Monday, September 20, 2010

omreeh. omreeht. omelette.

"There are no Japanese restaurants anywhere in the world outside Japan that serve [okonomiyaki], so terribly evocative, both simple and subtle, down-to-earth and sophisticated. I was five years old again, I had never been out of sight of my Nishio-san, and I was screaming, broken-hearted, my tastebuds in a trance. I devoured my okonomiyaki and my eyes glazed over as I uttered faint little cries of delight.

Only when I had eaten everything on my plate did I notice that the others were staring politely, embarrassed.

"Every country has its own table manners," I muttered. "You've just discovered the Belgians'."  

Owing to my most recent geographic upheaval, the concepts of home and belonging have been on my mind of late. Like many third culture kids, I waffle when I'm asked where I'm from. I can't point to any fixed place on the globe and say "This is home." I know that it is sometimes easier to live someplace where you don't fit in at all than someplace where you fit in just well enough to make your quirks and missteps all the more prominent. 

And so I've turned to a book by a TCK for the Fall 2010 edition of Novel Food. Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam (titled Tokyo Fiancée in English) is an autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb, a French-language Belgian author whose parents were diplomats. Born in Japan, Nothomb spent her childhood living in various Asian countries, re-entering Belgium only when she began her university degree.

Tokyo Fiancée describes Amélie's return to Japan at the age of twenty-one, and the unconventional relationship she embarks upon with Rinri, a Japanese student she meets through a posted ad for French-language tutoring. The story is a wry commentary on identity and belonging, a quietly subversive non-love story.

Cuisine is a recurring theme in the novel, used to illustrate the fascination that Amélie and Rinri each have with a culture not their own. Amélie is charmed by the delicacy of Japanese cuisine; Rinri delights in preparing fat-laden Western-style dishes because they are the antithesis of meals with his tradition-bound family. In one scene, Rinri sets the table with a selection of Japanese delicacies ("sesame spinach, a chaudfroid of quails' eggs with chiso, and sea urchins") and urges Amélie to eat. He then produces for his own repast a plate of mayonnaise-slathered salami.

Food also marks key moments in the development of the relationship. The major breakthrough in Amélie and Rinri's first French lesson is moving from "omreeeh" to "omreeeht" in the pronounciation of "omelette." Amélie's Proustian rediscovery of okonomiyaki is followed by a charmingly ridiculous dinner of cheese fondue, Japanese-style, which involves "polystyrene cheese" and "imputrescible bread." And there's the chawanmushi ("flan made with seafood and black mushrooms in fish fumet") that Amélie - trapped at the dinner party from hell - never gets the chance to taste.

I toyed with the idea of making chawanmushi, but it's a finicky dish that requires practice to perfect. Okonomiyaki - stuffed pancake with shrimp, cabbage, and ginger - is more forgiving, but I've never been a fan of the plum sauce that is poured over the finished dish. Instead, I decided to go with an "omreeet" made with some of the key ingredients found in okonomiyaki, aiming for a dish that would be acceptable to both Eastern and Western tastes.

The finished dish is quick and simple, consisting of shrimp stir-fried with ginger, garlic and green onions, lightly seasoned with sesame oil, and rolled in a thin sheet of egg. I imagine that Amélie could eat it with plum sauce if she liked. Rinri, if he insisted, could douse it in ketchup.

Shrimp Omelette with Ginger and Garlic 

Owes some inspiration to this recipe. Adding rice to the stir-fried shrimp will produce shrimp omurice.

(Makes one.)

Beat two eggs with a pinch of salt until light and slightly foamy. Set aside.

Heat a little vegetable oil (canola or grapeseed is good) in wok or a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add two finely minced garlic cloves and a half-teaspoon of grated ginger. Cook until the garlic is fragrant, then add four to five ounces of cleaned, peeled shrimp, either fresh or frozen. Add a sprinkling of salt, and stir well with a wooden spoon. Once the shrimp are pink and firm, add a drizzle of sesame oil and stir in a handful of finely chopped green onions. Remove the pan from heat. Transfer the stir-fried shrimp to a bowl.

Set the pan back on the burner. Add a little more oil to the pan. Pour in the beaten eggs, and swirl to cover the pan in a crepe-thin layer. Cook until the omelette starts to look set in the middle, then add the stir-fried shrimp to the pan. Remove the pan from heat.

Fold the omelette over in thirds, the way you'd fold a letter. Transfer carefully to a plate. Garnish with extra green onion. Serve immediately.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

tell me a recipe

I like seeing how people tell recipes.

I like written recipes for their ideas. A recipe in writing is about possibilities, the promise of a dish I might or will make. Oral recipes are something else. When I ask someone "How do you make this?" I am often seeking more than just the directions for a marbled bundt cake or a pork roast. Sometimes, the directions are almost superfluous. I am waiting to see what kind of narrative unfolds.

Not all people tell recipes. There are times when I have to content myself with the name of a cookbook, or the promise of a weblink. And not all people who tell recipes realise that they are offering more than method and instruction.

At times they offer context: food chemistry, food history. Other times, it's family history, or food as Proustian memory. And sometimes, it's a glimpse of personal history, of the way someone thinks about food.

I make salsa from a recipe Virgin told me. It isn't particularly complicated - more method than recipe, really. But she told it easily and vividly, punctuating the directions with references to farmstands and cooking outside on the grill, a brief gripe about being unable to find decently spicy food in Boston, and a digression about the joys of potato tacos.

A whole story lay in those details: a Californian who had had more than her fill of Northeastern winter, a longing for summer and sunshine, and some decently spicy food. Above all else, the desire to return home.

Perhaps it's not just the simplicity of this recipe, or its cold and refreshing appeal on hot sticky evenings, that drives me to prepare it by the half-gallon. The stories we find easiest to love are those that tell us something about ourselves.

I may not have encountered salsa of any variety until my mid-teens, but I grew up in a climate not all that different to that of California. I remember the dry heat of summer, the threat of drought and wildfire. Above all else, I know the desire to return home, and it remains unthwarted by the fact that "home" is no longer any point in fixed geography.

Tell me a recipe, and I will tell you mine. Home is where the kitchen is.

(No photos. Show me someone who can photograph a bowl of chunky red puree without making it look like a horror show, and I'll show you someone whose photography skills far outstrip mine.)

Decently Spicy Salsa

Miles better than anything out of a jar. To quote Virgin: "You could make your own salsa, for fuckssake."

(Makes about two cups. Will keep in a covered container for a week.)

Produce list: you'll need six Roma tomatoes, two red bell peppers, one large onion, four cloves of garlic, two jalapenos (or one, if you're not up for a really spicy salsa), and one lime.

Cut the tomatoes in half. Remove the seeds and the membrane from the red bell peppers, and cut into wide strips. Peel and quarter the onion; crush, but don't peel three of the garlic cloves. Leave the jalapenos whole.

Arrange everything except the fourth garlic clove on baking sheets. Put them under the broiler until everything chars and blisters. Allow to cool.

Put the tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and garlic in a food processor. De-stem the jalapenos and add those too. Throw in your fourth uncooked garlic clove. Squeeze in the lime juice, and add a generous pinch of salt. Pour in a glug of olive oil. Blend until you have a thick, chunky puree.

Pour the salsa into a bowl. Attack with tortilla chips.