Every day Mama-san makes these lovely, elaborate meals. Each one has at least six separate dishes, from boiled pumpkin in a mayonnaise-onion dressing to tiny, handmade dumplings filled with shrimp and pork and scallops. The table groans under the weight of all that food. There are so many plates jostling for space that it’s almost impossible to see the tablecloth.
I aspire to learn how to cook like Mama-san but, being a lazy American, any one of these dishes - in sufficient quantity - would make a fine meal for me. So yesterday I decided to tackle one her simpler side-dishes. I picked a cold seaweed salad. It looked like it had two ingredients – seaweed and sesame seeds. I skipped the sesame seeds – they’re mostly for show anyway -- and went down to the market to buy a bag of seaweed.
Unfortunately, Mama-san left this morning for a week in the Netherlands. Never mind, how hard can this be? I open the bag of seaweed. The stink of low tide immediately floods my entire apartment. The little packet that came with it – I had assumed it was seasoning – says DO NOT EAT in large, (thank Goodness) English letters. I throw it out. The seaweed itself is hideously salty and clearly inedible. I put it in a large bowl and soak it, changing the water frequently. It swells up to double its size, then double again. It tastes like something that had been lying in the bottom of a boat for too long. Maybe I’m meant to boil it with soy sauce. I put half of it in a pan, squeeze in a generous dollop of seasoning and leave it to simmer. Half an hour later my granny suite smells like the gooey, slimy, rotten end of a prehistoric swamp. I taste the seaweed. Blech. Maybe it’s supposed to go into miso soup. I put half of the pot into a larger pot – the seaweed is still growing, like some kind of marsh-monster – and throw in several tablespoons of miso. Eventually the miso overpowers the seaweed and it becomes palatable. I have to admit, though, that it would taste a good deal better without the seaweed in it, and better still with some virgin cubes of tofu.
When I made dinner for Gisuke tonight I brought up the half bowl of raw seaweed for consultation. Gisuke, bless his heart, can translate any kanji into English, but the kitchen is not his natural environment – it took him several minutes to figure out how to turn on the hot water maker. We both stared at the limp seaweed for a while until he suggested putting it into miso soup. In the end he told me to ask Junko. The seaweed was banished to my refrigerator.
I know Junko isn’t going to get home until midnight and I have to be up at 4:30AM. Trash day isn’t until Wednesday. I can’t possibly live with that stench for two more days. I light some incense, gather up all the seaweed and head down to the beach. Then, when no one is looking, I set it free.
Excerpted from Japanland (c) 2005 Rodale Press. To purchase, please visit japanlandonline.com