Monday, October 13, 2008

Cooking From Scratch

When I moved to Japan in 1982, I felt like everything was 30 years behind the states--the trust level of strangers, the low statistics in crime, the moral fiber of society, the sexism of TV and the work place, not to mention the average home and family. It all reminded me of the era in which I was born--the 1950's! And in 1982, the majority of Japanese cooks were dyed-in-the-wool believers of cooking from scratch.

The average housewife I met in the English conversation classes I taught were in their 40's and 50's, with children grown enough for them to feel free to pursue a hobby (such as mastering English). But I was amazed by their discipline in managing household chores each day, while cooking full breakfasts and dinners for their families without the use of convenience foods (or appliances, like microwave ovens). Those (microwaves, and the wave of processed foods to nuke in them) didn't come for another ten years after that.

I had been raised in a home where my mom had cooked most everything from scratch, but she also liked to use a crock pot, casserole recipes (which are often just the combination of any number of canned or frozen ingredients before baking in an oven) and a number of packaged and prepared seasonings, baking mixes and bottled sauces to prepare our family meals. I learned how to cook and bake utilizing these short cuts and was satisfied with the results.

I came to Japan and was shocked to learn that no one used frozen vegetables, and canned veggies were also available in abundance only at the international store. Most of the cookbooks I had in possession were recipes requiring 'short cut ingredients' I couldn't find in the neighborhood Japanese market. All the cooks I knew here could de-scale and gut whole fish, for heaven's sake--something I have never aspired to master. It's considered no big deal-- a basic cooking skill in this country; and still is one of the components in most beginner cooking classes! Of course, fish (and other fresh seafood) is a major fare here, and I grew up in the Midwest, where "Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks" and canned "Chicken of the Sea" tunafish was the most fish I ever wanted as a kid.

So I had to become reconditioned as a cook from the ground up, once I began living in Japan. I was insecure and unsure how to proceed. I'd be invited over to someone's house for a home-cooked meal and ask the cook how she'd made a dish, and she wouldn't have a recipe to copy down for me, per was all sort of in her head and heart. She'd learned by watching her own mom or gramma cook, and could imitate their repertoire till it became her own.

I was constantly discouraged by the tekito method of cooking in Japan (a little of this, a dash of that)--it all seemed so random! I felt I was being set up for sure-fire failure in the kitchen. But in time I, too, have developed a kind of instinct and confidence as a cook in Japan, and now am the first to encourage others in the tekito culinary arts. You aren't chained to a set of measuring cups and spoons anymore! Instead you pour in a little or a little more, and taste as you go. It is a freedom to improve a basic recipe with whatever inspiration you may feel at the time. Of course, there were failures along the way. It took time to develop my instinct as a cook unchained to a cookbook. I still write down the instructions of friends' descriptions of how they cooked a new dish I'd like to master. But after a few tries, I don't need the notes anymore. That's freeing.

In the 26 and a half years I've lived in Japan, the average younger housewife (in her 20's and 30's) has grown completely dependent on convenience foods and processed ingredients. Many young women today cannot cook to save their souls, and are hunting for a man who can afford to take them out to dinner each night OR able to cook decently himself, for the two of them. The housewives I used to teach are all grammas now, and many, widows. They shake their heads at the younger generation... who aren't quite so savvy in the kitchen anymore. Cooking from scratch is an art that may be nearing extinction, if we aren't careful to pass it on to future cooks. I am truly grateful I was converted before it was too late!


Twice Blessed China Mom said...

Hi Sally,
This is how I cook. I just made borscht for the first time. I looked at a number of recipes, realized there are a lot of different ways to make borscht, closed the books, and just started cutting vegetables. It turned out great! My favorite food to cook is soup. Sometimes my colleagues smell my soup lunch at school and ask me how I made it, and I try to describe it because I never follow a recipe! I have a lot of squash from the farm we went to this summer, and will try squash soup this weekend. Keep cooking!

Sal said...

Thanks, Jeana! I'm thrilled to hear you are a "tekito" cook who is liberated and confident enough to create her own culinary masterpieces! Right on! You go, Girl!