Pass the Pickles, Please

by Emily Law

Thoughts on Happy Eating in Japan: An Introduction.

“Lunch?” repeats the JET alumnus, leaning forward and cocking his head. “Well, kyuushoku school lunch wasn’t too bad,” he relays, “It was balanced, at least.” A slow, sheepish grin spreads across his face and crinkles his eyes. “I mean, like… it was a lot healthier than my usual instant curry sauce on spaghetti dinner,” he shrugs.

“Grooooosssss,” we all shudder collectively. Everyone is thinking, “Nope, that won’t be me. I just survived an eight-month long application process; I’ve been hand picked by the Japanese government to take part in the development of young minds. And I’ll be earning a nice chunk of cash. I totally, totally have this. Cheap beer and cereal are a thing of the past.  Hell, I’m a JET. I can take care of myself.”

“Plus,” I add, with all the naïve disdain of a twenty-three year old, Chinese-Italian, bourgeois-bohemian San Francisco food snob, “it’s not like it’s hard to whip up a batch of tomato sauce.”

Within a few weeks of arriving to Japan, I came crashing down from my Garden of Eden. In the Garden, there was time, space, variety, and vitality; in real life, I had none of these things. There were no more pots of bubbling tomato sauce or loaves of homemade bread; now, I was living on pre-made onigiri and canned coffee. I felt beaten, body and soul.

It’s easy for new residents of Japan to suffer from a series of factors that de-value the quality of their sustenance and, by extension, their well-being.  There’s the small space: the lack of counter, the tiny electric stove, and everything so close that cooking becomes an exercise in avoiding bruises.  The unknown: grocery shopping is a harrowing experience, and if there’s variety, it’s in the twenty mysterious, indecipherable types of seaweed on the shelf.  And the time and energy: we want to be good foreigners, to share our talents and to absorb, sponge-like, everything around us, only to come home each evening and find that the fibers of our beings have been wrung to exhaustion. Good food supports a happy person, and Japan is a food paradise. But how to get there often eludes us.

This column is about getting a taste of that food paradise. It’s about getting there within the dizzying confines of space, language, culture, time, and fatigue. I’ve tried and learned a lot in my year since coming to Japan. I don’t have a set recipe for culinary happiness, although I will drop you a cake recipe here and there. I only have a thirst for information, a need to experiment, and a deep love for food.

There’s that, and a strong awareness that we are, after all, what we eat.  Because while I’m sure that the life of Mr. Instant Curry Spaghetti isn’t too bad, I bet he gets some mighty terrible stomachaches sometimes.

Thoughts on Happy Eating in Japan: One Tool Wonder, The Rice Cooker, Part I.

“”… the rice cooker can bring a kind of liberation for women,’” remarked Shabnam Rezaei, former resident of Tehran, Iran, to the New York Times.[1] Iranian culture, she tells us, requires that a woman be able to make a perfect, fluffy dish of rice. With its flawless execution, and a preset function, the Persian rice cooker enables women to turn out beautiful tahdig no matter what. But what these women really gain is time. They simply press a button, and walk away.

Whether a constantly traveling lecturer, a busy mother, or a kitchen-less student in Tokyo, the rice cooker, or suihanki in Japanese, frees up time, energy, and tedious dish washing. Rice cookers work on moisture sensors, and therefore won’t burn the food they’re cooking, enabling you to wander off worry-free. The machine will sing a little song when it senses the food is ready, and then switch into warming mode. Greg Beck, former CIR for Hiroshima-ken, stated simply, “It’ll finish when it knows it’s finished.”[2]

Greg’s remark comes to us mid-video, as he whizzes around his kitchen showing us how to make something “yaki-nikku-y” in his electric one-pot wonder. He can do this because it’s possible to cook almost anything successfully in a rice cooker, and often all together. Greg makes tender marinated meat, apples, and rice. I make chocolate cake.

But as those Persian women know, no matter what novelties it can whip up, the rice cooker turns out a knock-your-pants-off, perfect, basic bowl of grain.

The ratio for white rice is one-to-one. Rinse your rice, throw it in the non-stick rice cooker bowl, add water, hit “start.” Go catch up on your email overflow. Come back to effortless, steaming bliss.

Brown rice, or genmai, takes a ratio of one part rice, two parts water. If you don’t want to bother with measuring, stick your index or middle finger in the bowl until it rests on top of the rice. Add water to just past the first knuckle for white rice, and just past the second for brown.

Almost all food follows the principles above. Make it exactly as you normally would, just don’t put it on the stove (or in the oven). Today, though, is about basics: the way a rice cooker functions on the simplest terms; the basic benefits of a cooking tool that requires no attention; making the undeniable staple of a Japanese meal. Or for that matter, making the staple grain of any culture’s meal. I wax nostalgic over my rice cooker oatmeal and Southern corn grits.

You’ve probably made rice in your rice cooker dozens of times. Today is rice, but next week is beans, the week after, cake. So tonight, give that plastic gadget a new respect. It might just be the key to your liberation.


[1] Moskin, Julia. “The Steamy Way to Dinner.” New York Times, September 30, 2008.

[2] Picker, Luc-Yan. “Video: Rice Cooker Cooking.” Wide Island View, March 16, 2011.

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