My father's hunger

At my childhood kitchen table, in broken English and Japanese, my father taught me about family, the past and the poignant pleasures of food.

By Linda Furiya
Published January 2, 2007 12:48PM (EST)

My father had a theory on how to get my brothers and me to eat new foods. All we had to do was taste the dish three times, but not at one sitting. By the fourth time, he claimed, our palates would have grown accustomed to the new taste and texture and we'd be ready for a full serving. I can't say that his theory worked every time, but more often than not it nudged my taste buds toward unusual foods, such as salty, gritty-textured toronako (fish roe) and strong-flavored, oily saba (mackerel). The strategy worked better than the guerrilla tactics some of my friends' parents used, such as expecting their kids to finish a heaping plate of liver and onions, as though they inherently enjoyed the stinky dish.

It was my father's father, Jinnosuke, who inspired this method and who, Dad claimed, taught him how to eat. Not the mechanics of eating, such as how to use chopsticks or cut meat with a dinner knife, but the spiritual aspect of eating thoughtfully, mindful of the source, and pacing oneself as in meditation or praying. Dad learned from his father, and passed down to my brothers and me, an appreciation of eating as a smorgasbord for the senses, a boost to the spirit, a conduit of memories. According to family lore, my grandfather had such a seductive, ravenous way of eating that anyone sitting with him at the table who saw the way he savored each morsel, the expression of pure pleasure he wore, would suddenly feel hungry. In the same way that you might feel calmed by a person who's deep in meditation, by the expression of peace showing in his or her sitting posture and face, my grandfather inspired people to appreciate food. In my family, this was considered the ultimate compliment.

My grandfather was an elusive apparition who passed in and out of Dad's conversations. Dad described him with the reverence and respect one would use to describe a fallen hero, but his stories were spiked with undertones of resentment and a kind of longing so strong, it was like an ember that could never be extinguished. In some people, the sight and feel of a bauble or a certain scent in a room can set off a string of memories. For Dad, it was always food -- the setting of a meal or its sensual characteristics -- that struck a chord of nostalgia.

The summer after I turned eight was unseasonably cool, as if spring and its rains had decided to stay a while longer. It was the perfect weather to enjoy yakiniku.

Under Dad and Mom's watchful eyes, my brothers and I were each designated a square area of space on the long griddle and a plate holding a stack of thinly sliced sirloin and vegetables to cook and eat as we pleased. It was a very busy affair as five pairs of chopsticks crisscrossed to lay down, flip over, or pick up the seared meat and vegetables.

It was not until the second or third batch of grilling that the pan was perfectly seasoned with the meat juices, producing a beautifully seared surface to cook on. The beef, its cobweb of fat and red-striated meat spreading out like a scarlet gossamer lace handkerchief, shivered and shrank on the hot pan. Tendrils of smoke and the smell of charred beef lingered in the dining room.

It was a rare meal where everyone was present. When Dad had a day off from work, his relaxed appearance at the foot of the table, usually empty at most dinners, put us all in a jovial, lighthearted mood. That night, even Mom, who often remained in the kitchen cooking and serving food through the end of dinner, was seated at the table, good-naturedly teasing and joking, indulging in rice wine from a traditional square cedar sake cup.

Dad peered at the tough, shriveled meat I had taken off the pan. He shook his head disapprovingly.

"Good that Jinnosuke not here to see this." He waved his chopsticks at my meat, the dirty gray hue of an old washcloth.

"I like it this way," I retorted. It didn't occur to me that he thought I was ruining a good piece of meat. My parents chastised us for the usual things, such as not covering our mouths when we coughed, but rarely for our style of eating, as long as it wasn't wasteful or terribly unappetizing to watch. He glanced again at my beef, now reduced to the color of gray asphalt with a floppy consistency. "Nothing made Jinnosuke sadder than overcooked meat."

Ignoring his comment, I dipped the beef in my bowl of sauce, a piquant mix of soy sauce, green onions, minced ginger, and my favorite, a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. To prove to Dad that it was fine, I ate it. The once-pink marbled tissue of sirloin resembled a crisp brown autumn leaf. The meat flavor was nonexistent, and I was tasting mostly the rich, savory dipping sauce, in which the most dominant taste was the clean, spicy notes of grated daikon radish that reverberated from the tip of the tongue to the back of my throat.

Dad ate all his meals with vigor and passion, as if each were his last. He hated eating in a hurry as much as his father despised overcooked meat. Instead, Dad lingered over every sip of wine or bite of food throughout the duration of a meal. He paused between bites, resting his chopsticks across his rice bowl as he decided which delicacy he would taste next. Dad admired the whole meal placed in front of him and then studied each dish, appreciating its appearance and aroma. He may have eaten a dish a hundred times, but he approached each meal anew, as if he had never before tasted what lay in front of him.

As he enjoyed the special foods -- the first vegetables of summer, or a nicely cooked piece of fresh fish, or homemade tofu -- he'd close his eyes to better focus his senses on the experience. Sometimes when he opened them, his eyes would shine as if he had just experienced a thrilling roller coaster ride.

As I reached for more slices of meat, Dad, who was no longer able to bear watching me cook, reached for my stack with the length of his chopsticks and said, "Back in Jinnosuke's day, yakiniku was very expensive. Not everybody could afford to order beef in a restaurant, especially rib eye. When I was your age, Jinnosuke told me that meat should barely be cooked on each side. Taste better this way. Let me show you."

"Must be very hot," Dad continued, holding the palm of his hand over the griddle's surface to check the heat.

"Grill one side. Jaa! Not too long time. Like that." He imitated the sound of sizzling meat.

"Don't wait, don't hesitate, just turn it over. Jaa!" Dad flipped the steaming piece of meat into my sauce bowl. Unlike my wilted piece, the full-bodied taste of the beef coated my mouth with flavor, the same way the tannins of fine red wine would when I was old enough to appreciate it. The slight tang of rare meat remained after I'd swallowed. From then on, jaa-jaa became my way of cooking yakiniku.

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When I was eight years old, every day after school from my bedroom window I would watch the melancholy, inky-blue sky fade to complete darkness as fall welcomed winter in its place.

The first frost of the season was expected. In the vegetable garden, the last few remaining hakusai cabbages were draped in plastic, an indication that our meals would be heavy with the sweet, hearty leaves.

On a cold evening, the perfect end to a meal was a bowl of tamago gohan (rice and egg porridge). The rice porridge was my comfort food, like chicken noodle soup was for my friends. Japanese mothers fed their children this porridge when they had a cold or were recovering from the flu. The essential flavors of the porridge came from the rich broth that remained after chicken-nabe, a one-pot chicken and Chinese cabbage dish. It was unusual for Dad to cook, but chicken-nabe was his specialty, and the ingredients and dark wintry weather at hand suited this meal. Like the yakiniku, chicken-nabe is a communal meal prepared at the table, where those joining in can help themselves to the cooked chicken parts and hakusai cabbage as they please.

The clay pot sat atop a butane-heated tabletop burner that kept the broth, precooked poultry, and vegetables piping hot. We ate in happy silence, savoring the tender chicken and silky cabbage, dipping it in a lush, lemony-salty soy dipping sauce. As Dad prepared to make the porridge, the meal was just starting for me. I watched Dad, as if he were catching goldfish with a handheld net, slowly drag a slotted spoon across the golden broth to strain the remaining bits of chicken and cabbage. When it was clear of the meat and vegetable, Dad turned up the blue flame of the gas stove, bringing the broth to a rapid boil before adding the fresh steamed rice to the pot. Like Italian risotto, the rice porridge required long constant stirring to prevent scalding. It was the rhythm of the stirring that seemed to put Dad in the mood for storytelling.

Dad was in the habit of picking up a conversation from months before as if it had been a topic of conversation earlier that very evening. "Jinnosuke made a good living off of his jewelry and watch-repair business," he said out of nowhere. At this, Keven stopped tapping his rice bowl with his chopsticks and Alvin wiped a bit of cabbage he was about to fling on me onto his napkin.

He spoke in Japanese, allowing himself to speak without stumbling for the right word or losing his train of thought while concentrating on putting sentences together.

I could hear the rice grains splashing in the pot as Dad swirled them around with a wooden rice paddle. Within minutes, the grains would plump up with hot liquid.

He stopped for a moment and turned toward us. "Before all his good fortune, though, in the late 1890s, when he was still in his twenties, Jinnosuke arrived in the port of Oakland. He moved to Sacramento, which had the second-largest population of Japanese in the United States after Los Angeles, and opened a small watch-repair shop downtown. Later, as his business grew, he opened a jewelry store."

"By the time he was forty, younger than I am now," Dad said, touching his chest, "he had a thriving business, a family, and a big house -- all the things a person dreams about when coming to America.

"There was a time around 1908 when Japan and America made a pact called the Gentlemen's Agreement." He stopped a moment to gently tap the wood spatula against the side of the pan before setting it in the spoon rest. "This pact restricted the entry of Japanese and Chinese laborers to America. The government thought these immigrants were taking away jobs from American citizens. There were no women for these men to marry because only Japanese women with husbands were allowed in. Mume and thousands of other Japanese women came into the country as picture brides."

"What's a picture bride?" I asked, impatient for him to tell me more about my grandmother.

Dad gave me a look that was reserved for me when I asked too many questions too quickly. Again, he held up his finger.

"These laborers couldn't afford to go to Japan to marry, so their families sent pictures to them and initiated the matchmaking process that way. The women coming over on the ship and the men who went to meet them had pictures of each other to recognize whom they were meeting.

"So Mume was Jinnosuke's picture bride?" Keven asked, twirling one chopstick through his fingers.

"No, no, Mume came over as a picture bride, but she didn't like the looks of the fellow she was promised to and turned down his offer of marriage. This was courageous for a twenty-year-old Japanese woman back then. Then she decided to stay in San Francisco." Dad stopped his story to add a couple of ladlefuls of broth to the thickening rice. I stayed at the table, deep in my own thoughts about my independent-minded grandmother.

Talking about her conjured the antique photos of Mume I had seen in the old family photo albums many times. There was one taken in a photographer's studio. My grandmother's voluptuous hourglass figure was clothed in a high-collared ruffled Gibson girl blouse; she wore a long dark skirt that touched the tops of her lace-up boots.

I had seen that photo so many times that I had memorized every detail of her expressionless face, the way she leaned against a table, a gardenia entwined in her fingers. She did not smile, as was the custom in photos back then, but there seemed to be intelligence -- even secrets -- behind her black pinpoint eyes. When I first saw the picture, I felt relieved and proud that she was dressed in Western clothes, that her hair was twisted in an Edwardian-style updo. I never once saw any photos of her wearing a kimono. From what I knew about her headstrong character and unconventional ways, it seemed appropriate for a contemporary woman such as she was to go against what was expected, to defy traditions.

Through the coming years, as I entered adulthood, I would become more and more fascinated with the enigma of my grandmother Mume: Her life in Northern California after the years she left the man she was promised to marry and before meeting Jinnosuke, and the way she and Jinnosuke met, are still a mystery even to my father.

As I waited for Dad to stir the rice and continue his story, another sepia photo I had gazed at many times came to mind. It showed the happy, privileged life my grandparents had lived. The words "Christmas Day 1923," the year my father was born, were scrawled in ink across the bottom of the picture. I wondered if the slanted cursive was Jinnosuke or Mume's handwriting. It was a candid family portrait, rather than the usual stiff and serious sittings so popular back then. It was shot in the parlor of their house and clearly featured a windup record player, wicker stroller, and dolls surrounding a Christmas tree so tall it touched the high ornate ceiling. The photo captured a mustached Jinnosuke dressed in a suit, doubled over laughing. Uncle George, then six, wore a jacket and short pants, and Aunt Jane, age five, was in a stiff-collared dress, also laughing. Mume had an amused smile on her face, her hair twisted and pinned up, a long, lustrous string of pearls around her neck.

"I was four years old when Mume died," Dad said, repeating a fact I already knew. "I don't remember it happening, but my brothers told me that Jinnosuke almost lost his mind. His life changed. All our lives changed."

Mume died at thirty-three of complications from pneumonia. My father had a photo of Jinnosuke that stands out in my mind. He was standing behind the jewelry counter of his store. The inside of the shop was shot from far enough away to see the beams across the ceiling. Jinnosuke wore a tweed vest, dark wide tie, and white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. He appears small in the spacious, dark, wood-paneled room. It was clear that it was taken after Mume's death. His eyes lacked the brightness and playfulness I saw in other photos. His mouth, straight as a line, looked as if it would crack if he smiled, the corners turned down like a basset hound's.

Mom brought Dad two eggs in a small bowl. Before she stepped away to begin washing the dinner dishes, she rested her hand on Dad's shoulder for a moment. He didn't acknowledge this gesture, and it could have passed undetected, except that his shoulders straightened. I could tell from his satisfied grunt that the spatula scraped clean when he dragged it along the bottom of the pot, indicating the rice mixture was ready for the final ingredient: eggs. Carefully, Dad broke the eggs into the small bowl and, with a long pair of kitchen chopsticks, beat them to a bubbly yellow foam. He slowly trickled the egg batter over the rice with one hand and stirred slowly and evenly with the other. I knew the rest of the story, that Jinnosuke couldn't take care of his four children without his wife. The older two were more self-sufficient, but the youngest were sent to live with my great-grandmother.

Dad seemed tired all of a sudden. He turned off the burner before placing the lid on the pot. The rice porridge had to sit for a few minutes. While we waited, Dad leaned back in his chair for a moment, then forward on his elbows. "I remember when I left Sacramento by boat. It was a big boat and I was by myself. I stood at the rail, just crying and crying."

My brothers and I exchanged looks, our shock reflected in each other's faces. This was part of the story we hadn't heard. I learned at another time that the two youngest siblings weren't sent over together. Sumiko arrived months later, and Dad had to make that trip over first, alone.

"In Japan, I lived in the countryside in a town north of Mount Fuji for five years when I was nine. My grandmother couldn't afford to care for Sumiko-chan and me, so we moved to Tokyo to live with our new parents who adopted us. I missed the fresh air and view of the mountain. That was the best place for a boy to be. But that was a long time ago."

When Dad said "adopted," I glanced over at my brothers. They wore masks of nonchalance.

"Mom, the rice is finished!" Dad yelled from his seat. As Mom stood at the table, spooning out the thick rice porridge using a wooden rice paddle, I saw her look at Dad before asking if he was okay.

Dad quickly nodded his head, cleared his throat, and lifted the lid. His eyes closed just as a puff of steam blurred his features for a second. "When I moved to Tokyo, my name became Ichiro Shimura. No longer was I called James Furiya. My new parents were civil servants of the Japanese military. They could not have me using my American name.

My brothers and I leaned into the table, our bowls of porridge in hand and our heads drawn together so we could eat and listen at the same time. Mom handed Dad a bowl before starting on her own.

Shifting his attention to his porridge, he said, "The rice needs a little salt." Mom reached across the table for the shaker, sprinkled it generously into the rice mixture, and then gave it a couple of stirs.

"If you were adopted, didn't that make you part of their family?" Keven interrupted.

"No, it was different in Japan at that time than it is here and now. Adoption was the same thing as being a servant," he explained matter-of-factly, responding to my brother's question in English. It was a fact of life that if a family couldn't afford to support a child, or if the home situation changed, orphanages or well-off families were a place to send them.

"One of my responsibilities was washing all the corridors of the house," my father continued. "First with water, then dry it with a towel, and afterward rub it with okara, the leftover soybean fiber after it's made into tofu. I wrapped it up in a cloth and used as a cleaner. Then I followed with linseed oil. If you didn't rub the oil into the wood well enough, the wood felt sticky. I had to rub the wood for a long time. It was a big house, too." Dad made fast swiping motions with his hands as if scrubbing an invisible surface. Maybe he was trying to protect himself, or maybe us, by continuing with these details in English rather than his more articulate Japanese. But he didn't realize how the details told in his choppy English actually made the story more shocking.

"Sometimes I had no time to eat breakfast, just enough to clean up the house and go to school." Dad pushed rice into his mouth.

"One morning I used too much oil and needed to rub it in longer. I thought I was finished. When my stepfather inspected it, he got very angry at me. I was on my hands and knees, and he yelled at me, 'Still feels sticky, keep rubbing!' He pushed his stocking foot on the floor, then kicked me hard.

"It was early morning and I was already tired and hungry, but I rubbed down the corridors again. I was late getting to school, so my teacher made me stay late that afternoon. This made me late getting home. Boy, my stepfather was angry. As a punishment, he made me sit like this for two hours." Dad put down his rice bowl and chopsticks and got down on his hands and knees on the floor. He sat on his calves and ankles, the traditional way Japanese women typically do.

Standing up shakily, he said, "I can't do this now. Too painful. My legs go numb. But at the time, if I moved, my stepfather hit me on the head with a bamboo stick." He slapped his hands together, then quickly cowered and covered his head as if deflecting imaginary blows. Angrily Dad hissed, "Still, to this day, I hate that man."

My eyes turned down, I stirred and blew on the half-eaten rice porridge, even though it was already cooled, for something to do. Then, holding the bowl to my mouth, I scraped heaps of rice in with my chopsticks. These simple, normal motions felt exaggerated and awkward. The silence blared in my ears and remained after our rice bowls were empty.

Japanese Barbecue (Yakiniku)

Often confused with teppanyaki, in which meat, seafood, and vegetables are cooked and served at a restaurant's table grill, yakiniku is the home version. A good flat nonstick electric frying pan works best. Otherwise, you can use a butane gas tabletop burner and a nonstick frying pan. Ask your butcher to slice the beef sirloin as thinly as possible (1/16 of an inch).

Stay away from lean cuts of meat. If you plan to cut it yourself, freeze the meat for 10-15 minutes for easy slicing.

1 pound of tissue-thin sliced beef sirloin
sliced eggplant
sliced mushrooms
sliced onions
sliced zucchini
Jinnosuke's Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)
2 fresh lemons, halved
soy sauce

Serve the raw meat, seafood, and vegetables on separate decorative platters (all the meat on one platter, all the seafood on another, and so on).

Place the electric frying pan in the center of the table, where everyone can comfortably reach. Diners cook their own ingredients, dipping them into the sauce right off the pan.

At the table, serve the yakiniku with Jinnosuke's Dipping Sauce, the halved lemons, and soy sauce.

Serves 4.

Jinnosuke's Dipping Sauce

There are countless varieties of dipping sauces; you can even buy bottled ones. I prefer this dipping sauce recipe for its citrusy bite, a mouthwatering combination when paired with the seared meat, seafood, and vegetables.

1 cup daikon, grated
5 green onions, chopped
4 teaspoons ginger, grated

In four small decorative serving bowls, place a 2-tablespoon mound of daikon, a sprinkling of green onions, and ginger. Serve with yakiniku. Set aside any left over as reserve.

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Copyright © 2007 by Linda Furiya from "Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America." Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, and imprint of Avalon Publishing Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Linda Furiya

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