Well, it took 9 months from when we saw the property to move in, 5 of it spent on renovating. Our simple project of adding a bedroom and redoing the kitchen somehow turned into a near gut. There is no such thing as the perfect home, but we are pretty happy with the way it turned out. The project was a pleasure since we hired our friend Amanda to be the architect and our wonderful builder Gabor did a beautiful job. I’ve never had to figure out where the light switches should be and the outlets, so it was good to have people who do this for a living that we trust advising us. We’ve been in for a little over a month now and have miraculously unpacked nearly all the boxes. When you build your own space, you tend to build places to hold all your things. What an advantage. Not sure I would recommend this for everyone, but it worked out for us.
Our daughter started uni after 2 gap years and is loving it. She has mentally flown the coop and I think she thinks of coming home as “visiting”. Son in his last year of senior school, looking forward to a gap year next year. I am very lucky to have two very different wonderful children, they are fun to hang out with. I enjoy having them around but am very happy that they have their own full lives.
I spent the year getting ready to start my new life. I had the feeling that things would get going once we moved into the new flat. Since that didn’t happen until the end of the year, it will have to wait until tomorrow, when the new year starts.
For the first time in many years, I plan to bring in a little tradition for the new year’s celebratoin. We will be having soba this evening. It is traditionally eaten to bring long life. Tomorrow morning, I will make a traditional soup to start the new year. It will just be the two of us probably since the kids are with friends for new year’s. Not the elaborate creations of years past, but much more than I have done in a long time. Maybe it’s because I feel like I am at home here.
Here’s to a healthy happy new year.
It’s almost the new year, and although I am not a big one on resolutions, I thought I might look back on this year, as it’s been very eventful.
We started the year in limbo, in a rental flat, looking for the next place to call home. Finding said new home was a long and fairly painful process. We were lucky enough to sell our place before the market went south but discovered that as house prices dropped, properties were pulled off the market everyday. Basically people who didn’t have to sell, didn’t. So, as usual, our budget didn’t quite stretch to what we wanted, but it was tantalisingly close. Husband Dan went and looked at anything anyone called him about and spent a lot of time online looking for properties. We looked at a couple that we thought were doable, but nothing struck our hearts. I am a firm believer in not buying until you have that sense of being at home when you walk in to a property. I guess that’s not technically true since I really disliked the layout of the last flat but for some reason had a compulsion to be in the building, but anyway, when I have that feeling, it’s always worked out later when we sell. Dan got really frustrated with me because I wouldn’t commit to any of the properties we had found and wanted me to compromise. I refused and said I would wait for that feeling. 2 weeks later, we both stood in a property that was basically a blank canvas and we both had that feeling. So glad we did.
Boxing day, another quiet day in London. Had an invitation to a friend’s for lunch but husband is sick. It’s really too bad, I was looking forward to it, but he is coughing like he is going to lose a lung so probably best to stay home. Another grey day, although yesterday had some bursts of brilliance. Kids are going to hit the sales today, hard to get motivated to brave the crowds. The house guests are off on a Stonehenge adventure this afternoon. Funny how everyone who comes to visit wants to go there, maybe I’ll get there one of these days. I need to put some structure around this cooking class idea, perhaps I’ll work on that a little today.
We moved to Tokyo in 1997 with an 8 year old and 5 year old. We put them in an international school and I started to experience life in Tokyo that I didn’t know existed. We were part of the “expat” community, a small pretty tight group of foreigners who were in Japan on assignment. We had a very nice life, large flats, American appliances, membership at the American club and holidays in Asia. I discovered in the 15 years I had been away, so many short cuts were invented for food in Japan. It was now possible to buy many seasonings in a packet to add to ingredients to make dishes, there was pretty much no end to the things available in these packets. Also, the takeaways were absolutely delicious as was the ready made food available everywhere. Consequently, I didn’t cook much at all in Tokyo, just produced meals very little of which was home made. I did join a food coop in Tokyo which is a wonderful service. Every week you get a catalog of food as well as sundries ranging from clothing to kitchen gadgets. You pick what you want, write it on an order form, they come and pick it up when they drop off your order from the week before. That was the simplest way to get organic produce in Tokyo at that time. I tried to continue my eating organic whenever possible. So four years in Tokyo went by in a flash and it was time to leave. Next stop, London.
I had heard horror stories about food in the UK and I did have the experience of having cheddar cheese on my pizza when I visited in 1983. But food in London in the beginning was bewilderingly expensive and not good. I wouldn’t say it was horrible there were definitely some good restaurants. But everything was very expensive and price didn’t guarantee quality. Coming from four years in Tokyo, where most food is very good regardless of price, I felt royally ripped off. There wasn’t a huge variety of produce either and deliveries were pretty hard to come by so I found myself trying to figure out what to make for dinner. In the early years, I shopped at M&S because they delivered. I now shop at Waitrose for the same reason. I do a big weekly shop and then supplement at health food shops and the local Tesco. Funny how even with the house being just my husband and me, I still feel compelled to do a weekly shop, old habits I guess. I eventually settled on a boring menu of a protein, veg and starch. It was the easiest meal to produce and required no brain power. Getting Japanese groceries was a pain, it required a trip to Piccadilly since we lived in central London. I found an online shop that delivers but obviously couldn’t get fresh ingredients that way. I have a friend who is truly into her food. She will travel great distances and make anything she can’t get from scratch. I am not nearly that dedicated. So what I am trying to do is to try and adapt what I know to what is available locally. It is the seasonings that make it taste the way it does and I think it is ok for the ingredients not to be authentic. There are so many vegetables you just can’t get in the local shops and while there is no substitute for some things, others, you can fudge.
I entered a new chapter in my life this past May when I finally decided I needed to do something about my weight. I had put weight on gradually in the 8 years that we lived in London and I hadn’t noticed how much bigger I had gotten. Well, it got to the point where I had to lose weight or buy new clothes. So I decided to lose weight. I also hadn’t exercised since the first year we lived here so I figured it was time to get back into that too. I did the very strict Elimination Diet for a month, a detox as well as weight loss and started back gradually on the exercising. I lost a little weight that first month, but it really wasn’t until the second month that things really started moving. I realised I felt very good from the combination of the diet and exercise and decided to adopt some of those things everyday. The diet eliminates caffeine, alcohol, dairy, wheat and sugar. You also eat organic wherever possible. Well, you cut out the wheat and sugar and pretty much my snacking was gone. I was a total sugar addict and it turned out I was wheat intolerant. It’s been 7 months now and I feel really good, I have lots more energy, but that’s probably as much to do with going to the gym three times a week. I hope to keep this up for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, I do have things I shouldn’t, but usually the physical discomfort that follows makes it not worth it.
So, my interest in food was rekindled as what I could eat was severely restricted. I found myself cooking a lot more, as I had to make things I could eat. Home made really does taste better and it could be really quick. I am reconnecting with my Japanese cooking chops since it is easier to adapt Japanese food to my new way of eating. So I hit upon the idea of teaching Japanese home cooking to people in my flat. It would be Japanese cooking taught by someone enthusiastic about food, not in a gourmet way, but in a quick and easy kind of way. Food doesn’t need to be complicated to be good, it is all about the right ingredients. And so begins my journey.
In 1975, my dad was transferred again, this time to New York and I was 16, found myself back in the States, but a very different place from LA. Our diet was pretty healthy, there was a Japanese grocery not that far from where we were living, so meals at home were still pretty Japanese. From there, college in NY, the rest of my family went back to Tokyo after my first year so I was alone for most of the year, going home at Christmas and summer. Nothing remarkable here, I had a pretty typical young person’s diet, lots of pizza, Chinese food, booze but lots of dancing to work it off. You could find lots of cheap good food in New York and after a brief stint at home after college, I was back in NY, hanging out with my boyfriend (now husband) and friends, working and eating. I cooked a lot back then, we loved to entertain. I would plan elaborate meals, shop and cook on a Saturday and have friends over for an evening, We both had pretty demanding jobs so during the week, we ate out mostly or had food delivered and I saved all my cooking for “occasion” food. I never did cook any Japanese food though, except for things like stir fries and fried rice because Japanese cooking was my mother’s domain. We got to go out for Japanese when my dad was in town and he would take us out.
Fast forward a bit, we are now married, living in Park Slope and we have a baby. I have quit my job to stay at home with my baby Hana, “poor but happy” was our motto back then. We joined the Park Slope Food Coop, a wonderful place full of wonderful food. It was here I was introduced to organic food and how much better it tasted than regular food.
My parents were back in New York, so once again, my Japanese food consumption went up. I made most of Hana’s baby food since it was a simple thing to do and organic baby food was just being introduced. Thanks to the Coop, I always had the freshest ingredients to hand. Fruit and vegetables just tasted more like what they are in organic form. Here is an anecdote about organic food; when Hana was a still very little, the coop was only open 3 or 4 days a week and I had run out of carrots for her. I went up to the green grocers on Seventh Avenue and bought some, cooked it and gave it to her. She refused to eat it, because it tasted nothing like the carrots she was used to. Now obviously that’s an extreme reaction and she now eats organic and non organic produce, but I was very surprised.
Well, we had another baby and moved to Montclair, a New Jersey suburb, into a lovely house on a great block. With the birth of my kids, my own cultural identity started to become more important and I began to cook more Japanese food. I wanted to pass it on to my kids but also, they seemed to really like it. I discovered that all those years growing up, helping mom in the kitchen had stuck and I had a pretty good grasp of the basics. What I couldn’t figure out, I would just call home and my mom would talk me through it. She sent me some cook books and some of her own recipes and I would recreate the dishes I had been brought up on.
My ultimate triumph as a Japanese cook came when I made a new year’s box. In Japan, traditionally, the first three days of the new year are a time when everyone rests and you visit friends and family so a traditional food box is eaten filled with food that would keep over the three days. Of course traditionally, it would be filled with lots of fish products but I was married to a vegetarian. So, I had to cut way back on the fish, and add veggie version of some things. Much of the food in the box also has symbolic meaning mostly to do with good health, longevity and hard work. Somewhere I have pictures, I think, it was a pretty proud moment and I did it at least two years and then we were transferred to Tokyo of all places. But more on that tomorrow.
I haven’t always liked food. That is not to say I ever had an eating disorder. When I was a baby, or so my mother tells me, I didn’t like to eat. She would struggle to get me to finish my bottle (I never did) and later she would buy me very expensive jars of baby food which I would eat a couple of bites and that was it.
But at some point, I started a love affair with food. It was probably when my family moved to LA in 1965 and I discovered ice cream. Not the anaemic low butter fat content stuff I had in Japan, but full fat American ice cream. We lived not far from the Carnation store in LA and it was a frequent treat. We ate lots of red meat for the first time and although my mom did make some Japanese food, my sister and I were just in love with the junky, fatty food available in the States. We both developed weight problems and there are school photos from those days I would just as soon never saw the light of day.
After 5 years, we were transferred back again to Tokyo and what a shock to the system! It was cold there, first of all, 5 years of not owning an overcoat in LA and then October in Tokyo. We also reverted to a Japanese diet. 1970 was a time when there were no American fast food restaurants; the diet was still pretty typically Japanese. There were shops selling ready made food, but made in the shop, not some large factory somewhere. Even the box lunches you got for train trips were made in small batches somewhere near by. Within 6 months, my sister and I were back to our normal weight. I would never be the ridiculously skinny kid that I was pre LA but I no longer stood out in a country with very few overweight young people. Gym class was a horror. I had never been particularly athletic, not being the most coordinated person in the world, (just ask my trainer) and the once a week volleyball gym class in LA did nothing to enhance my fitness. In Tokyo, there was gym class 3 times a week and they would make us run, play softball, basketball, jump these ridiculous boxy things which all my class mates did with some degree of ease since they had been doing it since they were 6. Hmmm change in diet, exercise three times a week? Sound familiar? I actually never put that together till just now.
My mom went on a cooking rampage. She re discovered the wonders of Japanese food. She took a kaiseki course and prepared elaborate meals for us, only to have my sister and I not appreciate them in the least. My dad was rarely home in those days, being a “salary man” and all so life was mostly the 3 of us. I really regret that my palate was not developed enough to appreciate my mom’s kaiseki, she’s always been a remarkable cook and I’m sure it was wonderful. Having children of my own now and having them be really appreciative of everything I make, I feel bad I couldn’t do that for my mom. Kaiseki was followed by bread making. That we appreciated, especially the crusty rolls with cubes of cheese she used to make. Because you see, the Japanese diet was slowly starting to merge with the west. Frozen vegetables were introduced, KFC came to town, all things which should have set off alarm bells, but at the time were embraced as new and exciting. I remember watching a documentary about the struggles the American companies faced, trying to bring frozen vegetables and KFC into Japan and it was definitely a little patronising and depicted the Japanese as having to be convinced of this new way of eating which was already a part of every day life in the States. Oh if we only knew what we know now, dieting probably still wouldn’t exist in Japan. More tomorrow