Bridging Cultures—Those Within Me

P1030588Readers of this blog may know that I spent quite a few formative years in Japan, living there most of the time from seventeen to 32 years of age. It is one of three countries I consider “home:” USA, Japan, and Mexico. Wherever I am, I miss the other two dearly.

So what’s a global nomad to do? Share, of course. With those I love.

I am blessed here, after eight years full-time, with a couple of groups of incredibly talented, intelligent, loving and fun-loving girlfriends. I thank God for them every day; they are truly amazing. It took me a long while to find them, these soul sisters. They are artists, cooks, business women, housewives, teachers.

I wanted to cook them some authentic Japanese food, share with them a taste of my other self. It’s really hard to find some of the ingredients here in Mazatlán, so when Greg and I went to Tucson over MotoWeek I bought some of the ingredients I’d need—dried seaweed, dried bonito flakes, renkon or lotus root, dried shiitake.

I invited my beloved girlfriends to come on Monday, the day between US Mother’s Day and Mexican Mother’s Day. I would celebrate them. We were all excited. I cooked most of the day on Sunday, enjoying myself immensely. I also cooked all afternoon Monday. I made:

  • Ebi-shinjo, or shrimp balls.
  • Two kinds of stock: shrimp and tuna, the latter flavored with shiitake as well.
  • Nimono, stewed veggies, using the tuna stock. I cut the carrots into flower shapes, I soaked and peeled the celery, I soaked and trimmed the shiitake, I got creative and used palmitos as I didn’t have take-no-ko or baby bamboo. Japanese food is nothing if not putzy.
  • Chawan-mushi, steamed egg custard, using the shrimp stock, and adding root veggies (goboh, renkon), fish, shrimp and shiitake. It’s one of my favorite dishes. Making and steaming 13 little cups took a lot of time on my little stove!
  • Ohitashi, boiled spinach, squeezed and trimmed, then covered with sesame seeds.
  • Nasubi-yaki, grilling the cutest little baby eggplants that I’d bought at the Farmers’ Market, then covering them with bonito flakes or katsuo-bushi.
  • Sake no miso-yaki, or salmon grilled in miso sauce. This was the easiest to cook, and is something I make often, though usually not using salmon. It’s a family favorite.
  • Kani, kyuuri to wakame no sunomono, or pickled crab, cucumber and seaweed salad. This is what my Japanese mother always makes for me when I come home. Just the thought of it warms my heart, say nothing of the taste!

Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

My, did I have fun! However, on Sunday evening, towards the tail-end of my first round of cooking, I suddenly realized, “My friends are going to hate this food!” I love it; it’s near and dear to my heart. It’s part of me. But they like food that pops in your mouth, full of flavor. Japanese traditional home cooking is subtle, the flavors are comforting, perhaps indistinguishable to a Mazatlecan palate. And this sort of Japanese cooking is not so colorful: it has lots of dark browns (shiitake) and greys (root veggies), with a splash of orange carrot or bright green spinach here and there. Oh dear.

Cooking Japanese is a lot of work. I didn’t cook gourmet; I made home cooking. But, with the difficulty getting the ingredients here in Mazatlán, and the hours it takes to make the stocks, trim the veggies, fish and seafood just so, and put together six small dishes for each of 13 guests… Well, I realized I was cooking this for ME, not for THEM! This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself: showing my girlfriends a very important part of who I am, how I came to be. Of course they wouldn’t have the decades of emotion behind the food I was offering them; they’d just be tasting what I put in front of them. But they love me, and they know I love it, so, they’ll enjoy it even if it’s not their favorite.

When the big night came, my girlfriends arrived bearing gifts of all sorts: two kinds of incredible pies, a pot of delicious cocido, wine, rolls, cookies, ice cream… Normally when we get together, everyone brings something to share; that makes it easier for everyone and we can just focus on enjoying ourselves, catching up, laughing, and not fussing. Normally, I love it. But tonight would be different.

Greg poured the wine as they came in, and I had set out some dried pickled plums—umeboshi. I figured they wouldn’t like them. Oh was I wrong! They were a hit! We ate sour plums and drank our wine as we watched the sun set.

image

Photo by Patty Pazos

Afterwards, we were ready to eat. I recruited several girlfriends to help me serve, as we would have to load all those different dishes in individual plates and bowls, one for each of us. The girls seemed to enjoy this part.

Once everything was served, I explained to them how Japanese put their chopsticks horizontally, and Chinese put them vertically. I shared with them a bit about Japanese cooking: that you tend to have something raw, something boiled/stewed, something grilled, something sour or pickled, something steamed. Two of my girlfriends have been to Japan; they know all about this. I explained that they could pick up the dishes, hold them up to their mouths—that such was polite, the custom in Japan. They listened carefully, and thanked me profusely for all the effort I’d put in.

And that was that. The Japanese meal and customs were interesting, but the main course was our enjoying one another’s company. Love trumps knowledge. We ate, laughed, told stories, moaned, commiserated, learned and taught. And, we drank. We discussed our kids, who we want to be, and our summer plans. The night was warm and fresh, the stars were plentiful, the moon was a deep orange. We watched the various fishermen in the bay, bobbing up and down with their lights. We were happy.

13220948_1608708659445703_5529972228681168284_n

Didn’t turn out so bad for a handheld shot…

So, did they like the meal? First off, most everyone asked for forks. No need for those chopsticks. They absolutely loved the salmon, asking me for the recipe. Most of them tasted the chawan-mushi, and left it sitting there. It was a huge bust. 😦 They ate the pickled cucumbers, but not the seaweed. Pieces of the nimono were eaten, but most was left untouched. I’m sure the problem was the color. And the texture. I very much enjoyed eating the rest of it over the next few days, so it didn’t go to waste.

Everyone said it was just too much food. And it was. But, also, it wasn’t to their liking. Oh well. I had fun making it. And the night was great. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset, and the ocean breeze kept us cool while we laughed, talked, and later ate our dessert.

I’m glad I did it. Probably won’t do it again. The experience reminded me that the purpose of getting together is to enjoy one another’s company. One or two Japanese dishes would have been plenty.

Girlfriends, thank you for your friendship. Thank you for smiling and giving it your best shot. I love you. And for you, dear readers, here’s the miso fish recipe:

Baked Miso Fish

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

6 thoughts on “Bridging Cultures—Those Within Me

  1. So interesting,as always, Dianne. It fascinates me that there are so many sushi places here! I guess the combination of fresh fish and rice caught on with the Mazatlecos. Please tell me your favorite place for sushi in Maz, if there is one. 🙂

    • I wish, Dee. Over the years, I’ve had favorites, but they tend to get rid of the good chefs. To me, it’s important to have good quality rice. The rice needs the vinegar; lots of places here just use plain rice, and it’s too sticky. NO cream cheese on good sushi! No mayo, either. And most definitely I want wasabi and pickled ginger. Sushi is easy to make at home, fortunately, since we have so much fresh fish. Missing you, lady! Glad to hear from you!

  2. Dianne, I’m crying as I write this because of so many emotions and thoughts and feelings around our culture, food and family, yes? I love what you recreated for yourself and made this strong offer to your friends. There is no place like home, and it is how we define home that matters. I have so many stories I can share with you and I know you would understand. I decided to make a Chinese New Year’s dish that my mom and dad would work days on prepping. I just made one dish and I was lucky that I could find the ingredients and I took it to a work place event to share. I did make sure it was more of a tasting event vs a full meal. People were very polite and there were questions as I explained my family’s culture practices. People are really brave and most are so open trying odd looking food items. I was happy to share and sad that my family and those times have passed on. And so tears for new and old practices. Missing you!

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