Food and the desire to eat has always been mysterious to Asako Iwama. When the artist and cook was a young child, she could not understand why she had to eat. Her earliest memories of food are of her grandmother’s cooking in a strange yet fascinating kitchen far away from home.

“My father is from Kamaishi in Iwate,” Iwama says. “My grandmother lived in a tiny one-story house with a kitchen. I grew up in a conventional postwar residential development, but my grandmother’s house was old and her kitchen looked like it was made of patchwork. She would prepare fish there, bought at 5 a.m., freshly caught, from the fish market just 300 or 400 meters away.”

“To me, this kitchen did not look at all clean, even though it must have been,” Iwama says. “The cutting board was heavily used, a little black, and looked as though it would be slimy to the touch. The knife had been used for so long the steel had become thin. After she cleaned fish, she put the cutting board in the sink, and water dripped from the faucet. It was amazingly grotesque. There were fish guts and a smell. Everything appeared to be slimy.

“There was a part of me that was scared of eating that food made for us. But my father and mother ate the food, and they made it seem so delicious that I overcame my hesitation and ate it.”

The meals her grandmother would make for her included: ika somen (squid sashimi) made from squid so fresh that it was translucent; homemade miso and miso soup made from stock of fish heads and remains; and half dried sanma (Pacific saury) preserved with mirin, roasted and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Even from afar, Iwama was connected to her grandmother’s food made in that mysterious kitchen.

“We lived in Kanagawa, so my grandmother would send us these foods in the post,” she says. “With her wrinkled hands, she did all the preparation, then wrapped it in newspaper. I ate the food from that kitchen, so far away, which had nothing to do with my daily life. Food was sent in the mail from there, like a letter.”

Perhaps because of her grandmother’s cooking from a strange kitchen, and her anxious relationship to food as a child, Iwama’s career has focused on food — both as a cook and as an artist whose work centers around food’s relation to language, history and memory.

Between 2005 and 2014, Iwama worked as head chef at Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin. Here, some 80 people would gather daily to have lunch, prepared by Iwama and her team. This meal brought together the studio’s many artistic and educational projects. While there, Iwama, along with Eliasson and Laura Maurer, created “Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen,” an artist’s cookbook. The cookbook focused on food and its connection to nourishment, living and art. Still, during that time, Iwama was first and foremost a chef; she had to be intensely practical in order to sustain some 80 people everyday.

Since leaving the studio and returning to Japan, however, Iwama has reevaluated food and its presence in art, as well as her own personal commitment to artistic creation through food. Without the pressure to nourish 80 people everyday, Iwama now has the ability to be less practical and to question more. She is part of a growing number of artists who use food products to create art and use art as a means to question and try to understand how human beings connect to their history and language through food.

Iwama recently held a series of food performances entitled “Food and Words” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. I attended one event called “Spelling the Soup” in which Iwama served five different soups to 50 people seated at long communal tables.

While attendees ate soups such as “Minestrone: Soup for Latecomers” and “A Clear Soup with Kaki, Oysters and Oyster Mushrooms,” archivist and art critic Sen Uesaki read aloud stories and descriptions about the food we were eating. As I watched people around me consume these beautiful and slightly eerie soups, these stories about the source, history and nature of the soups made me feel as if I had been transported to a different and surreal world. It made me consider the connection between the written word (the menu), the spoken word (Uesaki’s stories), the food (the soups made by Iwama) and the act of eating.

“The project was part of a transitionary period from practicality to artistic creativity,” she says. “I worked for 10 years cooking in Berlin, and I became in some way too systematic and practical a person.”

By focusing on the act of eating and cooking and its relationship to language, culture and history, Iwama is seeking out new forms of creative artistic expression.

Toward the end of our interview, Iwama talks to me about her favorite food and she returns to that kitchen in Kamaishi.

“If I was asked what food I would want to eat for the rest of my life, and any food was possible, it would be that salted sea urchin my grandmother made me,” she says. “Salted sea urchin over rice and wrapped in seaweed.”

Despite all her years as a professional cook, she has never made this salted sea urchin.

“Salted sea urchin cannot really be made anymore,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get really pure, fresh, sea urchin in its shell. It’s possible to get it from Tsukiji, peeled and put in packs, but even that has been treated with chemicals. It is different from the fresh sea urchin found in Kamaishi. When I went to Italy, I thought I could make salted sea urchin, but the urchin from the southern Mediterranean waters tastes different. The cold Tohoku seawater produces sea urchin unlike those from warmer waters.”

Perhaps Iwama’s grandmother knew that the dish wouldn’t last forever.

“My grandmother died long ago, but she spoke about how there were fewer and fewer fish,” Iwama says. “Sea urchin couldn’t be fished like before.”

However, that no longer possible dish — her grandmother’s salted sea urchin — continues to exist through Iwama and her work.

“My grandmother and that sea urchin remain deeply embedded in my memory,” she says. The dish continues to fuel Iwama’s exploration of the relationship between food and life through art.

For more information on Asako Iwama, visit asakoiwama.net or popup-cafe.org.

Asako Iwama

Born in Tokyo in 1975

Artist and chef based in Tokyo and Berlin

Graduated from Joshibi College of Art and Design and Tama Art University with degrees in painting and moving images and performing arts

Ran the kitchen at Olafur Eliasson’s studio between 2005 and 2014. Co-created art-cookbook, “Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen”

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