‘Shoku wa inochi! (Food is life itself)’ was one of my grandmother’s maxims, which when I was growing up, I was never able to fathom.
If food was that important, what was the deal with all the genmai (unpolished rice), homemade — and therefore oddly shaped — umeboshi (pickled plums), miso concoctions ad nauseum and nimono (broiled and seasoned vegetables)?
Our dining table was predominantly, depressingly brown, punctuated here and there by small bursts of leafy greenery. If this was “life itself” I longed to switch to another state of existence, preferably offset by a spiraling, golden staircase laden with cheeseburgers and Haagen Dazs.
Having reached the age when it’s achingly clear how cheeseburgers cannot be equated with happiness or health (sob), I’ve come to that most Japanese of realizations: Obachan wa hontoni erakatta (Grandma really was right)!
I hated to pack genmai into bento lunch boxes during high school for fear of being teased with: “Kimochi waruuuui (yuuuuck)! Nanmin no gohan mitai! (It looks like rice out of a refugee camp!)” But now it is one of the choicest, most beautifying products a Japanese female can hope to consume. As for anyone willing and capable of making nimono from scratch . . . what’s their phone number?
Homemade Japanese cooking (and I mean the real, genuine article) requires endless toil, a vast knowledge — not to mention patience and endurance. It’s no wonder that we rarely saw obachan sitting down — and when she did, it was invariably to peel chestnuts or something equally arduous. But thanks to her efforts, the adults in our household had the energy to work non-stop and the kids were never sick. True, we went through adolescence whining and pining for the sight of a Kit Kat but on the bright side, dieting and pimples were alien concepts to us.
To this day, when we get together we say our prayers to obachan for what we now recognize as the ultimate labor of love. Apparently, shokuiku (food education) has become more important than mere kyoiku (instructional education) as Japan continues to slide toward obesity, steadily decreasing birth rates and rising healthcare costs.
The general verdict is: We’re not getting the right foods and we’ve become too ignorant to know what exactly these are. We’re also consuming far too much yoshuku (Western food) and not exercising enough to warrant the sudden increase in calories. Obachan would have dismissed it all as a symptom of zeitakubyo (illness incurred from living extravagantly) and scuttled off to soak some beans.
But times being what they are, schools and corporations hold classes to teach us just what to eat, and how much. Pesticide-free genmai, loaded in fiber and vitamins, is cited as the best source of carbohydrate. Classes also teach the fine art of cooking it in a way that makes it taste as soft and succulent as the mythically revered ginshari (white rice).
In elementary schools, children are taught to make their own miso from soy beans, and in a few years they’ll be making their own umeboshi as well.
An increasing number of corporations in Tokyo encourage jitensha tsukin (commuting by bicycle) by reimbursing transportation costs, and an even larger number are experimenting with the shashoku (abbreviation for shain shokudo, or employees’ canteen) menus, to provide people with washoku (Japanese-style) dishes made from mutenka (additive-free), and kokusan (domestically grown) produce.
And in the meantime, the media campaign continues against what they deem as the evil triumvirate of the Japanese food industry: imported foodstuffs (specifically from China), shomikigen gire (past the sell-by-date) snacks and konbini (convenience store) bento.
The root of the problem remains unsolved though: Japan’s self-sufficiency food rate is at a deplorable, all-time low and few city people have the time to cook their meals.
Ouchi-gohan (a meal eaten at home) is now a special occasion in the way gaishoku (eating out) once was, though occasionally I still have a tough time believing it. But in the end, obachan was right: a meal at home implies more than loving hands; it’s a small but significant way of reaffirming the essentials of life.