A Message for Okāsan (mother)

pond-for-webWhile my sisters and I were growing up in the leafy, affluent environs of the North Shore, my mom often attempted to point out our good fortune with stories from the past. One of her favorites was how she walked rather than took the bus  from our apartment in Lincoln Park to Star Market (at the time, the only Japanese grocery store in Chicago) just so she could spend the extra money on a better cut of maguro for us.

Such stories didn’t really sink fully into my teenage brain (as  it was filled with more pressing concerns such as grades and boys), but I never forgot them. Her sacrifice was a revealing one that underscores the important role food played in our lives. Her actions make sense to me in an abstract sense, but if I really think about it, would I have done the same? Freeze my toes off in flimsy rubber boots while lugging a shopping cart miles down Clark street in the drifting snow, all for a few moments of happiness that only great tuna can bring? Maybe not, but then again, I don’t have kids. I can only imagine that her sacrifice was made worthwhile not for her benefit, but for ours.

My mother, who in her youth looked like a movie star, hardly looks like someone who had to make sacrifices, or for that matter, spent lots of time in the kitchen.  She was (and is) an excellent if not natural cook. I remember her reading Japanese food magazines, her brown knitted as if she were reading an incomprehensible riddle, as she decided on the day’s menu. Perhaps she was trying to figure out what Western ingredient to substitute for which Japanese one? Poor mom, she was not only thrifty, but had to deal with a foreign culture while feeding a family of gourmands.

The results were delicious, and we didn’t know the difference. Didn’t all Japanese make tsukemono out of cabbage? And have bacon with their tamago gohan (egg on rice)?

It was only after I moved to Japan as an exchange student and started my frequent transpacific journeys that I came to understand that the cuisine I grew up on wasn’t the same as my cousins in Tokyo. And I started to feel sorry that my parents couldn’t be with me to sample a meltingly soft square of ootoro (fatty tuna) or sip a cup of fragrant hiresake (roasted blowfish fin in hot sake.)

Such moments remind me that I’m still that spoiled and fortunate Americanized child who can’t fathom her immigrant mother’s sacrifice. The chasm of our worlds are so far apart. But as I grow older, I’m more and more grateful for everything I have made possible only because of the hard work and thrift of my mother and father.

So today, in honor of mothers day, I have a message for my okāsan.

I love you mom. Thank you for your sacrifices and for your brilliance in the kitchen that never made we want for anything. You instilled in me such confidence in the world, and a feeling of abundance that are still with me today. Likewise, your healthy cooking, served hot every single night, helped me grow strong and healthy so that I never developed a taste for junk food or sweets. Thank you for all the bentos you made, and for running out of the house after me, barefoot, on the days I carelessly forgot them. No matter what I can do for you for mothers day, it’s not enough.

We’re here, together today with the whole family in your honor. Let me cook for you. What would you like?

The Pleasures of Kyoto

I work for one of the country’s leading luxury travel companies. I manage all of their wonderful programs to Asia, and as a result,  have contacts at Asia’s finest resorts and hotels: from the Four Seasons to Banyan Tree to Peninsula. The hotel managers and sales directors are always trying to get me to stay at their hotels, and if needed, I know I can take a luxurious trip to practically any idyll in Asia for a vastly reduced rate.  But before you get too jealous, I’ll reveal to you that I’ve never taken advantage of this great perk because I have a problem. The problem is my husband K.

K loves Kyoto. He can think of nowhere else he would rather be. When we were planning our upcoming trip I presented many tasty alternatives: How about sampling savory street food in the markets of Luang Prabang? Hiking in flower-strewn valleys alongside yaks  in the shadows of the Himalayas in Yunnan, followed by butter tea and Tibetan-style momos? A yoga session at a palace hotel in Jaipur, followed by a multi-course Rajasthani feast of subtly spiced dishes never found in the US?

Nope. It has to be Kyoto. 

And who can blame him? Kyoto has it all: it’s skyline dotted with temple roofs and pagodas; winding streets lined with lattice-front machiyas that have been converted into restaurants, galleries and boutiques;  contemplative gardens that get better with each visit and hidden shrines tucked into alcoves among busy shopping streets. 

And then there’s the food! We can’t understand why people say the food in Kyoto is hit-or-miss. We have yet to have a bad meal there. After all, some of the best ingredients are produced within the city: from silky artisan tofu that hardly needs soy sauce, to yuba that melts in your mouth with such decadent richness it’s hard to beleive its healthy, to seasonal locally grown kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables) picked fresh that day, the talented chefs have a multitude of material with which to work their magic.

And magic is what they create, from a long culinary history unique to Kyoto. I could go on and on, but that would take a book and a lifetime.

As if we need more reasons, there are the people. Elegant and proud, the people of Kyoto have exqusite taste and refinement that is steeped in history, yet embrace the new and trendy with gusto. It is such a fascinating mix we are never bored – not even for a second. And if you as a visitor are earnest and truly interested in their culture, the locals are more than willing to share its secrets with you.

This is why we return again and again. We leave in less than 10 days, and can hardly wait. Perhaps K will broaden his horizons in the future, but for now I’m more than content to continue our love affair with Kyoto.

How about you? Have you been lucky enough to experience a stay in Kyoto? What do you think of the city?

Welcome New Members!

Welcome to the Savory Japan Blog!

It’s been a little lonely in here, so I’m so glad you stopped by. Whether you are an old friend or new, please introduce yourself and let us know what brought you here.

I’m your host, Risa. You can read a bit about me on the About Us page of Savory Japan or the About post accessed through the sidebar.


Aoi Masturi at Kichisen on Kyoto Foodie

Kyoto Foodie is a wonderful blog about the multi-layered culinary culture of Kyoto. The current post is about the Kyoto Kaiseki meal served in honor of the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) at Kichisen, one of Kyoto’s finest ryo-tei. The article showcases stunning photographs that really show the level of art kyo-kaiseki can attain.

We’re going to Kyoto in a few weeks and will have to see if a meal here would break the budget or not….

Luckily, a visit to this site is like a visit to Kyoto, and you can enjoy the meal with your eyes. Hope you enjoy it!

Sake Gains Respect Abroad

The sake primer on Savory Japan briefly mentions the decline in the number of regional sake breweries. This is due to the unfortunate fact that domestically, consumption of Japanese food – along with its natural pairing, sake –  is on the decline, as Western food gains in popularity.

This April 24 article from the Japan Times covers this trend, and goes on to describe that in the future, there may also be a shortage of the type of rice needed to make sake, as rice production is also on the decline due to the lack of young blood in the farming sector. This, along with the changing diet of modern Japan described above, are two major issues  that are close to my heart. I’ll be covering these issues in future postings and articles.

However, the article claims that there is hope, because as sake loses popularity at home, it’s gaining popularity around the world. The article describes this phenomenom, and wonders if foreign interest will spark national pride among the Japanese.

Will outside interest cause the Japanese to value what they already have? Only time will tell, but there is reason to be hopeful, as it has happened before.

Michelin Guide Kansai

Ever since the Michelin guide to Tokyo was published, and the resulting controversy and buzz the city’s 227 stars (more than any other city in the world) has generated, my friends and I have been talking about the fabulous restaurants in Kyoto and Osaka, and wondering why there wasn’t a guide to what is known as the center of food culture in Japan. While cosmopolitan Tokyo’s culinary landscape is a microcosm of the worlds’, the Kansai area, including Kyoto and Osaka has long been viewed as the place where Japanese culinary traditions were born, flourished and refined over thousands of years. As you can imagine, this leads to some REALLY great dining, at prices generally lower than in the capital.

In the Japan Times article of April 24, Jean-Luc Naret, the director of the Michelin Guide, says “Kyoto is a place where gastronomy is really quite important, with a history of traditions and products,” …. “And Osaka is Japan’s second-biggest city, with good restaurants in every category.” The guide is due to be published in October, and according to the Japan Times, is anticipated to increase local food sales by “30 to 50%.”

Of course, we’re wondering if any of our personal favorites will wind up on the list. And also, how exactly does one become a Michelin judge? Wouldn’t that be the best job in the world?

Welcome to the new Savory Japan Blog!

Hello all! Welcome to the brand new Savory Japan Blog! I’m your host, Risa.

Savory Japan has generated enormous positive response since it was launched only a little over a month ago! It’s opened so many doors in such a fast and fortuitous way that it’s been almost frightening. It has already convinced two of my friends to plan long trips to Japan, and has lead to invitations to exciting projects and new directions. I’ll reveal more as things take shape.

I decided to add this blog to provide quick updates, add links to news items about food, and to allow a more personal side to the site. However, the best part about the blog will be the ease in which it allows you to post comments and questions. As always, feel free to e-mail me if you have a specific personal request, but if your question is food or travel related, and can benefit others, please post it here.