PhD Student Yuka Asada

Hi everyone.  Below is a story written by Yuka Asada, one of our new MCH PhD students (Fall 2010).  Yuka is from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and has entered this story into a FastRecipes contest for students studying in the US.

Welcome to UIC Yuka!

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Grandpa’s Ozoni

by Yuka Asada

Ozoni is a traditional Japanese soup made for New Year’s Day. The main ingredients are broth and mochi, a glutinous rice cake. Beyond these unifying ingredients, the typical ozoni is difficult to describe, as it varies widely between regions and even between households in the same town. In my mother’s hometown of Owada, ozoni is a clear bonito broth with komatsuna leaves (Japanese mustard spinach). Just a half-hour’s train ride away, in my father’s hometown of Shibamata, ozoni is a cloudy broth with taro, chicken, and spinach. Even the shape of mochi varies across regions: rectangular in the east and circular in the west. While part of me is baffled that a country the size of California has myriad versions of the same dish, another part of me is not surprised at all; it is consistent with the regional and complex nature of Japanese cuisine and the culture’s fierce commitment to preserving tradition.

A few winters ago, I made ozoni with Grandpa at his home in Owada, Japan. While cooking, Grandpa told the story of the time he asked for my grandmother’s hand in marriage, which just happened to be around New Year’s. After sitting down at Grandma’s house, her parents offered him tea and ozoni before they started to discuss the matter of his visit. Grandpa, however, refused the soup—a brash gesture for a penniless youth who was asking for their oldest daughter’s hand in marriage. Grandpa recognized ozoni as a clear broth with komatsuna. Accepting the strange cloudy soup offered to him, with its chicken and taro, would have been tantamount to renouncing his hometown. “How dare they call that ozoni!”, he recollected years later. Luckily, my great grandparents had understood his allegiance to tradition.

Working with Grandpa in his kitchen, I observed the ritualistic preparation of ozoni. The daikon leaves were hung up to dry weeks in advance. On New Year’s Eve, we began by carefully passing the dried daikon leaves over an open flame until they were crisp. I crushed them with my hands until they resembled dried herbs. Next, we placed handfuls of large, delicate bonito flakes in a pot of water with a dash of soy sauce and simmered the mixture for a few hours. On New Year’s morning, we cut komatsuna leaves and placed them in the broth along with the mochi. In hot broth, the mochi transformed from a hard patty to a gooey, delicious mound. Finally, after portioning the soup into bowls, the dried daikon was heaped on top. After raising our shot glasses of sake, it was time to eat.

When Grandpa ate something delicious, he would close his eyes, breathe in deeply, and let out the most satisfied sigh. Then he would laugh from the bottom of his belly, open his eyes, and exclaim, “You must try this! It is the most delicious thing I’ve tasted!”

Indeed it was. The bonito flavor was subtle yet complex, and the toasted daikon added an earthy flavor. The combination of the komatsuna’s crunchiness with the gooey omochi provided the perfect mouth feel. It tasted of comfort and home.

Through cooking together, Grandpa and I shared not only our love for food, but also for one another. While this experience is not unique to Japanese culture, it is significant in a culture where emotions are seldom outwardly expressed. The hours spent meticulously preparing the best ingredients and adhering to cooking rituals are true to the precision demonstrated in other cultural practices in Japan, such as theatre and floral arrangement. Yet in the case of food, care and attention are paid also because of the love for the ones we are feeding. And by accepting the meal with words of thanks (“itadaki masu”) and spending time together to eat, the exchange of love is implicit. Ozoni is especially representative of this cultural nuance, as New Year is a time where everyone—even the most workaholic ‘salaryman’—goes home to spend time with their families. It is a time to be reminded of one’s roots by enjoying a home-cooked dish that is unique to your region.

Growing up, I viewed cooking with Grandpa as a way to spend time with a man I deeply cherished. I realize now that my time with him also connected me to my Japanese heritage. As it turns out, ozoni was the last dish that Grandpa taught me before he passed.  While I cannot cook with Grandpa again, I will always cook for others with the love that he instilled in me.

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