October 24, 2013

Beet Soup with a Japanese Subtext

The red tones in this picture make me think of Matisse's "The Red Studio":
rich, mysterious and satisfying. 

This beet and potato soup was one of the most delicious dishes I had at a dinner that Japanese chef, teacher and cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo made not too long ago. The recipe for it, featured in her most recent cookbook, Hiroko's American Kitchen, includes a medium-sized Yukon gold potato, beets, and leeks. They're simmered in kelp stock, pureed, and then enriched with miso, mustard powder and spiked with minced parsley. The weather was still hot then (yes, I'm a slow and lazy blogger, I admit that) and the chilled soup completely charmed us with its silky texture, a flavor much milder and more subtle than Russian borscht, and as one guest said, without the metallic aftertaste that beets can sometimes bring to the party. The version Hiroko served us was topped with a small torpedo-shaped scoop of homemade shiso sorbet, It's probably more than most of us can muster at home on a weeknight, but was a total treat.

There was more to come, too: a Vietnamese-style squid dish stuffed with ground pork in an umami-rich European-style tomato sauce, and salmon baked in a salt crust, wrapped in a cherry leaf with a cherry blossom hidden within, both of which perfumed the fish. Each guest was called forth to wield a little hammer and crack open the salt shell and smell the fragrant steam that wafted up. There were potatoes roasted in miso with bacon, and simply steamed okra as well. We finished with an amazing cantaloupe sorbet with fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, which paired surprisingly well with the green Mifukuan yuzukosho (preserved citron and chile) liquid and powder that I brought back with me from Saga, Japan.

Virtually everything we ate that night came from the Union Square Greenmarket, only steps away from Hiroko's loft. It was the greenmarket that inspired Hiroko's American Kitchen, which teaches you how to make six simple sauces (including that kelp stock and several versatile and super-handy miso sauces) and use them as the base for a Japanese-accented seasonal cuisine, heavy on fresh produce found in American markets. As with the soup, the sauces aren't always detectable, yet add depth and mystery to each dish.

If you get a chance, stop by the Union Square Greenmarket this Saturday -- Hiroko will be there, selling and signing copies of Hiroko's American Kitchen. You, too, can make her beet and potato soup!

October 11, 2013

Being Japanese American during World War II: East Coast Stories

American Flag Over Barbed Wire Fence, by Koho Yamamoto.
Having grown up in California, I know some things about the West Coast Japanese American World War II experience of evacuation and imprisonment. But I know little about what happened here on the East Coast. So it was a treat to catch the eye-opening exhibit "If they came for me today...East Coast Stories," part of Community Works NYC's "Japanese American Internment Project," which (too bad for you), closes today at the Interchurch Center Treasure Room Gallery on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights.

A series of portraits, biographies, reminiscences and artwork tells the story of seven Japanese Americans who were affected in different ways. Some were born and grew up in New York and only learned later the various ways that their parents were persecuted during the war.

Others, like Masako "Koho" Yamamoto were imprisoned on the West Coast, and then made their way east after being released. Yamamoto was locked up in Topaz, Utah, and then moved to the high-security Tule Lake prison camp, where those who refused to renounce loyalty to Japan or agree to serve in the U.S. armed forces were shunted off to. There, ignoring the deplorable conditions, she wrote poetry and studied ink brush painting under Chiura Obata, a widely admired artist and UC Berkeley emeritus professor.

Describing the above painting, Yamamoto says, "They treated us like prisoners even though we were American citizens." Recalling a time when a group of Obata sensei's students came to visit him at Tule Lake, she writes, "They were crying, saying he looked like he was in prison standing behind the barbed wire fence. He first said, 'Don't cry.' Then he added, 'From where I'm standing, you look like the ones who are in jail.' He had great wit." He coped, in other words, with the means that were left to him.

October 4, 2013

Native Sons of Fresno, California Look Back

I'm writing a Densho Encyclopedia entry now on the poet Lawson Fusao Inada. He's a third-generation Japanese American who was locked up in three different U.S. government prisons during World War II.

It's not surprising that even though he was only four years old when he was first placed behind barbed wire,  the "camp" experience became a major theme in Inada's poetry, a wound he revisited repeatedly. It's as if he wanted to figure out what happened and recast it on his own terms, not those of the government--who said it was for his own protection--or of many of his fellow prisoners, who wanted so badly to prove their loyalty they enlisted to fight, and in many cases die, for the U.S.

There are two other great themes in Inada's poetry that he returns to frequently for grounding and inspiration: Fresno, California, where he was born and grew up, and jazz. Fresno is where his maternal grandparents opened the city's first fresh fish market in 1912, which became an institution that stood for 70 years. The writer William Saroyan, another native son of Fresno, recalled his grandmother sending him to The Fresno Fish Market in Chinatown.

When the order came declaring all Japanese and Japanese Americans "enemy aliens" and telling them to pack a bag and be ready to clear out, Inada's grandfather handed the store over to trusted friends. Stories abound of prisoners who came back home at war's end to find their businesses and property had been stolen, sometimes by "friends." That didn't happen to Inada's family. When his grandfather got back, writes Inada, "he hit the ground running."

In a short essay titled "Seven Words of Poetry," Inada recalls that post-war period when he was studying poetry at Fresno State and helping out at the store in the afternoons:

My uncles are on break, making deliveries, whatever; my grandmother, Yoshiko Saito, is taking an order, in Japanese, over the phone. My grandfather, Busuke Saito, is out back, in the sunlight, by an orange tree he planted, placing pieces of salmon to soak in a miso cask.
    Who is he? What is he like? Well, let's just say that he's ready. He's always been ready, and he's readier than you are. He's old, fast, muscled, smart. You don't mess with him--unless you want to be chased down the street with a knife.

Inada's mother was born in the fish store, and Inada grew up nearby, in Chinatown on the westside of town. In truth, it was a mixed-race neighborhood of Chicano, Black, Chinese, Japanese and Italians. In his poem "Finding the Center," Inada writes about playing in the rich agricultural soil of Fresno with a friend.

Mama Gomez was calling us in for supper--
but tonight, if we were good, or lucky,
she would feed us sweet tortillas
and the crunchiest iced tea
as we sat on the porch, watching
moths meet the moon, fluttering stars,
and whatever else was doing on C Street.

These evocative images and tales were rolling around fresh in my mind when I read a wonderful article titled "From a Tortilla, The Feeling of a Warm Embrace" in The New York Times earlier this week. Writer Manny Fernandez also looks back in time to a grandparent in Fresno, a Mexican American grandmother who, like Inada's mother and grandmother, "straddled the three cultures of her state, her country and her heritage." Fernandez, a reporter for the Times, writes of how his grandmother, Cuca, cooked meals of tacos and burritos for the Mexican farmworkers who lodged at his great-grandmother's boarding house.

"The masa pressed by her hands made the flour tortillas flattened by her hands for the tacos filled by her hands. Decades later, I probably walked by those anonymous farmworkers and their descendants at Fashion Fair Mall or Fresno State University. We had Cuca's tacos in common," he writes. 

What's a little amazing to think about is that Inada probably walked by those farmworkers and their descendants and maybe even Fernandez or his parents, all of whom had tasted Fresno's sweet tortillas, tacos and burritos--and maybe even fresh fish from The Fresno Fish Market.