Monday, October 12, 2009

Cooking up a storm in Owase

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, but doesn’t it apply to women, girls and boys too?

I still remember making a very realistic resolution before leaving for Japan last August – that was to master the art of making my favourite Japanese curry from scratch. To my disappointment, despite numerous enquiries, I was always greeted by the same puzzled look, followed by the slightly-amused reply that curry in Japan is made using the instant curry blocks that are easily available at the local supermarkets. The infamous Owasean rain[1] seemed to have poured down on me. My first culture shock. Having been brought up in a culture that the most delicious food is always made with fresh ingredients, I could hardly believe that my dream was already dashed before I had the chance to embark on it. Just use the ready made curry roux and viola! Needless to say, I mastered Japanese curry during my first week in Japan. It was an effortless affair which took only 20 minutes.

Despite the let-down, I quickly learnt that pressing schedules and the bento culture do not provide Japanese women with the luxury of making everything from step one. Premixes, instant sauces and flavouring are great helpers in a typical Japanese kitchen. One of my new revelations about Japanese culture.

A typical question I often get from my Japanese colleagues and friends are, “What kind of food do you normally eat?”. Apart from the famous Singapore icon, the Merlion, there was very little that the locals around me knew about my country, let alone my country’s cuisine, which I felt could not be easily explained in a few sentences.

The cuisine of Singapore is often viewed as a prime example of its ethnic diversity and melting pot of cultures. The food is heavily influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian, and even Western traditions since the founding of Singapore by the British in the 1800s. A variety of spices from tamarind to tumeric are widely used, as with tropical products such as pandan leaves and coconut milk. In fact, food is of such importance for us Singaporeans that eating is widely known as a national past-time – and it so happened to be my husband Erik’s and mine.

So, we convinced ourselves that tasting is believing, and that food had to be the best way our new friends could experience our culture. We decided to throw our first ‘A Taste of Singapore’ dinner party. On the menu were authentic Singaporean dishes which included Bat Kut Teh, Curry Puffs, and Curry Chicken.

I guess we managed to surprise our friends with the interesting spread. As dinner took place, we avidly discussed about the similarities and differences between Singaporean and Japanese culture. We chatted about how Japanese curry is sweet, compared to Singaporean curry – that is red hot and flavoured with a variety of spices and coconut milk. We joked about how chili in Singapore comes in all forms, and the many ways in which they are used.

The party was a great success. Not only did it break the ice with the shy locals, it provided a meaningful avenue for cultural exchange.

Spurred on by the positive response, we subsequently organised many more “A Taste of Singapore” nights for our new friends. While it was often raining cats and dogs in the rainy town of Owase, we were always cooking up a storm inside the house. The process was tedious, but always enjoyable.

Inspired, I felt it was time to bring my passion for food out of my kitchen and into the schools.

As the only municipal ALT in Owase, I was tasked with teaching English in all the 11 elementary and junior high schools there. School visits could vary from once a week to once a month. I was always moving from school to school, and it was almost impossible to build up rapport with the teachers and staff because I hardly ever saw them. But I was determined to overcome the barrier and start reaching out.

It was a Monday morning and I was at an elementary school I visited biweekly. It was business as usual. Teachers were busy, dashing in and out the staff room. When the bell calling for the first break of the day rang, I immediately dished out my home-made pineapple tarts and went around offering them to the teachers and staff. Immediately, eyes lit up, tired faces brightened up and to my delight, exclamations of “Umai!” could be heard. “What are these made of?” asked a few teachers. It was a conversation starter which got some of my very shy colleagues to lighten up. For the first time, an extremely reserved school clerk spoke to me, and even asked me to try a piece of the cheesecake she had made. Two weeks later, we managed a long conversation about Chinese New Year (widely celebrated in Singapore) and Japanese New Year, in part English and part Japanese. I realised that new friendships were beginning to form.

Soon after, I decided it was time to bring the concept of cooking and creation into the classroom. There I was, in an elementary school classroom. The menu for the day was fruits. For this lesson, I had aimed to teach my grade 4 kids basic conversational skills on how to purchase fruits, so that they could to create their own original juice recipes. The goal of the lesson was to get the kids to learn the English pronunciations of fruits, as well as to practise using the word “please”. For example, “Orange, please”. After “buying” the fruits from the “shop assistants” (played by the homeroom teacher and I), the kids were then to paste whatever they bought onto a piece of paper before making a short presentation to the rest of the class. At that point a gregarious boy shouted mischievously, “Nori (glue), please!” I knew that I was on the right track to getting my kids use English more frequently. More interesting classes soon followed with the children, where I taught with real ingredients and students had to put their cooking skills to work.

Interestingly Erik’s and my passion for food paved the way for a number of Singaporean cooking classes, which were well received and attended by members of the community. Yong Tau Foo, Roti John, Peanut Cookies, Prawn Omelette, Sweet Potato Soup, Agar Agar – some of the dishes on our menu. Coming up with the menu was no easy task, as we were constrained by time and had to use ingredients that could be easily purchased from the local supermarkets. We had to consider the Japanese palette and so extremely spicy food was a no-go. We were forced to delve even deeper into our roots and consider what kind of dishes were most representative of Singapore and could be easily executed in a classroom setting. I guess we triumphed. I later learnt that some attendees at my cooking classes had attempted to teach their friends the recipes they had learnt, albeit modified for the Japanese palette. Excellent proof of culture assimilation.

Before we knew it, the locals were beginning to open up. Tea and dinner party invitations started pouring in. We were treated to scrumptious feasts that included home-made okonomiyaki, sushi, wood fire pizza and even spanish cuisine! True to Japanese fashion, these dinner parties were always topped with many glasses of beer, shochu, sake, a lot of good conversation and merry-making. We exchanged new words, be it Japanese, Owasean dialect or English, and during the process attained a better understanding of each other’s culture. Ironically, it was also during these times that I realised how little I had known about Japanese culture, despite having majored in Japanese Studies in university.

In addition to the parties, we also organised recipe exchange sessions. A particularly memorable one was when Erik and I were at Nishi-sensei’s house to show my colleagues Nishi-sensei and Izumi, how to make Singapore’s traditional peanut cookies. In return, Nishi-sensei taught us how to make my favourite Japanese sweet, ichigo daifuku. As we were midway through it Nishi-sensei’s husband returned home and we were introduced to him for the first time. After exchanging a few words he asked Erik if he had ever seen or held a katana. It was then that we found out that Nishi-san is a kendo teacher – in fact, not just a kendo teacher, but a former prefectural kendo champion! Before we knew it, Erik was all decked out in a kendo outfit and for the first time in his life, learning how hold a katana, the samurai way.

Two different nationalities and cultures, can food serve as a common language between people? I think it’s a ‘yes’, for my Japanese colleagues and friends now know what a Singaporean’s definition of karaguchi (spicy) is. Erik’s Japanese teacher, Wada-san, now enjoys dipping sashimi in chilli sauce instead of soy sauce and wasabi. Already, four of my colleagues at the Board of Education have made a five-day trip to Singapore in August. Another group of Owaseans will be visiting this December.

One year later and I am back in Singapore. Looking back, although I am still clueless about the secrets behind fresh Japanese curry, I’ve learnt how to make delicious home cooked Japanese dishes with the aid of pre-made sauces and filling, which I’ve found to be an essential part of daily Japanese life. I have grown and made new discoveries about not just Japanese culture but also my own roots, through my dinner exchanges with my new friends.

[1] Owase has an annual rainfall of approximately 4,000mm – the second highest in Japan.