Finding my way to Washoku
The ume have been salted and pressed and sit marinating in their own juice when the heavy rains began. It is the season of tsuyu, the plum rains named for their timing that coincides with ume work. Cold air from the north and warm air from the south lock horns and bring a string of overcast wet weeks to Japan. Below the heavy sky temperatures rise and when torrents aren’t pouring down, the air is still and swampy. The memory of my first tsuyu in Japan lingers, tropical, dreamlike, and vivid. I stood at the bank of windows in Kuniko’s dining room staring out in disbelief, mesmerized by rain that roared against the metal roof and ran off the eaves in solid sheets. The downpours lasted for hours leaving me to wonder just how much water the sky could possibly hold.
The lights are off to keep the room cool and the glow from the windows softly bounces off Kuniko’s large round table. The shiso stained ume napping in buckets silhouetted against the silver glow of a rainy day filtering through the bank of windows. There is so much peace here, a quiet joy that fills me with contentment. People talk of this, what they call the slow life, but there is nothing slow about it, save for an occasional and fleeing moment like this one. More often than not we are running. When the ume are ripe and the skies briefly clear, when the market owner calls and says the freshly dug rakkyo have arrived, no matter your plans for the day, your deadlines, your duties, you must carve out any time you can, day or night, to gather the bounty and preserve it.
I adored homesteading stories of the American frontier as a girl. In them I found the story of life on the prairie, the origin of my unusual name. I borrowed Willa Cather books from the elementary school library and imagined myself homesteading on large plot of land miles away from the nearest neighbor. It was just the life for me, I thought, the perfect way to indulge my curiosity and desire for adventure while remaining the staunch homebody I’ve always been.
But as I grew I developed a bit of wanderlust, restlessly traveling further and father afield. And as I saw more and more of the world I developed an eye for design, a minimalist aesthetic, and a deep devotion to beauty. So how fortuitous it is that I landed in Mirukashi and a life that feels like homesteading in a foreign land. It seems only natural that I fell in love with Japanese cuisine with its controlled and collected presentations that please the eye and its comforting flavors that please the palate. There I found a longed for marriage of aesthetic austerity and warmth of spirit that suits my nature perfectly.
My introduction to washoku through Kuniko positioned me to practice a version of home cooking that is quite uncommon in modern Japan. Born in 1938, she is at the tail end of the last generation who cooked from scratch, a nationwide band of women who strove for efficiency and economy but never much concerned themselves with convenience. And as her husband’s esteem grew in the world of pottery, Kuniko found many a celebrated artist and chef at her table. Through friendships over the years she developed an eye and sense for a sophisticated version of Japanese food and married those ideals to her already established practices of cooking wholesome meals from scratch. How lucky I am that she passed these unique sensibilities on to me.
At the end of 2013 I could sense the national pride when UNESCO designated washoku an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Japan’s traditional cuisine was honored for all of the same reasons I have grown to love it. The skills, knowledge, practice, traditions, and aesthetics related to producing and consuming food place particular emphasis on health, diversity, freshness, seasonality, pure flavors, and on its relationship to the heart and soul of the culture. But UNESCO’s list is ultimately an endangered species list for culture. The decision implied that washoku needs protection and that was not a cause for celebration.
I struggle with my place in all of this. It is not my heritage to claim, and not the place of an expatriate to swoop in and make grand declarations. But at the same time I have found in it such beauty, such inspiration, such solace. And so I soldier on doing the only thing I know how to do. I sing its praises.