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July 13, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

A kitchen with a worldview

Making pancakes for breakast

(April 8, 1993)

In the world I move in, the world of mothers and housewives, the talk inevitably gets around to food — and it gets around to it pretty quick. I don’t mean in any abstract, gastronomic sense, but rather the more direct “What are you making tonight?” When you cook 365 days a year, this is a concern.

“What kind of food do you make, Japanese or American?” I’m often asked this by those who appear to be unaware that this question could also be put, “Of the two cuisines in the world, which do you cook?”

And I’ve been surprised by the number of people here (I’d probably be surprised by their numbers in the U.S. too) who are under the impression that the essence of American cooking is hamburgers and french fries and other variations on the meat and potato theme. The American cuisine I’m familiar with, the regional dishes of the South, Southeast, Southwest and Northeast is unknown to them.

The other common question about food is, “What do you eat for breakfast? Miso soup and rice, or bread?” In answer to that I usually launch into a description of oatmeal, but it seems no matter how I tell the story, no one is enchanted.

And although I know how to captivate palates, most of the people I know have no idea what a pancake is, or a waffle. They’ve never heard of, let alone tasted, corn bread, corn muffins, buttermilk biscuits, scones, whole-grain bread and cereals. [And don’t get me started on brunch!]

But the fact is, the traditional Japanese breakfast of miso soup and rice is what my children prefer, and I make it all the time. Of course too, I love Japanese food and have so many favorite dishes I wouldn’t know where to begin to name them — but we could start with sushi.

Besides the foods of America and Japan, I regularly cook Italian and Spanish dishes, Middle Eastern food, and the foods of Mexico and India. Getting my hands on the ingredients needed to prepare these dishes used to be a trick, but now they can be bought easily. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw couscous in a large department store just recently. “Where were you when I needed you?” I said to the shelf.

For years I’ve rationed chickpeas and hoarded lentils. And I became pretty adept at imitating the things I couldn’t get. I had a concoction I’d make out of kurozato (black sugar), that was a fair imitation of maple syrup. I made good fake corn tortillas, and bagels too.

Trying to invent fresh produce is another matter. For all the green leafy vegetables to be found here, there is not one that comes close to collard greens (the outer leaves of cabbage comes closest). I’ve had to accept that living without collard greens is the price I pay to live in this country, because pretending doesn’t work. One either has collard greens or one does not.

Although I can find okra to make the African dish gombo, you can hardly think about making this stew when okra, the essential ingredient, comes in micro-packages of eight.

I enjoy cooking for friends and introducing them to foods they’ve never had before. And many of my friends are good, adventurous cooks, willing to experiment with recipes and experience another culture without having to leave the dinner table.

Just the other day some neighbors and I were talking about the virtues of putting potatoes in the national favorite, curry rice. While they debated the benefits of mashing the potatoes into the curry, and whether or not one should add salt and pepper to the curry roux, I stopped the conversation in its tracks when I said I wanted them to try my curry of blended spices and coconut milk.

Always on the lookout for new ideas, my co-housewives are ever curious to know what the lone gaijin in their midst cooks. I can often be found walking around knocking on neighbors’ doors with dishes for them to sample. If you believe a picture is worth a thousand words, then I guess a bowl of couscous must be worth a million.

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POSTSCRIPT

My city-dwelling friends will no doubt be surprised that we in the provinces think about cooking 365 days a year. But that’s for real. Sure, now we might go out — once or twice a month — but coming up with dinner most nights of the year is the default. And forget ordering out. That is not a possibility around here. 

So much has changed. I doubt I have a neighbor now who has not tasted a scone. 

And all those ingredients that were so special they had to be obtained in upscale department stores, if at all — can now be found in local supermarkets. I can buy all the maple syrup I want at my co-op.

But ah yes. Breakfast. And even more, brunch! That may be the only thing I desire food-wise — to be able to go out for breakfast/brunch … sometimes … ever!  

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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