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Recipes for a new life in Japan

by Rebecca Milner

Nwe Nwe Kyaw arrived in Japan 12 years ago, the wife of a political refugee from Myanmar granted asylum in Japan. In Yangon, she had been a teacher; here she had to figure out something else to do.

“There were no Burmese restaurants in Japan where the (authentic) taste hadn’t been erased. So I thought I would try to introduce real Burmese flavor to Japan,” said Kyaw, who, in a cardigan and wire-rimmed glasses, still looks like a teacher.

In 2002, she opened Ruby (3-8-5 Takada, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6907-3944) in Takadanobaba, where much of Tokyo’s Burmese community lives. It has since become the place to go for an authentic bowl of mohinga, a noodle soup seasoned with ginger and lemongrass that is sold from street vendors everywhere in Myanmar. At Ruby it’s delicious.

So is the tea-leaf salad (laphete thote), another Burmese staple. Myanmar is perhaps the only place in the world where tea leaves are eaten. The bitter greens, pickled, are tempered with cabbage and then ramped up with fried peanuts, beans and sesame seeds. Comfort food for some, and a wonderful discovery for the rest of us.

The recipes were handed down to Kyaw from her mother. An uncertain cook at first, Kyaw recalls making many expensive calls home for advice while she was working to perfect the dishes she knew only by taste.

Kyaw’s story is just one of many that appear in “Flavours without Borders,” a cookbook produced by the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees (JAR). Refugees from 15 regions around the world contributed dozens of their recipes to the book. Alongside these are personal narratives that touch on life and food in a foreign country — something to which we can all relate.

The aim of the book is to raise awareness of the situation of refugees in Japan. Japan grants asylum to a scant few of those seeking it, and the fate of many of the contributors to “Flavours without Borders” is still up in the air. But from the preview I saw, JAR has also succeeded in creating a beautiful book, in both Japanese and English and with full-color photos throughout.

The recipes are the result of trial and error by their authors, who aim for the most authentic taste possible using only the ingredients they can find in Japan. Some are classics, like kebab and dal, while others are likely to be entirely new for most readers, such as Kurdish fried couscous-wrapped meatballs (içli köfte) and shellfish soup prepared in the style of the Karen ethnic minority of Myanmar. Many of the contributors are from ethnic minorities and introduce cooking traditions that have so far had little chance for exposure.

Kyaw herself contributed three recipes, including a noodle salad with kinako (toasted soy flour), though you’ll have to go to Ruby if you want to try mohinga or tea-leaf salad.

“Flavours Without Borders” will be available to buy from February and you can preorder by visiting www.flavours-without-borders.jp.

JAR is also offering a preview of some of the featured dishes, prepared by the recipes’ authors, on Dec. 21. The event, billed as “Charity Party Without Borders,” will be held from 6:30 p.m. at Ecozzeria, Shin-Marunouchi Building 10F, Marunouchi 1-5-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets cost ¥7,000. For more information call JAR at (03) 5379-6001 or visit www.refugee.or.jp/event/2012/12/21-0100.shtml.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.