The truth of the matter is that even the Japanese can’t live on Japanese food alone. Witness the multitudes of ethnic restaurants and the hordes of Japanese people who hungrily flood McDonald’s every day for a nice triple-beef patty Mega Makku. Cooking Japanese style is fun, easier on the pocketbook and simpler on the shopping list than cooking the foods I know and love but sometimes I just need a hit of olive oil. Thus, I resign myself to breaking my weekly shopping budget … if I can even find what I need. That’s just one of the joys of living far from home, the constant question: “Can I find that here?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
One afternoon in 1987 or so, my friend Roxy had come over to play and my mother left us to our own devices in the house. Obviously, this meant we had to bake a cake. We hauled out the kids’ cookbook I’d been given for my previous birthday and found a recipe that seemed interesting to us, if only for the mere fact that it listed chocolate chips and orange juice as ingredients. We immediately set about to digging through the pantry and the refrigerator. Flour, check. Eggs – not 4 but 2, check. Chocolate chips? No. Cooking spray – no, but we did have butter. Water – yes. Sugar – yes. Baking soda – a touch. Orange juice – no … but we did, happily, have a juice box of Hi-C Ecto Cooler. Quickly, Roxy and I began folding all the ingredients together, ignoring the fact that the batter was strangely runny and had a sickly neon green hue from the Yellow 5 in the Ecto Cooler. We couldn’t reach high enough to put the oven heat to 375 so we settled for 225, congratulated each other on a job well done and sat back to wait for our delicious cake. Needless to say, my mother was not happy when she returned home and neither was my brother – it had been his Ecto Cooler we used.
Cooking Italian food in Japan is something like that. The only bread crumbs available are panko, which work beautifully in kushi katsu but are not quite right for things like pollo alla milanese, calamari fritti or suppli. There’s one kind of basil in the produce section, and it’s the wrong kind. 700 yen for lasagna sheets? Guess we’ll be having spaghetti … again. The “prosciutto” is appalling – upwards of 400 yen for several slices of tasteless vinyl, strangely soapy to the touch. As for pancetta – where? A ball of mozzarella smaller than my fist goes for 400 yen, and forget about finding pecorino, parmigiano not in a canister, or any kind of cheese, for that matter, that isn’t made of plastic unless you want to spend upwards of 1000 yen for a packet the size of a thumb. The only rice available is Japanese, again, unless you want to spend 500 yen for a 1-serving packet of an imported risotto side dish. There is no oven or broiler in my kitchen, just a toaster oven, so I’ve been known to stick a pan of frittata inside that, with the handle sticking out of the ajar toaster oven door. It’s a circus, it really is.
And yet, the cooking must be done. I am lucky enough to have a male roommate who happily eats whatever I serve, declaring everything “brilliant,” right before he suggests that maybe the pasta is “a little too hard and salty” and next time I might make it bland, limp Irish-Anglo style. The blasphemy barely grazes my ears, and I focus instead on his compliment, which helps boost my sagging spirits after I’ve created a 2000 yen lasagna that serves 4, partially with decent mozzarella and partially with mortifying handfuls of lousy pizza-grade grated mozzarella from a pouch. Tonight’s seafood risotto will likewise force me to do things that will no doubt send me into the shower, fully clothed, to sob until the dirt is rinsed off.