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Pursuing the flavor of the American South

by Jason Jenkins

For many North Americans in Japan, a case of gastronomic homesickness can easily be remedied at the nearest burger or pizza joint. But for someone craving the cuisine of the American South, the local Kentucky Fried Chicken will never, ever do.

Southern cooking is quite regional: expats from South Carolina crave its distinct “Lowcountry” fare; New Orleans natives long for Cajun and Creole flavors; and the components of what makes up a proper barbecue can cause feuds even among close friends. But the meal Colonel Sanders and his minions try to re-create is part of a large menu of dishes known to most Southerners as the food of picnics, family dinners, church gatherings and any other place people congregate to eat and socialize.

Perhaps no one can re-create your family recipes, but with a little legwork and a wad of cash, many forms of Southern cuisine and its close cousin, Soul Food, are attainable on this side of the Pacific.

Corn is a staple ingredient of Southern cooking, and grits, which are made from ground corn, are vital to an authentic Southern breakfast. Served with butter, gravy or cheese, grits are distinct to the region — grocery stores outside of the South almost never stock them. Within Japan, they were once only found bursting out of my suitcase after a family visit, but now the Foreign Buyers’ Club (FBC) has the instant version available at ¥6,852 for a 12-pack case, from www.fbcusa.com/jp.

Another corn derivative crucial to Southern cooking is cornmeal, which thickens casseroles, coats fried fish and vegetables such as okra and green tomatoes. It’s also the main ingredient in corn bread, which anchors many dishes and is used to soak up any remaining cooking juices on your plate. FBC sells several varieties of cornmeal and corn-bread mixes, starting from ¥685 (emphasis on “starting”). Cornmeal is also available for delivery through Saitama’s organic outpost Tengu Foods ( www.alishan.jp/shop/nfoscomm/catalog ) — a 907-gram bag costs ¥500.

For those kitchens with only a fish-cooker as an oven, search your local ¥100 shop or Don Quijote branch for muffin pans and small iron skillets that fit inside — for a crunchy crust, go cast iron. Butter or fatback (bacon fat) usually greases the pan, but the more health-conscious can use canola oil.

Collard greens, corn bread’s natural compliment, are also available frozen through FBC, 12 packages costing ¥5,854.

If this all sounds like too much trouble or expense, check out the American-style bakery Kyle’s Good Finds in Nakano, Tokyo ( www.kylesgoodfinds.com ). Perhaps known better for his cakes, cookies and pies, longtime Tokyo resident Kyle Sexton does several set meals for takeout with three days’ notice. Chicken, rib and turkey dinners come with collards, corn bread and macaroni and cheese (contact Sexton for prices). Finish with a pecan pie, the perennial Southern favorite, for ¥3,800.