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Stir-fried cucumber and pork with golden garlic
Stir-fried cucumber and pork with golden garlic from Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. The beni shoga (red pickled ginger) just wanted to be there for the photo.

Just ’cause are my favorite kind of gifts. My mother sent me Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, not for any particular reason, but because she suspected it could be a cookbook I didn’t already own. I skimmed the book on the bus to work this morning and—remembering two homegrown cucumbers given to me by my next-door neighbor—I decided to make the recipe for stir-fried cucumber and pork with golden garlic. The cookbook features many stories from ex-pat Chinese who speak of trying to recreate “real” Chinese food in Peru, the United States, Burma, Jamaica. Some of the stories ramble a bit and could have used tightening up. And one particular story concludes with an attempt at a kind of metaphysical food writing that can fall very flat. Writing about how a simple eggplant stir-fry is delicious made either with or without ground pork, she states:

I no longer ponder how the magic works—how one meatball’s worth of pork or that tiny pinch of minced ginger can even be detected in the final dish. That is part of the mystery of a well-constructed stir-fry. It is built on layers of flavor and texture, and every ingredient, no matter how seemingly insignificant in quantity, contributes to the alchemy.

Besides the fact that this could describe almost any cooking anywhere in the world (layers of flavor and texture), I’m not sure magic and alchemy explain being able to taste ground pork in an eggplant stir-fry. It seems more like, well, logic and chemistry to me. I do love good food porn, but I like it well written. I’ll give her a pass on the poetics: the photos of Chinese women holding up woks and bowls full of Chinese food are very sweet and make me hungry.

The technical information is very clear and well-written. For example, she spends 16 pages on buying, seasoning, and caring for a wok. I was extremely surprised and smugly gratified to find a page with a photo of a carbon-steel wok that had been used for two years (and was therefore properly seasoned) that looked exactly like my well-used black beauty that I bought 17 years ago. Yes, ol’ Grace had me there. So, having convinced me with her good tips and ego stroking, I decided to get to work right away trying out the recipes.

For the pork and cucumber stir-fry, I had the cucumbers and I bought some Niman Ranch pork. I was already starting with delicious ingredients; it would be up to me to not screw them up. In this recipe you mince a large amount a garlic and pre-fry it to infuse the oil. The garlic cooks only until “light golden” and then is strained from the oil and reserved. The pork gets a marinade of soy, sugar, salt, and corn starch. Like most stir-fry recipes, you must prep everything in advance and then go for it because after you fry off the garlic, the rest of the recipe takes about 4 minutes: fry up slivers of ginger, brown pork in wok, but do not cook through, add cukes, toss, splash in some soy sauce, mix in reserved garlic, serve. I added hot chili flakes because my Bolivian husband gets nervous if his food lacks capsaicin.

Good stuff, thanks mom.

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Sunny late afternoon, riding the bus home from work. I’m reading my Japanese textbook and murmuring the words. I’m on the aisle and beside me is a woman with a flat American accent talking to another woman in the seat in front of us. Although I’m trying to concentrate on the new grammar using uchi ni [while a certain situation holds], I keep getting distracted by “new job,” “need the hours,” “we’re spoiled because we all have our own bathroom,” “it would be nice to be able to afford Dupont Circle.”

The bus stops. Suddenly my seatmate says brightly, “Shitsureshimasu!” [Excuse me]

I stand up to let her pass and, without thinking, I say, “Hai, dōzo.” [Please go ahead]

And she’s off the bus before I can say anything else.

Day 4, Fuji from the Shinkansen

Oh those dire times, back in July 2008, when Madam, your blog mistress, with misgivings and many protestations of 寂しくなるだろうよ (I will miss you) was required to move back to the United States. Farewell, sake friends and sumo tournaments and my unbelievable Japanese teacher with her weekly regional treats and her tart ironic glance at her countrymen…

So, I embraced the moment and sought a new name for this blog. What fun, I would continue the blog in America, and Ambrose Bierce would be my standard-bearer. The blog was renamed!

A year-and-a-half goes by and I’m buying too much sake and reading back issues of Kyō no Ryōri (Today’s Cooking). I’m wondering why American bathtubs are so shallow and useless except for washing a sweater, where can a gal get a proper soak? I got nothing for a blog.

Sei Shonagon is fucking laughing at me. She’s in her layered silks and writing about how this fool arrived at court begging for scraps, singing bawdy songs. Nope, it was Sei’s bag all along. I may be located in Washington, D.C., but a piece of my is still in Japan.

I want to explore sake and Japanese culture, or what scraps I can find in the Washington, D.C. area. Of course, I may meander off topic. After all, I’m eating a white pizza while drinking a lovely junmai ginjo right this moment.

Therefore, the blog goes back to its maiden name, “You, madam, are no Sei Shonagon,” and there it shall remain.

I think.

マダムが忙しいですから、ブロッグにかけなかった、ごめんあさい!

Madam has been a bit busy learning a new job, taking Japanese, worrying over her sick dogwood tree…

She promises to write before the end of August soon. If you would be kind enough to check back later (おかえていただけませんか), she would greatly appreciate it.

Mophead hydrangea
Here’s a photo of a hydrangea (taken June 2008 in Tokyo). I want one of these blue ones for my garden next year.

Back soon… またね!

Homemade onigiri with bainiku

Photo: Homemade omusubi stuffed with bainiku (pickled plum)

Not long ago a newspaper reporter came to interview me on the subject of unusual foods, and I described to him the persimmon-leaf sushi made by the people who live deep in the mountains of Yoshino—and which I shall take the opportunity to introduce to you here. To every ten parts of rice one part of sake is added just when the water comes to a boil. When the rice is done it should be cooled thoroughly, after which salt is applied to the hands and the rice molded into bite-size pieces. At this stage the hands must be absolutely free of moisture, the secret being that only salt should touch the rice. Thin slices of lightly salted salmon are placed on the rice, and each piece is wrapped in a persimmon leaf, the surface of the leaf facing inward. […] A slight bit of vinegar is sprinkled over each piece with a sprig of bitter nettle just before eating.

—Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (1933)

I first read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows in 1990, when I was stationed in Japan during my short and very sweet four years in the Navy. I had long adored Japan from afar and couldn’t believe my luck at being sent there to live and work directly out of college. Tanizaki’s book with its mournful and highly aesthetic sensibility seemed incredibly strange and yet completely familiar to me—something I could say of Japan in general. The more I learned about Japan, with all its paradoxes, the stronger I felt a sympathetic resonance in my heart. Although I was usually empirical in my thinking, I would visit some old farmhouse in the mountains and become convinced that I was once Japanese. This bizarre love affair has never really ended for me. My husband and I met and fell in love in Japan, and so Japan will always be the place where love begins. After many years of travel with the Navy, we were able to return to Japan from 2005 to 2008, three fortunate years during which I studied Japanese, drank excellent sake, and communed with friends. This blog started during that time. The posts from the first year reflect the happy life we had there (despite his many Navy deployments).

We returned to the States about a year ago, and I allowed our busy American life to absorb me (buying a house, finding a job, working, trying to catch up with pleasure on a Saturday). I thought of (think of) my Japanese teacher every day, feeling sick at heart at my neglect of her (I must write in Japanese, so I rarely do it), feeling saddened to witness the Japanese words I so carefully tended in my mind to wither and die. Something had to be done.

I signed up for Japanese classes at the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. At work, I started taking short breaks with my kanji dictionary, enjoying their mystery again. I came home one day, unboxed my 土鍋 (donabe, earthenware pot) and cooked Japanese rice from Niigata.  I remembered a recipe for making rice that I had carefully translated from Today’s Cooking きようの料理 magazine for one of my Japanese classes with my incredibly patient sensei. The recipe had very specific instructions for washing rice, giving the “five fingers apart shooshing” and the “swirly fingertips” methods of moving the rice around in the rinsing water. My teacher made the motions with her hands, giggling. She said, “I never cook. This seems incredibly fussy to me.” We laughed and drank green tea.

Tanizaki’s essay came to mind as I reflected on missing Japan. What did I miss? What could I capture here in the D.C. area? Tanizaki was mourning what he thought was the end of pure Japanese aesthetics with the arrival of modern, Western life (e.g., the harsh glare of electric light). I was not mourning an ideal past of Japan, but specific pleasures like sake tastings with friends, the local fishmonger, my teacher’s ironic laughter, even the sweat that dribbled down my back at I stood waiting in August for a train to Tokyo. I missed Japan. I miss Japan. I can have shadows of it here, a sip of sake, a moment or two with Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), and perhaps a letter to my teacher written vertically on the stationery she gave me.

So, I made some omusubi (rice balls) stuffed with the flesh of pickled plums. I wet my hands and rubbed a bit of salt on them and formed the triangles around the dark pink bainiku. In the morning, I toasted nori to wrap around the rice. It tasted just right to me. Japan must be summoned in a rice ball.

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