vancouver, Canada, so luckily for me my miso soup is staying the same at our house!
My dad was working in Osaka and had a long commute by train, so he left for work early in the morning and came home late at night in typical Japanese husband fashion. He didn’t have dinner with us every day, but the five of us: my mom, sister, brother and grandfather, always ate together. My mom also had a full time job, but I don’t remember having take-out dinner often. We never ate out unless there was a special occasion, and she managed to put home cooked meals on the table with the help of me and my sister.
Since my dad didn’t have dinner with us so often, he enjoyed cooking and on Saturdays he made yaki-udon or tempura, deep-fried fish which he caught in a nearby pond, and waiting for us kids to come home for lunch after the half day of school we had on Saturdays. His dishes were very different from my moms, very dynamic, ‘man’-style dishes, but I really looked forward to Saturdays, coming home from school and eating with him.
Eating together as a family means so much to me. My husband is away for business quite a bit, but when he is home, he tries to come home early and eats dinner with us as a family. With after school activities and our busy and scattered life, sometimes it is not easy to eat together, but we make a great effort to sit down and eat and chat about what happened that day at school or some such. Those moments give us the chance to share our thoughts, care for each other and connect as a family. We sometimes argue and the kids fight, complain about what I cooked of course, but that is a part of life and FUN!