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.