Soba, Sushi, and Tempura: Our Encounter with Japanese Cuisine
By Natalie Bolton
As our plane coasted down the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on August 22nd, I felt a twinge of nervousness deep in my stomach. The thought of leaving the comfort of my parents’ cooking as well as leaving the common sight of the Tim Horton’s that sprout on every other street corner in Barrie racked my mind. I wasn’t sure how I would survive two weeks in a foreign country where the culture and cuisine were so different than what I was accustomed to here in North America. As we left Barrie, we could hear our parents’ voices repeating the phrase “Try everything once!”. During our lengthy twelve hour flight to Tokyo, the airline fed us Asian-inspired food to help us adjust to the culture shock we were about to experience. We were given meals of rice with mushrooms and a hot cup of noodles, each with a set of chopsticks, which, despite our repeated attempts, were impossible to use.
Upon arrival in Tokyo that first night, we were treated to dinner under an awe-inspiring display of fireworks. As the sky lit up with shades of red, green, and gold, we enjoyed our Domino’s pizza on an apartment rooftop. During our second day in Tokyo we were treated to a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, toast, and coffee, later followed by a lunch of spaghetti and pasta, and another dinner of pizza at a restaurant named Jonathan’s. It was bizarre how we had travelled over 10,000 kilometres from home and yet the conventional North American breakfast, lunch, and diner had followed us to this corner of the world. The tables slowly began to turn as we began the second leg of our journey: a seven hour trek by bus from Tokyo to Murayama, Barrie’s twin city.
On the first night of my home-stay in Murayama, my host family took me to watch a display of fireworks in a nearby town. We walked down a busy street lined with vendors and various fair games as fireworks exploded above us. My host family fed me a feast of street-meat, food from the vendor stands. One of the foods I tested was takiyaki, baby octopus dumplings covered in teriyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and shredded cabbage. Being the picky eater that I am, I was not overly enthusiastic to eat octopus, especially octopus tentacles with the suckers still on, but I restated my resolve to try everything new that was offered to me. Surprisingly, I found the takiyaki to be delightfully tasty.
Over the course of my home-stay, I was treated to a wide range of Japanese meals. On one occasion I was served a home-made feast prepared by my home-stay grandmother, her two younger sisters, and my home-stay mother. They had spent the day preparing incredible Soba noodles, cooked Japanese pumpkin, tempura pumpkin, and tempura perilla. For dessert we enjoyed sweet white peaches that were picked off the peach tree that grew across the street from our house. A few nights later, I was treated to dinner at McDonalds. For breakfast at my homestay, I was served meatballs, salad, toast, and cold green tea.
One of our most memorable encounters in the realm of Japanese cuisine occurred on the night of the giant barbecue, organised by Murayama’s Junior Chamber of Commerce. Both the Canadian delegation and all of our Japanese friends helped prepare the dinner: we all peeled onions, washed potatoes, and put the beef and onions on skewers. It was a truly heart-warming sight to see two groups of people from two countries – separated by our cultures, languages and the Pacific ocean– come together and work as one large family to prepare our dinner. Several barbecue pits were set up and we took turns cooking food over the burning coals. In addition to the food we had prepared, we were offered other bizarre treats such as octopus, squid, juicy watermelon, and, most notably, ostrich.
Another unforgettable encounter with Japanese cuisine was at a lunch party hosted by a Buddhist monk in his house. There we enjoyed the delectable treat of sushi freshly made by a sushi chef. We watched in awe as he skilfully created plates of sushi – salmon, octopus, mackerel, and sushi with roe among them – in a flash and with a twist of his hands. Near the end of our trip our group had the opportunity to learn how to make soba noodles from master soba chefs. We mixed our ingredients, rolled our dough, and sliced our noodles under the watchful, and sometimes nervous, eyes of the soba chefs. After we cooked our noodles, we sat down to a lunch of soba noodles and, to our surprise, a platter of tempura prawns and tempura bamboo. For dessert we enjoyed white peaches while one of the soba chefs serenaded us with his harmonica.
Our trip to Japan was filled with several cultural juxtapositions. We were treated to sushi and spaghetti; green tea and Coca-Cola; takiyaki and meatballs.
As our plane coasted its way to the runway at the Tokyo Narita airport, we watched the baggage men bow and wave good-bye to us. As our plane climbed in the air, I could see the buildings of Tokyo transform into fields of rice. I saw the coastline and the Pacific Ocean start to fade under a blanket of soft grey clouds. As I watched the sun setting pink and orange over the plain of clouds outside my window, my mind began to wander and examine our whole adventure. I wondered if perhaps this exchange was not solely about experiencing a different culture. Perhaps it was an opportunity to witness a collision of cultures; a hybrid of our respective heritages; to revel in the fusion of foods. Maybe it was a chance to allow our global perspectives to grow that much more and our sense of home widen ten thousand kilometres to the east.