THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Food memories

Since we’re starting the Obon season, this is the time to reflect on those who have passed on and remember those times and events that still make us smile. After all, Obon season is when we dance and celebrate with our ancestors.

I’m sure you’re not surprised that many of my memories have something to do with food. Of course, food usually brings people together, including families. And I was fortunate to grow up in a time where the family always had dinner together, or the extended family always celebrated the major holidays with potluck meals.

Remembering Dad
There’s not a lot food-wise that Dad and I had in common. As a youngster, Dad never developed a taste for Western-type foods.

Perhaps I should reword that. Dad always had to have rice with his meal; rice with breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, if perchance we finished the rice from the previous night’s dinner, Mom would cook a new batch the next morning for his breakfast and lunch. Even on those occasions when we ordered take-out pizza, Dad would have to finish his meal with rice, usually with a can of Vienna Sausage. Ironically, as Dad hit the later years in life, pizza became one of his favorite foods … even without rice. That and Hormel microwave cup meals.

But I did acquire one food habit from Dad — the glorious sunny-side up egg. Dad said he was consuming sunny-side up eggs well before meeting Mom. In fact, his usual dinner while living stateside was (I have to take a simvastatin even before typing this) six sunny-side up eggs cooked in the drippings of half a pound of bacon, with everything poured over a huge mound of rice. If he wanted a richer version (like six eggs yolks and copious bacon grease isn’t enough), he would melt butter over the hot rice, then slather everything (rice, bacon, eggs and butter) with shoyu. My chest is getting a little tight just typing this. And this was Dad’s dinner on a regular basis! OK, so I didn’t acquire a taste for this meal (occasional foie gras is as fatty and cholesterol laden as I roll. As a reminder for you Golden State folks, foie gras goes the way of the dinosaur at the end of the month). But I did develop a taste for runny egg yolks. Dad always ate every bit of egg white leaving the runny yolk intact, then sprinkled the yolk with several drops of Tabasco sauce and popped the whole thing in his mouth at once. Rich, runny goodness! Mom always teased him that after all that fanfare, he would end up dropping that last bite on the floor. It never did happen, though, it always ended with that last luscious bite! So thank you, Dad, for getting me hooked on runny egg yolks!

Remembering Grandma
There weren’t very many foods that Grandma craved. She liked dried kaki (persimmon), mainly because it reminded her of Japan. She mentioned to me on a couple of occasions (when I lived with her in Waimanalo as an undergrad) that she would rather die in Japan than Hawai‘i. But even I knew that she wasn’t serious, as all of her family left Japan for Hawai‘i, so she had no family left in the motherland. And for Grandma, Japan wasn’t actually the motherland, as she was born in Hilo and simply lived in Japan during her adolescence to help bring the rest of the family to Hawai‘i.

Grandma also liked French dressing, especially when it soaked her rice. I think it was because the vinegar in the dressing mixed with the rice reminded her of sushi. Her main sustenance was simply rice and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) with stir-fried vegetables. But on occasion, she did make this eggplant and mackerel dish that I still enjoy today. Unfortunately, most of the Issei and Nisei never really measured anything while cooking. If you watched them cook and asked for the recipe, they would simply say, “add this much” sugar or salt, or any ingredient for that matter. Sometimes it was even more abstract, “simmer it until it tastes like this.” So I had to try to come up with Grandma’s nasubi (eggplant) recipe on my own. Basically, it’s just one can of mackerel with four or five Japanese eggplants, cut into bite-sized pieces cooked with sugar, shoyu and a touch of mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking), cooked down until the eggplant is very soft and the mackerel is broken down to tiny bits. The key is avoiding adding too much shoyu and sugar, but just enough of everything. Thank you, Obaachan, for your nasubi!

Remembering Grandpa
As a child, I used to be a semi-picky eater, mainly with certain vegetables. I didn’t like celery; that’s why Auntie Corinne always made a separate batch of potato salad for me at family gatherings. She labeled the serving bowl, which was without bits of celery, “Ryan’s Salad.” I also disliked macaroni and cheese, so Mom always packed a lunch for me when it was macaroni and cheese day at the cafeteria. I also didn’t care for raw cabbage as well as other raw crucifers, and still don’t care for raw broccoli or raw bean sprouts. However, Grandpa converted me disliking raw cabbage.

Once every couple of months, Mom and Dad would pack us in the car for a trip from Kane‘ohe to Waimanalo for dinner at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. The highlight of dinner was always the same: roast beef. Mind you, most Hawai‘i families during the ‘60s got their daily meat in canned form: Spam, Vienna sausage and Hormel’s canned corned beef. You could literally stretch one can of corned beef for several meals, with half a can added to several pounds of cooked, mashed potatoes for corned beef patties and the other half added to several sliced cabbages for corned beef and cabbage. Likewise for Spam and Vienna sausage, because the saltiness and fattiness allowed you to stretch your carbohydrates and vegetables. Therefore, during select Sunday dinners, we were treated to real meat: fresh roasted beef. But that’s not what I really remember or even crave. It was the side dish of shredded cabbage and carrots served with French dressing. Mind you, raw cabbage wasn’t anywhere near the top of my cravings AT ALL. But when Grandpa took a bite of that pseudo-slaw and looked at you and said, “Mmm, good, yah!” There was no way I could say, “But I don’t like raw cabbage Grandpa.” So I simply took a bite and said, “Yah, good, Grandpa.” Good enough for Grandpa, good enough for me. And I eventually started eating raw cabbage on my own, even when Grandpa wasn’t there. So thank you, Ojiichan, for getting me on the raw cabbage bandwagon since everyone knows that pulled pork and slaw is one of the best sandwiches known to mankind!

Remembering All
I also relish Maui Baban’s konbu (kelp) chicken, Auntie K’s Maui hot dogs with sweet Kula onions, Uncle Ogi’s chili pepper water and fried tako (octopus), Auntie Itamura’s fried noodles and kimchi, Mr. Abe’s tamago meshi (an egg-rice dish) and so on. And though they are no longer here, whenever I recreate their culinary creations in my own kitchen, they once again are with me. Not in person, but definitely in spirit. So I thank all family and friends who are no longer here who have contributed to the way I see food and the way I eat it. And unlike the Obon season, which comes just once a year, I cook and celebrate and remember all year long. Gochisosama!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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