Written Isabelle Qian, (Yale University), Student Correspondent for CET Japan, Summer 2022
Sometimes, when I eat food in Japan, I find myself trying to chew thoroughly and with great concentration — kind of like a cow. I try to taste everything that I can: the hints of lemon in the fish, the specific density of the noodles. In Chinese, to describe someone who cares deeply about food, you might say, “This person can really eat!” My parents often say this about me. However, the truth is that I don’t really know how to eat. I want to draw the most that I can from the moment of consumption, but I’m never really sure what that exact formula is, how to savor a food well enough that it imprints itself forever on my memory.
If you go to Minoo, be sure to check out their specialty: deep-fried maple leaves.
For me, food and memory are often tied together. Sometimes, I can remember foods that I ate better than the cities where I ate them. Once, in middle school, I took a trip to California. Nothing about that trip stands out as clearly in my memory as the world’s most perfect BLT — the revelation of the sourdough bread — how I bought it from a completely random grocery store and ate it standing outside, looking at the ocean. I’m probably never going to find that sandwich again, but I think about it all the time.
The food in Japan is, of course, excellent. I grew up eating a lot of Japanese food at home, so I won’t say that the cuisine is a novelty to me, but that doesn’t mean that I am not still delighted and surprised every time I take a new bite.
Some late night Crème brûlée
When I go home, how will I be able to remember Japan without recalling that gorgeous bowl of udon at the tiny restaurant near my apartment; or unagi katsu, extraordinarily lovely and delicate; or fatty tuna, which I ordered as an impulsive indulgence, one that I would highly recommend because it costs half the amount here that it does in the US. Everyone at my table ended up ordering tuna that night. It was a chain reaction: we would watch jealously as one person and then the next received their nigiri, the fish on top so marbled in fat that it resembled beef, and then, as they took their first bite, they would start laughing. Like it tasted too good, it was almost a joke, or maybe just some kind of belly-deep instinct of human joy.
Unagi Katsu in Kyoto!
To save money, I cook most of my meals in my apartment. The kitchen area is, admittedly, tiny, so cooking can feel kind of difficult. But I have found that making myself dinner is one of the best parts of my day. It can be so relaxing, and also creative. When I go to the supermarket, although I can’t read any of the labels, I am reminded of all the Asian markets that I frequent with my mom in Seattle. Some of these ingredients are so familiar to me — I bought the exact same brand of rice vinegar that we use at home. This brings me a lot of comfort. Eating new things can be exciting, but sometimes you need those old, beloved flavors to cure you of your homesickness.
Of course, I have also been experimenting with some new, Japanese recipes. Recently, I tried making an onsen tamago for the first time. An onsen tamago is an egg cooked at a low temperature inside its shell, so that the white is soft and the yolk is still raw. It’s such a lovely thing, creamy and beautiful in color on the inside. I put it over a bowl of noodles with blanched leafy vegetables and some stir-fried beef. Break the yolk and mix everything together with some soba sauce, and you have yourself a great bowl of cold noodles for an exhaustingly hot Osaka day.
Udon with an onsen egg! I’m too embarassed to show my own attempt.
I’ll end with a little anecdote. Today, after eating ramen at a tiny shop in Kamishinjo, I took what I thought was the train back to Aikawa, only to end up at the completely wrong station, in some area of town where I had never been. From there, I tried once again to take the train to Aikawa, but I once again ended up on the wrong train, which, to my horror, flew past Aikawa without stopping. Finally, on my third try, I got it right, and at 9 pm, I descended the train and walked out of the station — only to find, for no seeming reason, a crème brûlée food truck parked outside the convenience store. As I waited for my tiny cup of crème brûlee, I chatted with the chef. He wished me luck with my Japanese and handed me my dessert, which I ate sitting in my apartment. It was so pretty and sweet. I tried to savor it — slowly, with great concentration, like a cow.