It is Day 54 since I moved to Tokyo, and I’m standing in my “kitchen” trying to cook dinner. Here, the quotation marks around “kitchen” aren’t optional — what I’ve got to work with qualifies as a “kitchenette,” if you use a little imagination. My apartment is exactly 26.08 square meters, a typical Japanese 1LDK: a one-room combination “living, dining and kitchen.” I have a lofted futon, a fold-down table, two folding chairs that lack both butt and back support and a beanbag chair for furniture. The “kitchen” came with a 2/3-size refrigerator, a microwave, two stovetops (no oven, though) and a small sink. Other than that, I have a washing machine, one of those spaceship-commander toilets and a cramped bathroom where I have to flip a lever to switch the water between the sink and the shower. On the surface everything is pretty much the same, just a lot smaller.
My 1LDK has, despite my dour description, become home over the past months. The walls have slowly accumulated a mosaic of postcards, photos and other memorabilia, which I’ve patched on with colorful washi tape. I have a quick doodle of a chubby Pikachu someone drew for me at work, a photograph of a red latticed wall, a photo of my grandparents and, yes, a postcard of Old Campus, to keep a small piece of Yale (no, wait, I mean “a liberal arts school in Connecticut”) with me. I have gotten used to the rhythms of daily life in Japan, from when to take out the garbage (burnable garbage every Monday and Saturday and recyclables on Friday — except for plastic bottles, those are every other Thursday) to which trains to take to avoid the morning crush, and when I say “crush” I mean it quite literally — we’re like a school of silent sardines squished into the swell of cars.
Cooking, however, is another story. I’m trying to make a stir-fry. Stir-frying is supposed to be easy, right? Cut stuff up, dump into pan, fry it, then eat, right?
Google: “Can you eat the stems of shiitake mushrooms?” No. Apparently they’re too woody, but you can use them for soup stocks … gotcha. I chop up the mushrooms but throw away the stems because I’m not at soup-making level yet and wouldn’t want them to rot in the interim. Next … bok choy. Um. Google: “bok choy … stems.” Ok. Apparently I just cut off the very end and the rest is all edible. Good. Next. Tofu. Oh. I was supposed to press it first, to get all the water out beforehand; if I wanted to do that properly I’d have to wait another thirty minutes, at least.
This tofu thing is the last straw. I just worked an eight-hour retail shift in my third language, trying frantically to keep up with the weekend rush of people coming to buy pots and pans and storage containers and small plastic flowers and whatever else people buy on the weekends in Tokyo. I came back home tired, frazzled, with aching knees and all I want to do is eat dinner. I know it’s irrational to be upset about tofu, but it isn’t really about the tofu. It’s about being alone in a foreign country trying to figure out how to live and work and pay bills and do it all without my family, friends or boyfriend nearby. And so, in my little “kitchenette” I start to sniffle and then to cry, as I chop tofu (screw the pressing) and throw it into the frying pan. I’m in Tokyo crying over the proverbially spilt tofu — how pathetic is that?
As much as this may sound like a bit of a pity party, I actually — no, really! — love it here in Japan. I’ve known that I wanted to live in Japan since high school, when I spent six months with a host family studying Japanese at an all-girls, private, Buddhist high school. I initially came for the pop culture, but I left with a second family, a tenuous grasp on the Japanese language and an incurable love of miso ramen. After graduating from Yale, I moved to Tokyo to work for a Japanese furniture and home goods company, where they have all their management-track staff start on the retail floor, hence the “shifts.” Between helping customers pick out the perfect mirror, restocking shelves and occasionally doing some interpretation on the fly, I try to explore as many of Tokyo’s vibrant neighborhoods as I can, usually in pursuit of the perfect coffee shop, quirky cafe or hidden cultural gem.
I love the hidden pockets of nature and beauty this massive metropolis gifts its residents, where you can find a small Shinto shrine tucked in-between two 40-story skyscrapers. I love the emphasis on seasonal food and the ever-glowing neon lights and the blend of traditionalism and modernity that drew me to this country in the first place. Nowhere else can you find people walking down the streets in holographic kimono or little robots that take your orders for green tea. Even though this move isn’t part of some “Eat, Pray, Love” journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, you can’t help but learn some things about yourself, scraped out of the frying pan and pulled out of soup pots and accidentally forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.
It is Day 92 since I moved to Tokyo and I’m finally getting a haircut. There’s a small hair salon near my house, one that’s partnered with a bakery, so two-for-one I suppose. I breeze in on a crisp September morning. It wasn’t until the shampooist started washing my hair that I realized I hadn’t been on the receiving end of purposeful, positive human contact (being squished on the train doesn’t count) in over a month. As the shampooist wrapped my now-washed hair in a towel, I realized that this small, singular moment, with that salon-smell of hair product and fresh-baking bread from next door mixing together, and the feeling of loneliness would linger with me.
So the first thing I did after getting out of the hair salon was eat a McDonald’s hamburger and some medium fries for lunch: a nice, fortifying bit of Americana. Later, when I returned back to my apartment for the evening, I decided to cook something. One positive thing about living abroad is that you get very used to making mistakes. I had always been used to making mistakes in language, mixing up verb tenses and forgetting vocabulary words. Now, when I write and even speak in English, sometimes the Japanese word comes to mind first. It’s harder to get rid of my American roots in cooking, though everything I make, even if it’s a classic American dish, has a hint of something else, like the seasoning is never quite right. Still, I wasn’t planning on making anything too experimental: I wanted comfort food! The last experiment I had tried was a soba noodle salad with edamame and a miso dressing, only I added in way too much miso and the gloppy mess of noodles that resulted looked like, as one co-worker elegantly put it, “hell.” Tasted like over-salted, miso-flavored hell, too.
No, what I needed that night was some good ol’ spaghetti. I put a salted pot of water on one of my little burners to boil and set about grating some parmesan cheese into a small bowl and whisking the result with an egg, chopping up a few cloves of garlic, and setting a few strips of bacon to fry in a pan. As I used the flat of my knife to smash the cloves of garlic (Google taught me that this was one of the better ways to get the papery skin off more quickly) and chop them semi-decently, I marveled at my increased proficiency in my little kitchenette. Half a month ago this same comforting recipe had taken me twice as long, but here I was, mincing garlic like someone who maybe knew what they were doing!
When the bacon was crisp, the garlic browned and fragrant, and the pasta drained, I combined everything with my cheesy egg mixture to make a half-decent, wholly decadent spaghetti Carbonara. No tears required.
Now it’s Day 121 since I moved to Japan (and counting). I’m still not at soup-making level, although my mom sent me a recipe for one of my favorite soups, mulligatawy, to try once the weather turns cold. But I’m better at cooking than I was on Day 54 and even Day 92. I can make things like pilaf and chowder, meatballs, marinated chicken and — finally! — a stir fry that takes only the 20 minutes the recipe assures me it should.
I’ve got a shiny points card for this supermarket that gets used on a weekly basis, and it’s amazing what I’ve learned about Japanese life from what’s on the shelves. Right now it’s persimmon season in Japan, and the supermarket near my house is full of the sunrise-orange fruits and other autumn delicacies like honey-soaked chestnuts and little mushrooms. A month ago it was oranges and Japanese pears; who knows what it will be in November. It’s amazing what I’ve found food capable of: bolstering flagging confidence, promoting happiness and providing a small taste of home in Tokyo. I still love eating out and trying new foods, but now I often like to try making them at home. When you cook your own food you literally nourish yourself, and that’s one lesson I’ll take with me wherever I end up living.
This is a recipe I translated and adapted from my company’s quarterly insurance magazine. It’s an American take on a Japanese take on Italian food! It’s fresh and hearty, and the flavorful rice — the sake makes this dish in my humble opinion — goes well with chicken or any other meat you have on hand. Although it uses ingredients that can be found in almost any Japanese supermarket, whatever I cook here always comes out a little more “American” in flavor than I’m sure the chef intended. The most important thing to remember is the seasoning. More than the literal salt, the “seasoning” is the experience and history each chef brings to the table, so no matter where your kitchenette is, you know that it will always become home.
Tomato and Basil Pilaf
1.5 cups rice
10 cherry tomatoes (or more, if you really like tomatoes)
1 scallion, sliced
1 clove of garlic
1.5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 tbsp cooking sake (or whatever light cooking alcohol you have on hand)
- Wash the rice and let it soak in water for at least 15 minutes.
- In the meantime, lightly score the cherry tomatoes and wring out the seeds. Thinly slice the garlic and scallions and set aside.
- Heat up the olive oil in a pan. Put in the garlic and fry on medium heat until fragrant. Then add the scallion and cook for 1-3 minutes, until the scallion changes color and is cooked through.
- Add the rice and cook for 2-4 minutes until it begins to stick together. Then add the salt, cooking sake, water, and tomatoes. Cover with a lid and let simmer for 15 minutes or until the rice is cooked through.
- Once the rice is cooked turn off the heat and let the rice sit, covered, for another 5 minutes.
- Top with basil and serve.
Read more from Claire’s blog here.