When I think of food, I think of my exotic mother singing Jazz in the kitchen.
There she swayed back and forth, offering up a taste of “this gravy or that sauce” while she also taught us a rhythm or two by Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald with a spice of ginger and pepper.
My mom is Japanese, from Hawaii and she “raised the house” and her four kids on a regular menu of savory recipes and dishes that could not be easily measured in bites or morsels.
My earliest memory is an image of my round face peering over the dinner table to catch a glimpse of her lush, relaxed dishes that warmed every sensibility.
Beyond the actual homage to food itself that bonded our family was the complement of my father’s ethnic heritage to go along with my mother’s. (He is of Russian-Jewish heritage.) Rather than kvetching about what cultural foods would be chosen for family meals, my parents lovingly fused varieties of ethnic splendor that made feasts for both our spirits and appetites.
As my siblings and I were the only part-Asian children in an all-Caucasian neighborhood, we were the envy of friends with our Japanese-inspired lunches that resembled Bento boxes. (Mind you, this was long before sushi and chicken teriyaki were hip mainstays of American food culture.)
And even though I am only half-Japanese, I have never felt “less than” for not being 100 percent Asian. If anything, my bond with my Japanese heritage seems to be forever and passionately cemented, especially now that I have children of my own.
Being a multicultural child and adult has not been easy, and was riddled with experiences of bigotry, racism and stereotypes by others who would rather that I check the box “other”—rather than ever identify myself as a multicultural and multifaceted woman.
Therefore, it is both grounding and healing that the continual blending of our family’s ethnic recipes is what has most helped my family feel empowered insofar as our cultural and self identity.
I will never forget the first time I cooked a meal “all on my own” for my family. I kept putting it off from one year to the next as I was nervous I would not measure up, even though I knew it would make my mother feel proud, respected and revered.
Today, I have children who are one-quarter Japanese, who are as passionate about their culture as I am and desire to learn everything they affectionately call “Japanese-style.”
They also tell me they have a dream of visiting Japan, and that they want to start cooking the hundreds of recipes handed down in our family from four generations back.
When my youngest daughter recently asked how to prepare rice for our family meal, I felt my eyes tear up and suggested that she call her grandmother up and ask her.
“It will make Meme happy,” which is what we lovingly call her. “She will be proud that you are beginning to cook and will be honored that you asked.”
Not long from now, I am sure I will basking in the glow of my exotic Asian-Russian daughters and the carefully cooked meals they will prepare for me, as their nationalities also include Italian, Polish, and Spanish.
And what a day and a feast that will be!
Here are two classic and easy family recipes that we have shared for generations, one from my Jewish grandfather, and one from my Japanese grandmother.
Grandfather Robert’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
I teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.
Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for two and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.
Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.
Grandma Hatsuyo Aoki’s Easy and Delicious Japanese Stew in the Crock Pot (Niku Jaga)
I cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are yummy too!
Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot and cook on high for 4–6 hours or on low for 10-12. Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner! Enjoy especially on cold winter nights and on afternoons when you need to warm up your body and soul.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons