The Universal Kitchen
May 8, 2018
I learned from my mom that the kitchen is the center of the home. When I was growing up, life in our house always seemed to gravitate towards it; there, we would talk, eat, and watch my mom cook meal after meal, sometimes pitching in with cookie decorating, pizza-dough shaping, or pie-crust pinching. To this day, every party we have at my house seems to end up–despite valiant efforts on my mom’s part to create diversion elsewhere in our home–crowded in the kitchen.
In Japanese homes, only a few rooms are heated (and with space heaters at that). In my own experience, these were the bedrooms and the kitchen/family area. All of the heat and energy of my homestay family’s house was literally centered around their kitchen.
The first night with my homestay family, the grandmother and matriarch of the family prepared an amazing meal for me and my roommate Kalynn: miso soup from scratch, sashimi, pickled and sautéed vegetables, sake-breaded fried chicken, and oden (a winter stew of boiled egg, daikon, and fishcakes). She had clearly labored for hours but didn’t even linger to seek praise or approval.
We ate in the kitchen with the two daughters and their mother. All of us bonded over a shared appreciation of food, and the next morning our hosts brought us to all-you-can-eat strawberry picking (surrealistically reminiscent, for those of you familiar, of the scene in The Seventh Seal). We ended an idyllic day of tourism with the most delicious sushi I’ve ever had in my entire life (surprisingly, at a conveyor-belt sushi joint).
One of our biggest fears – and misconceptions – going into our trip to Japan was portion sizes. Many of us (specifically some of the taller guys) were afraid we’d come home half the size we were when boarding the plane to Japan. By the end of the trip, though, I think most of us actually put on a few pounds.
We were fed constantly and generously, and the food was incredible. Everything in Japan seemed different, yet much turned out to be the same. There may not have been an Olive Garden, but there was a Miami Garden (they took us for an Italian chain lunch one day for some variety); there may not have been hot dog stands along the streets of Harajuku, but there were crepe and ice cream stands on every block. Tokyo, while foreign, felt familiar. I was struck by the cultural politeness, cleanliness, and homogeneity, but I didn’t feel out of place; it’s a very welcoming city.
Though Tokyo and Nagoya were incredible, the best part of my trip by far was the homestay. The food was the yummiest I had tasted throughout Japan – perhaps, in part, because of the company and the setting.
My host family resembled my own in many ways: the picky eating habits of the younger sister reminded me of my own younger sister’s eating habits as a little kid; the Olympics playing on the TV over dinner reminded me of meals spent in a similar fashion in my living room at home; the family dog ran around and performed many of the same tricks my dogs perform at home.
Though we live across the world from each other, and though we were raised learning completely different words for the same people and objects and places, my homestay made me feel connected to this family on a deeply human level. I felt as if I were watching an alternate version of my own family in a parallel universe: what life could have looked like if I had been born Japanese rather than American. Different in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, but so much more similar than I had expected.
The last morning with our hosts, Kalynn and I learned how to make Tamagoyaki, a favorite of Kalynn’s and mine during the course of the trip (a rolled egg served at every breakfast), as well as delicious onigiri (rice balls with vinegar). I bought myself an egg pan the first chance I had, and I couldn’t wait to share the tamagoyaki recipe with my friends and family back home, over the same kitchen counter I’ve spent my childhood cooking and eating at and spending time with the people I love.