Please Excuse My Burdock

So the new decision to save cash by cooking with local goodies is actually pretty darn exciting and I find myself obsessed. Blog stalking has led me to an absolutely wonderful site called Yasuko-san’s Home Cooking, a Japanese girl’s homage to her mother’s delicious cuisine. The recipes seem so unbelievably simple, all involving ingredients readily available at my 100 yen store that I am giddy, scribbling reams of formerly foreign ingredients onto the week’s grocery list. I head out into the glorious sunshine, balancing a large package for Audrina on my bike’s basket. I reach the post office and lug it inside.

“Konnichiwa!” I say brightly. “To America, please.”

“Yep,” says the clerk, hauling the package in front of him and staring at the label, upon which I have written my friend’s address and the Japanese word for “to.” He’s tracing the numbers of the zip code with his fingertip using the same deliberate strokes I use when trying to decipher an ingredient list so I helpfully add, “Fu-ro-ri-da,” pointing to the “FL,” at the end of the address. His eyes light up and he asks me a question I don’t understand. I absolutely hate having to admit that my Japanese is poor so I cup my hands around my ear to pretend I didn’t hear him. He repeats himself but it makes no difference – apparently, today is a Bad Japanese Day. It’s so humid out that I’m already having a Bad Hair Day, my hair crackling and puffed out in all directions like a bowl of Rice Krispies, so why not add a muddled tongue and slow brain to the mix?

It dawns on me that he’s asking how I’d like the package sent. I ought to have known; it’s not like I’ve never sent a package before. Because I can’t remember how to say, “Any way is fine,” I tell him, “It’s fine as it is,” instead and upon catching his confused squint rapidly add, “One week is okay.”

He asks me something else and my cupped hand goes back to my ear. He repeats himself and points to the box.

“Ah!” I say and tell him what some of the presents are. He has apparently decided that my Japanese is so lame that it’s not worth going through the hassle of asking me if there’s a letter inside the box, which I appreciate, as I hate even thinking about the Japanese Postal Service’s ridiculous rule that if a letter is inside a package, the total shipping cost will be extra. I hate lying, too, and consider making my Japanese sound worse than it is to ensure without a doubt that he won’t try asking me later. Luckily, it’s an especially Bad Japanese Day and I can’t even think of how to say “The contents in the package are fragile” so instead I say, “Watch out!” mime shaking the box and blurt, “Don’t do it!” Because I have a sick desire to humiliate myself at least 10 times per encounter, I add: “Please make it quiet.” My hope is that “quiet” and “gentle” are somewhat equivalent and that maybe “please make it quiet” can be understood as “Be gentle” but, naturally, I’m wrong – I hear a man snort at the next booth. Nonetheless, my clerk has understood my spastic pantomimes and asks something which I imagine is designed to figure out why I’m concerned about things breaking if the only things inside the package are just cloth presents and snacks. It’s because I lied; there are also things made of acrylic but I figured I needed to save some humiliating moments for the grocery store and ended my package content list at the items whose Japanese names I knew for sure. I blame my concern on the crunchy snacks inside.

“Crunch crunch,” I say. “Crunchy snacks,” and mime crunchy snacks being crushed. The clerks nod and pass me a calculator, upon which the total cost of my shipping has been entered. Ordinarily, being shown the bill total on a calculator is a bit of an insult, especially if it’s a Good Japanese Day and there’s no reason for the clerk to assume you never learned even the most basic Japanese. Today, however, there’s no one to blame but myself.

So that’s done. Off to the convenience store to pay my utility bills, which have been squashed in my purse. At the counter, suddenly, my Japanese is bangin’ and I gracefully tell the clerk that I have bills to pay and would also like to buy a Chinese-style meat-filled sticky bun. He takes my money but makes no move towards the sticky bun heater so I gently remind him that I also wanted to buy a nikku man. He says, “Excuse me,” and hands me my prize. As usual, the nikku man is too hot so I shove it into my purse and head to the 100 yen store, wondering how my Japanese can shift from pathetic to rad in a matter of minutes. I wonder if perhaps my hair, too, has undergone such a radical transformation but a mere comb through with my fingers reveals that it’s the same ball of cotton candy it was 5 minutes ago.

The sidewalk is thick with whizzing bicycles as always, and the sun beats down upon my naked arms. Some idiot tossed his paper garbage into my bike’s basket last night and I pluck it out now and throw it into the combustibles trash can outside the store, excitedly taking my shopping list from my purse.

The 100 Yen Store haul:

  • A package of konyaku
  • A package of udon
  • A package of soba
  • A daikon
  • Potatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplants
  • Onions
  • Fresh Spinach
  • Bean Sprouts
  • A jar of bamboo shoots
  • A bottle of Mirin
  • A bottle of Sesame Oil
  • A package of frozen spinach
  • A 3-pack of strawberry yogurt
  • Sukiyaki crumble topping for rice
  • Red peppers
  • Soft tofu

Off then to the green grocer’s next door, where I pick up marbled red beef slices for tonight’s nikku jaga, chicken thighs, juicy pink salmon fillets, a few vividly purple tentacles of octopus, ground chicken, kim chee, and hard tofu. I also pick up some burdock thistle, which Yasuko-san’s daughter says will be delicious in the Sauteed and Simmered Chicken and Vegetables I plan to make later this week. It is also about two inches in diameter at its base, tapering to perhaps half an inch in diameter at its tip, like a wobbly, bark-covered blade, and is about half as long as I am. I don’t see how it will fit into my bike’s basket, which is already crammed full with the things I bought at the 100 yen store. After paying – my total grocery bill for the week about 20 dollars less than usual – I carry the spindly, unwieldy thistle out to my bike and try to tuck it into my basket lengthwise. It is so long that it only topples over each time I try to set it upright. I manage to get it to stand up at last and pedal away on my bike, one plastic bag of groceries dangling from my arm and the other two crammed into the basket. I only pedal about half a block before the burdock topples over to its side again, poking sideways by about two feet. This wouldn’t be a problem if the streets weren’t crowded with pedestrians and bicycles and if I weren’t also at a cross street. We are packed, waiting for the light to change, and my burdock keeps falling to the side, poking the random people who squeeze past me.

The light changes and I pedal away, swiping at the burdock root with my right hand. I consider grabbing it to tuck under my arm, but then I’d only be poking people behind and in front of me. I wonder if I can hold it between my knees, but figure that wouldn’t work very well with the whole bike pedaling thing. I could probably hold it with one hand as I ride, but can’t control my bike very well with just one hand, especially considering my opposite arm is weighed down by the grocery sack, throwing my center of balance off to begin with. I settle for swatting at it to make it stand up every few seconds and apologizing to the people it smacks in the arm.

“Please excuse my burdock,” I say humbly. I receive cold stares in return. I might apologize more profusely but I am riding a bike, after all.

At home, after I finish unloading the groceries, I stick my hand into my purse to look for the receipt, and can’t figure out why my purse is hot on the inside. And then I remember – my nikku man from the convenience store. Gratefully, I unwrap it and enjoy it in front of the computer screen, its meaty goodness only a hint of what will come tonight. Nikku jaga, spinach with sesame paste, and age dofu; it’s what’s for dinner and I just can’t wait.

The week’s forecast:

  • Nikku jaga
  • Age dofu
  • Tako su
  • Simmered Chicken and vegetables
  • Bamboo Shoot Steamed Rice
  • Onigiri
  • Cucumber soy sauce pickles
  • grilled eggplant
  • Salmon, radish, bamboo shoot and mushroom nabe

Please sir; perhaps you will excuse my burdock?

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