Saturday, September 29, 2007

Reading/cooking. Andoh.

Elizabeth Andoh has written about Japan and its cuisine for Gourmet magazine for more than thirty years, where I first discovered her. It was not until recently that I came across Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, in the bookstore of the Seattle Art Museum. (Another one of my favorite - but unused - cookbooks, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, was also discovered in a museum bookstore). I flipped through the crisp white pages while sitting on a low stool, blocking the reach of anyone reaching for books on Asian art or Northwest glass sculpture. Photographs of bright ingredients and multi-colored dishes caught my attention; tasty-sounding recipes awakened a hunger for curry rice and "foxy soup noodles" (so called for the fox-colored slices of fried tofu that float in the broth).

Japanese food is part of my childhood, not because I am Japanese - I'm not - but because the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and China several decades ago left behind a culinary imprint besides the emotional one that would continue through the ensuing generations. (I remember being served breakfast by my uncle's mother-in-law, a near-replica of the cover photo of Andoh's cookbook - a piece of grilled salmon, a bowl of rice, another of miso soup, and some picked vegetables). It goes beyond that, perhaps thousands of years, due, I suppose, to physical proximity and frequent exchanges of culture (and war).

When we moved to Seattle in the mid-eighties the biggest Asian supermarket in the International District (and still is) was Uwajimaya, a Japanese supermarket that sold everything imaginable, including books and gifts upstairs, imported housewares, with a small cafeteria beyond the refrigerated cases that displayed cartons of soy milk at one end of the store. Later they moved to a new place, even bigger and stuffed to bursting with every sort of Asian food imaginable, anchored by a food court, a bookstore, and a hair salon. It was not until I flicked through the pages of Washoku that I began to understand that my own home cooking is influenced by the ingredients I buy, the foods that I have eaten for so long - the Japanese soy sauces and cooking wines, the flat white noodles I cook (following the pictures because I can't read the instructions) instead of the yellow Chinese egg noodles. The tight-skinned Japanese eggplants are darker and slimmer than the Chinese ones (also slimmer and longer than the fat western kind), black-purple instead of amethyst.

I thought of how so many different things have shaped my tastes and my cooking as I tried Andoh's recipe for karé raisu, or rice curry. (I've written about how much I love curry before). I've used chicken stock - Chinese cooking tends to use chicken stock - instead of the Japanese dashi, because I tend not to have kombu (kelp) and bonito (dried fish flakes) lying around. I wonder if the substitution will affect my dish as I debone chicken thighs and slice vegetables, peeling the potatoes and wondering why someone would specify "red-skinned potatoes" and then have you peel them. I think about how Chinese rice tends to be long-grained, light and fluffy (Y., who is half-Japanese and doesnt' like Chinese rice, refers to it as "popcorn rice," I think), yet it is the Japanese rice that I grew up eating, shorter-grained and just sticky enough to hold itself together as I eat it. This curry is different from the beef curries my mother made when I was young; the former has a mild sauce thickened slightly with cornstarch, and the latter was hotter and soupier (besides, well, being made from beef). But it is very good all the same, and I foresee other dinners ahead, Chinese and Japanese battling it out for culinary supremacy (if not territory) on my plate.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Reading. Chekhov.

I grew up going to the theater. There were four theaters in Seattle for which we had season tickets at various times: A Contemporary Theater (ACT), then a few blocks from the Seattle Center, Intiman and Seattle Repertory Theater, both on the outer edges of the Seattle Center, and the Theater Off Jackson, a tiny space wedged in next to the Wing Luke Museum in Chinatown. (There were also season tickets to the opera, modern dance at the University of Washington's Meany Theater, and the symphony. My parents loved them all, and as an only child I was swept along into their world). In later years I drifted away from these cultural pursuits, and only now have I slowly come back them. Although this time around it feels strange to be there without my parents, my handbag in one hand, a shawl in the other, running across the street in time to slip into my seat and flip through the program before the lights come down.

A few months I leapt at the chance to see Uncle Vanya at the Intiman Theater. It has been many years since I read Chekhov , and it seems a lifetime has passed since then. Actually, I have never seen Chekhov performed, with the exception of Tennessee Williams' Notebook of Trigorin, which is his Southern-inflected adaptation of The Seagull. (A surreal experience). But I have read his plays and short stories, and here was his Uncle Vanya with the language stripped of its dust to bring this story of love and loss and regret. I was only moderately distracted by a) the presence of Samantha Mathis as Elena and b) the wig worn by the actor who played Astrov and who had a small role in the film The School of Rock. Also, I kept thinking, hey! It's that uptight father from The School of Rock! With a really bad wig! But then they began to speak and all my thoughts fell away, leaving only the glances between characters that I felt like a touch on my own skin, and words that made me laugh one minute and sent a shiver up my spine the next.

I have never loved anyone, and I never will, says Astrov to Sonya on a dark, stormy night. Hard words to hear from someone you have been silently, hopelessly in love with. My heart broke for her, and for her uncle Vanya, the former realizing that she has wasted her youth and has nothing left of promise except for a life of unending work, and the latter who can only look back with desire and regret that he has lost his chance of happiness and is growing old and disillusioned. The professor, Sonya's father, and Elena, his young wife, seem to be sleepwalking through the days on the old estate, Sonya and Vanya and Astrov and the old nanny and Vanya's elderly mother revolving around the spoiled old professor and his enchanting, beautiful wife like planets around two seductive suns. I feel their heartbreak and regret, their hope for a peace that might only come with death, as sharply now when I read from the page as I did when I heard them aloud on the stage, and it is like a caress.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cooking for my mother.

After nearly every meal I cook for my mother, she thanks me as she gets up from her chair. I don't know why; I certainly have never thanked her for any meal in the nearly three decades she has been cooking for me. It is a strange feeling to be thanked for something so simple, for something that is so often taken for granted. I took for granted that my mother would cook for me when I was a child; I take for granted now that I should cook for her and my father, when they are here. Now it's my turn, my turn to rummage around the refrigerator and pull together a meal, my turn to look around the piles of neatly arranged produce, the gleaming array of meats and seafoods at the supermarket and think of what to cook for the nights ahead. It is my turn to make them feel as cared for as they have made me feel for all of my life. I make all the things I remember from years past, and there is a curious sensation of inverted time as I stand at the counter slicing vegetables and mincing garlic, or hover over the stove waiting for the oil to heat to a shimmer.

I think about how my mother taught me to cook, beginning with washing the vegetables, progressing (with age) to slicing and chopping, leaving a trail of colanders and bowls and plates heaped with bok choy and finely sliced scallions (never sliced quite thinly enough) and strips of tofu in my wake. And then I started making one dish for the evening's meal, the stir-fried vegetables or scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or a dish of soy-seasoned ground pork crowned with one egg and steamed in the microwave. Slowly - by now I was in college - the entire meal became my domain. And I continued on with all the things I remembered, all the things I learned from my mother balanced by those I learned from books and television cooking shows. How to slice eggplant in irregular chunks and peel garlic by smashing a whole clove with the flat side of my chef's knife (mother). How to chop onions into an even dice without scattering bits of onion all over the place (Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake!) and to put minced garlic into cold oil in a cold pan (so says Jeffrey Steingarten, who learned this from Marcella Hazan, who did for Italian cooking what Julia Child did for French cooking in this country).

I think about Jeffrey Steingarten and Marcella Hazan's words as I pour a swirl of oil into the pan, scraping some minced garlic in before turning the heat on. It slowly caramelizes as I turn my attention to the braised beef on the next burner, browning the sliced short ribs with sliced onions in between cleaning up the chaos that had erupted on the counter behind me. Clean up as you go, your parents and all the cookbooks have been telling me for twenty years, and mostly I don't. The smell of browning beef and onions mingles with the scent of garlic; time to add the somewhat messily trimmed green beans to one pot and the tomatoes to the other. The tomatoes melt into the short ribs, so the meat simmers in their juices; the beans steam under the glass lid. I slosh in some soy sauce, and continue stirring until all the moisture has evaporated and the beans have browned around the edges. At last it's time to toss in the strips of dried tofu and stir them together with the beans until they are hot and slightly glazed with the sauce. It is perfect, a study in tastes and textures, sweet and salty and garlicky, soft green beans and chewy tofu. We eat it all, and I marvel at the faint caramelized sweetness, an unexpected new flavor in an old dish as familiar as a childhood teddy bear. It is not until later that I realize that the sweetness came from the organic heirloom garlic I bought at Whole Foods because I couldn't find any regular garlic.

You can make something again and again and again, and know it so well that each step comes without thinking, like my garlic-soy green beans. And yet the addition of something new or slightly different can change it entirely, make it extraordinary. A surprise, the best kind.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wow, it's been a while.

I'll be back soon.