When I’m feeling down, I turn to Japanese food to make me feel better. I grew up eating bowls of chunky miso stew, thick with carrots and potato. The mere smell of rice is comforting to me. But the biggest reason I turn to Japanese food when I need to feel soothed, is because Japan is the place where I was most mothered.
Here I must apologize to my own mom—it’s not as if she didn’t mother me. She stroked my head when I was upset and dried my tears and attended my school plays and taught me how to drive a car. She was also a busy working single mother, and not terribly domestic to begin with. My mother is extraordinary in many ways, but cooking and cleaning are not her strong suit. She’d be the first to say so.
When I moved to Japan, however, I gained a Japanese mother, which is a rank unto itself. I had just graduated from college and, for the first four months I was in Japan, I stayed with family friends in a small town in the high mountains. The mother of the family, Kaoru-san, told me I would be her American daughter.
Kaoru-san’s days were devoted to her family. She cooked their favorite dishes, shopped for after-school treats that might make them smile, and she ran the house—cleaning and doing the laundry for all family members. She even drew the bath for them each night.
And now she wanted to do all these things for me, too.
What was my favorite food, she wanted to know. Where was my dirty laundry? How did I like my bath? As the oldest daughter in a single parent family, who had been doing her own laundry, cooking, and cleaning for many years, this was amazing to me.
It was also a little hard to take. I’d never come this close to being waited on and it made me feel uncomfortable. In the end we compromised. I helped her cook and I did my own laundry, but she did draw my bath each night. She put pine needles into the water to perfume it, or sometimes dried orange rinds, each sewn into a small mesh bag.
There is a whole other discussion we could have about what Kaoru-san might have done with her life had the choices and options been available to her—she is one of the most curious, funny, kind, and open-minded people I have ever met. In the time and place she was born, however, this is what you did. You married and had children and cared for your family. And you did it well.
The first time I became sick in Japan, Kaoru-san carried up a tray to my bedroom laden with dishes and cups and bowls. There were options—soup, as well as rice porridge. There was a yuzu syrup to sooth my throat, and pickles for digestion. There was a steaming mug of shoga-oyu, a mixture of lemon and honey and freshly grated ginger that was the perfect thing for a sore throat and aching head. She kept coming back throughout the day with more options, anything that might make me feel better.
It was some serious mothering.
Even when I got my own job and apartment in Japan, whenever I got sick Kaoru-san showed up on my doorstep with numerous containers of food. There were always options—anything that might make me feel better.
I never told Kaoru-san I was sick—I didn’t want her to go out of her way for me. This is Japan, however, and everyone is connected. If I called in sick to work, the word got back to her and she’d show up on my doorstep like some cold/flu fairy, bringing comfort.
These days I generally mother myself, at least when it comes to food (with the occasional help of some well chosen take-out). I may be far from Japan and Kaoru-san, but when I’m feeling run down I still turn to Japanese food to make me better. Most of the time, I turn to soba. I don’t know what it is about these earthy buckwheat noodles, but a good bowl of soba makes me feel like all is right in the world.
Mothering, we take it where we find it.
SOBA NOODLES WITH KALE, RADISHES, AND SCALLIONS
My soba creations vary based on what I have in the fridge at any given time. The sauce is something I make and freeze, so I always have it on hand. I add vegetables and more according to the season and my whims. Yesterday’s version had kale, radishes, and green onions. You could use bok choy or spinach, if you like. You could add tofu or chicken or mushrooms. My favorite soba version for when I’m actually sick has a poached egg on top.
If you don’t want to bother with making the sauce, you can buy bottled versions of soba tsuyu in an Asian market. Some brands of soba include sauce packets in with the noodles. You might want to jazz these up with some fresh ginger, however.
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 1/2 cups water
2 4 inch pieces of kombu (dried kelp) or equivalent
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
3 Tbs ponzu sauce
1 Tbs sugar or agave to taste
1 Tbs Asian sesame oil
2 Tbs fresh ginger, cut into thin matchsticks
Simmer mushrooms and konbu in water for 15 minutes on low (don’t let boil). Strain out solids and discard kombu (you can julienne the mushroom and add to noodles, though it won’t have much flavor). Add remaining ingredients and simmer on low until ginger has softened (5 mins).
This makes a lot of sauce (about four servings worth). I divvy it up in single serving containers (8 to 10 oz) and freeze for when I want noodles.
For this version of noodles, per person:
1 1/2 cup lacinato (dino) kale, remove rib and julienne leaves
2 large radishes, grated
1 green onion, sliced thinly
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 bundle buckwheat soba (90 g.); makes about 2 cups cooked
NOTE: most soba contains wheat flour. For those who are gluten-free, you can buy soba that is 100% buckwheat. Eden Organic is one brand.
Cook the soba according to package directions, drain, and rinse well. Using the same pot, add 1 1/4 cup soba sauce and bring to a low boil.
Add the kale and cook 2 minutes, until the kale has softened slightly. Add soba noodles and mix.
Pour into a bowl and top with radish, green onions, and sesame seeds.
As soon as I was finished taking photos, I dumped the who
le thing into the new bowl I have—a gift from Mrs. B, who has done her share of mothering me as well. This was my birthday present and it fits perfectly into the palm of a hand. Comfort is good—and you can never have too many mother characters around.
PS. For those who have asked about the green bowl, they can be found at Flavour Design.