• The simple act of cooking with eggs proved to be powerful. (Camellia Aebischer)Source: Camellia Aebischer
Schoolkids teased Anne Masayo Hasegawa for her onigiri. But food also opened up her world and strengthened her Japanese identity.
By
Anne Masayo Hasegawa

7 Dec 2020 - 3:13 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2020 - 11:43 AM

Part 1. Creation (the self)

Create verb.

Bring (something) into existence.

For my 10-year-old self, food fed my curiosity and fuelled my creativity. It was a language that I immediately felt drawn to, because I immediately understood it, the way it came together, the symphony of textures, colours and flavours amalgamating into something that didn’t exist before. It was total magic – and it still is today.

I was an anxious child growing up and this very much manifested physically. I always got into trouble for being too fidgety at school – which now, looking back, seems quite absurd. I was always biting my nails, rolling my wrists, scratching paper with my pencil, tapping my feet. It was impossible for me to be still.

So, when I was first allowed to enter our kitchen to cook my first-ever meal – a Japanese chicken curry – with my mother guiding me as I chopped those potatoes and carrots with the utmost care, it gave me hope.

Food gave me permission to create with my hands. And at a time when mental health awareness was extremely low, it was the best medicine I could ever ask for.

It wasn’t long before I began finding more reasons to linger in the kitchen. My first ‘masterpiece’ was scrambled eggs, French style. I was desperate to recreate what my brother and I liked to call ‘hotel eggs’, since we’d only ever encounter that rich, yellow creaminess at the hotel breakfast buffet on holiday.

With these faint memories in my mind, I instinctively grabbed a slab of butter. I didn’t think twice. It just made sense, like strawberries and cream. And as the butter coalesced with the eggs to form liquid gold, I knew I’d made the right call.

Watching those eggs slowly turn into a perfect, buttery custard, as I gently stirred with a wooden spoon, was incredibly cathartic. I felt my mind and body become still once more. As I took my first bite, I felt myself melt into a sense of serenity, along with the warm, eggy reverie floating down into my belly.

Scrambled eggs might be one of the simplest dishes in the culinary canon, but to my 10-year-old self, it was transformative. I was no longer the anxious wreck who couldn’t sit still. I was a creator and suddenly, my hands had a purpose. And that made me feel whole.

Over the last two decades, the kitchen has evolved into an open canvas – a safe space for me to calm my mind, explore my creativity and shape my identity. Baking turned into therapy, folding gyoza replaced yoga, and warm curries became warm hugs.

This licence to create gave me the freedom to uncover parts of me that I’d never even known existed. And it was here, in creation, where my exploration into food, and my identity, began.

Part 2. Connection (the experience)

Connect verb.

Form a relationship or feel an affinity.

My father is a fourth-generation Nikkei Australian, meaning he’s one-eighth Japanese. Born in Elliminyt, just south of Colac in the Victorian countryside, he faced racial challenges growing up part-Japanese, with a very Japanese surname, in a very white town. The White Australia policy forced his great-grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) away from his family in Geelong during the 1940s, imprisoning him in a war detention camp for several years just because he was Japanese. That policy only ended in 1973, when my father was 13 years old.

My father in Japan, 1983.

Nevertheless, it was this Japanese side of my father, the one that white Australia so harshly denied, that opened up his love for food. He first went to Japan as a university student. And it was there that he developed an affinity for good coffee, quality produce and sushi. This rich experience of food and culture deepened his connection with his Japanese roots, forming a new kind of appreciation for his own identity. Food that opened up a world of possibilities. In fact, before he became an investment banker, my father had wanted to be a chef.

It was my father who introduced me to the importance of produce. I remember just a few years ago in Tokyo when we went to Tsukiji Fish Market for the first time together. He was so proud that he, a mostly white man, had somehow managed to get ‘in’ to the inner fish market (reserved for restaurant owners and chefs). He’d even made friends with the fishmongers. He’d chat to them in Japanese, asking them which prawn should he buy today, and how would they recommend seasoning it? They’d laugh and joke together like old mates, while I watched the little crustaceans writhe in the water.

At home, I watched as my father expertly grilled his ‘catch of the day’ over the hibachi on the tiny apartment balcony, the red hot binchōtan slowly encasing the prawns in a veil of smoke. It was spellbinding. And I wished that I had the conviction to do it myself.

But, unlike my father, my relationship with Japanese food has been complicated, to say the least.

We moved to Hong Kong from Japan in 1998. I was at a British school and my mother packed me a Japanese lunch complete with delicious onigiri (rice balls) which were seasoned with shiso (perilla) and wrapped in nori (seaweed). I will never forget my classmates’ reactions.

Eeewww, what is that?

That looks gross. You’re gross.

It’s purple! Why is it purple? Yuck.

It smells funny! Blergh!

This licence to create gave me the freedom to uncover parts of me that I’d never even known existed. And it was here, in creation, where my exploration into food, and my identity, began.

I remember sitting there, ashamed and embarrassed, holding back tears, as they continued to taunt me for my Japanese lunch. Looking down on me for not having a sandwich, for not being like them.

I didn’t know what racism was until that moment. I felt sick to my stomach. That night, I would angrily scream at my mother to never, ever pack me onigiri again. From now on, it would be sandwiches and food that my white classmates would see as ‘normal’ and, therefore, I would belong.

But they never did. And this is where my rejection of my Japanese heritage came to be.

Whilst I never stopped enjoying Japanese food, years of self-hatred and rejection placed an invisible barrier between my love for food, and cooking Japanese food. And as my love for food and cooking grew exponentially, along with my skills, the revelation hit me like a tonne of bricks: I was a Japanese person who didn’t know how to cook Japanese food.

It’s not that I avoided cooking Japanese. But I had spent the last few years in the kitchen almost solely dedicating my time to learning how to cook white food. Which meant that the foundation of basic Japanese cooking, like perfecting dashi and balancing simplicity, was completely lost on me.

It was just this year, amidst the chaos of 2020, that I finally came to terms with the self-hatred I’d been carrying around with me for three whole decades. And as I sat in my own cultural rejection, letting the abhorrence sink in once and for all, I remembered my father’s experience. And in that moment, everything made sense again, just like it did that first time my hands found purpose in the kitchen.

That night, I would angrily scream at my mother to never, ever pack me onigiri again. From now on, it was sandwiches and food that my white classmates would see as ‘normal’ and, therefore, I would belong.

I called both my parents, completely out of the blue, asking – no, demanding – that they write down their family trees, histories, stories, and of course, recipes, so that I could start reconnecting my own history. And I began writing down all of my favourite Japanese meals that reminded me of the Japanese home my mother and father worked so hard to create.

And of course, I started with the one dish that I hated my entire life – negitoro. You see, I refused to eat raw fish until about four years ago, and this was the one dish I would try to eat each year in an attempt to fix my embarrassingly unrefined palette. And after years of failures, it was a simple piece of raw tuna that ignited my eagerly awaited love for sashimi.

I was nervous. Negitoro isn’t a typical dish you see in Japanese restaurants here in Melbourne. And I was worried my mostly white followers on Instagram would reject handling raw fish so casually at home. But as the dish came to life in front of me, I realised it didn’t matter what people thought. Because there I was, for the first time, proudly cooking Japanese food. And for the first time in a long time, I felt connected with my true ‘self’.

With each bite, I felt my affinity with Japan grow, the way my belly was full with warmth and fullness. I felt whole, just like I did the first time I ever cooked. And when I shared my recipe for negitoro with the world, I didn’t hold my breath – I didn’t need to. Because it was me. Take it or leave it.

Part 3. Celebration (the people)

Celebrate verb.

Honour or praise publicly.

My mother was born and raised in Osaka, the food capital of Japan. I remember the stories she always told me about her childhood. She was the youngest of four and shared a home with her father’s sister, two brothers and their families. They didn’t have much, but dinner was always the most important part of their day.

Each night, she would set the table with her siblings and cousins, while her grandmother, mother and aunt would prep the food in the kitchen. Dinner was mostly nizakana (simmered fish), or nabe (a type of Japanese hot pot) with vegetables and whale meat, since they were both cheap and whale was also the closest thing to red meat they could experience – they were too poor to afford beef or pork. There was nothing extravagant about the food they ate; simple flavours and minimal seasonings. But it was this daily evening ritual of eating together, with the people closest to her, that made it so special in my mother’s eyes.

The shared dining experience is fundamental to the Japanese way of life. In Japan, food is a celebration of local community and its people – from the farmers and the produce, to the markets and the vendors, the chefs and the cooks – all coming together to be honoured and praised at the dinner table.

It is why we, the Japanese, begin every meal clapping our hands to say ‘itadakimasu’ – meaning 'I humbly receive this food’ – and ending the meal with another clap to say ‘gochisousama’ – meaning ‘thank you for the feast’. This small act of gratitude and praise is a symbol of respect for the very thing that keeps us alive – food.

For me, the celebration of my food and culture with my family, friends and peers has allowed me to share and honour the parts of myself that I never would have shown otherwise. It has satiated my soul with a new sense of joy that is intangible to the human touch. But you can taste it. Feel it. Because through creation, connection and celebration, food has the power to bring us closer together, in a way that’s unlike anything else.

By honouring and elevating the most basic product for human survival, food has allowed me to deepen my knowledge and understanding of myself, and others, empowering me to embrace – and celebrate – my differences. From an eggy reverie to a shiso nightmare, a tuna trial to a tuna triumph, it is food that has given me the courage, strength and wisdom to explore the deepest and darkest corners of my psyche, and accept myself for who I am today.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.

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Curry udon

Curry dishes are popular in Japan; curry was introduced by the British during the nineteenth century, when Britain ruled India. Unsurprisingly then, Japanese curry is mild in terms of flavour and Japanese cooks prepare it using a pre-bought mix that comes in the form of a solid block. It’s often referred to as “curry roux”.

Sumo stew (chanko nabe)

Chanko nabe is a kind of stew that’s known as the original sumo food. Despite the reputation that sumos have for their huge statures, the recipe for chanko nabe is actually relatively healthy, low in fat and loaded with vegetables. This version uses only chicken – based on the old joke that eating an animal that walks only on two legs will help a sumo stay on his feet – but in reality there’s no fixed recipe for chanko nabe, and versions can contain beef, salmon, pork or anything else you like. In fact, the only qualification for something to be chanko nabe seems to be that it is made by, or for, a sumo.

Curried chicken katsu udon (tori katsu kare udon)

For maximum flavour, we recommend making the curry sauce a day ahead.

Filled rice balls (onigiri)

Onigiri are best eaten on the day they are made, however, leftovers are great pan-fried the next day. Avoid wrapping the rice in the nori too early or it will become soggy. This doesn’t affect the flavour though, and, in fact, triggers memories for many Japanese people of their packed school lunches of these rice balls.