Capture Your Family's Food Culture Before It's Too Late

Photo: Courtesy of Gil Asakawa
Columnist Gil Asakawa's mother prepares a traditional Japanese dish of okara.

By Gil Asakawa
February 3, 2012

More than other Asian American communities, Japanese Americans are losing our institutional cultural knowledge as our elders die. The Nisei are, like Tom Brokaw's “Greatest Generation,” passing on. Many Sansei (including myself) are on the older end of the Baby Boomer scale and we're no spring chickens either.

Some Asian ethnic communities in the United States are more recent arrivals than the Japanese. Many JA families came to the states in the early 1900s and can count Yonsei and Gosei, and even Rokusei generations at gatherings. Within these families, those Issei immigrants are already faded history.

So it's no wonder we have efforts to capture the senior generation on audio and video oral histories. The Seattle-based Densho organization (www.densho.org) is doing an excellent job of archiving the stories of our elders. The Japanese American National Museum and organizations such as Go For Broke National Education Center (www.goforbroke.org) offer great resources for conducting your own oral histories.

Although it's cool to watch people recount their lives, and learn more about the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the U.S., and of course hear about their concentration camp experiences, I sometimes long for another kind of cultural history: the culinary kind.

My mother is an Issei. My dad was a Nisei born in Hawaii in the 1930s. They met when my dad was in the U.S. Army and stationed in Hokkaido. My brothers and I were all born in Japan when my dad was stationed there in the decade after the Korean conflict. So we have strong ties to and childhood memories of Japan.

My mom has always cooked Japanese food. She cooked all kinds of Japanese dishes for us when I was young. Even when she cooked spaghetti or steak or some other Western dish for us, she cooked Japanese food for herself – usually salmon and miso soup. When we had hamburgers, spaghetti or pizza, she would serve white rice not just for herself but for us if we wanted. (It never occurred to me to put the spaghetti sauce over the rice!)

Some of the Japanese dishes I grew up with were her homemade teriyaki sauce (no gloppy sticky fake bottled stuff for us), gyoza dumplings, chawan mushi egg custard, soba (she made terrific dashi, or soup), oden, yakiniku and hiyashi chuka soba (a summertime favorite, cold ramen noodles in a soy-vinegar sauce topped with cucumbers, ham, egg and ginger, among other ingredients). For most New Year's eves she would serve a banquet of handmade sushi for us and lucky family friends, along with a feast of other traditional food.

I didn't like it all – stuff like oden and salmon stunk up the house and I was embarrassed to bring my non-Asian friends over. To this day, I'm not much of a fish eater because there was so much salmon in the house all my childhood.

She even made her own tofu, because she either couldn't find tofu in stores here in the States, or she didn't like the taste of store-bought tofu once it became common in supermarkets. And, she would mix the fibrous side-product of making tofu with shrimp, scallops and vegetables to make unohana okara.

She also used to make killer tempura – not too bready, and with the perfect, not-too-soy-saucy dashi. Most often, instead of making the tempura people are familiar with at restaurants, she would make kakiage tempura, kind of a comfort-food version of small bits of shrimp, snow peas, carrots and green onions breaded and fried into palm-sized pieces.

My dad passed away too young at 59, and after that my mom stopped making a lot of the more complicated Japanese dishes and just cooked for herself. A couple of years ago we moved her into a smaller house across the street from my younger brother, and she has given up more of her cooking.

She's now becoming more and more forgetful, and so we decided to ask if she would help us learn how to make two signature dishes, and allow us to videotape her. My wife Erin and I spent a day with her and made unohana okara and kakiage tempura, both favorite dishes of ours.

We had asked her years ago if we could videotape her cooking, but she refused then. I think now she knows her time is limited, and so is her memory, so she didn't complain. In fact she seemed to enjoy being the star of the production.

It was a powerful, wonderful day reliving family food memories and learning to make these dishes.

I'm glad we did it, and hope we can film more cooking lessons with my mom this year. I urge all JAs to do the same. Our family histories are important. But our family culture — including our culinary culture — is priceless.

Gil Asakawa is the author of the Nikkei View blog at www.nikkeiview.com, and you can see his mother's cooking videos online.

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