Sunday, March 9, 2014

Miso Soup by Candlelight: Why I'm Furusato Sick (帰心)

I was going to make this week's post the continuation of the brunch series, but to tell the truth there's something else on my mind and this is as good a place as any for catharsis.  I want to take a second to talk about my heart's home back in Iwate.  This is not as much of a departure from recipes as you might think, for whenever I think of food I think of Japan and the little kitchen where I started to expand my culinary horizons:

Inevitably I also think of a gorgeous passage from Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows where he discusses the uniquely somber aesthetic of Japanese food and serving ware:

"Whenever I sit with a bowl of soup before me, listening to the murmur that penetrates like the far-off shrill of an insect, lost in contemplation of flavors to come, I feel as if I were being drawn into a trance.  The experience must be something like that of the tea master who, at the sound of the kettle, is taken from himself as if upon the of the wind in the legendary pines of Onoe.

"It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.  I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.  Natsume Souseki, in Pillow of Grass, praises the color of the confection youkan; is it not indeed a color to call forth meditation?  The cloudy translucence, like that of jade; the faint, dreamlike glow that suffuses it, as if it had drunk into its very depths the light of the sun; the complexity and profundity of the color -- nothing of the sort is to be found in Western candies.  How simple and insignificant cream-filled chocolates seem by comparison.  And when the youkan is served in a lacquer dish within whose dark recesses its color is scarcely distinguishable, then it is most certainly an object for meditation.  You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth, and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting on your tongue; even undistinguished youkan can then take on a mysteriously intriguing flavor.  

"In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and walls; but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.  The dark miso soup we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past.  I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served; and when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup I usually take for granted without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well.   ...   Above all there is rice.  A glistening black lacquer rice cask set off in a dark corner is both beautiful to behold and a powerful stimulus to the appetite.  Then the lid is briskly lifted, and this pure white freshly boiled food, heaped in its black container, each and every grain gleaming like a pearl, sends forth billows of white steam -- here is a sight no Japanese person can fail to be moved by."

Over the years I came to agree that darkness is part of what makes Japanese food and culture so beauitful.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, my favorite Japanese meal of the entire three years I spent there was enjoyed by lantern-light.  Even my teeny dining room looked best just as the sun began to set over the mountain:

Why all the nostalgia, you ask?  March 11th is the three-year anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.  Although I was back in the States by then, I remember that day as perhaps the single most heart-breaking moment of my life.  I remember sitting by the TV for days, barely able to see through tears, as I watched places I'd known and loved swept away.  I remember hysterically emailing old friends and colleagues from the coast, desperate to hear they were alive.  In the days immediately following and in the years since there has been a lot of focus on the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  To me that is as tragic as the rest of it, though it is less real because Fukushima wasn't my home.  I feel for the people there, but my heart bleeds for the Iwate coast.  So I hope you'll indulge me in sharing with you just some of the stunning views I experienced when I lived near there.  

For example, from my little village smack in the middle of Iwate:

Of Mt. Iwate and Morioka, just to the north:

Of the coast, where I spent some lovely summer days at a stunning pinegrove beach that no longer exists:

And of the people who made my stay what it was, who did their best to struggle uphill against a lifetime of ingrained prejudicial attitudes and small-town bigotry to make an earnest effort at showing me acceptance and love.  Maybe it's the darkness that's overshadowed my memories of Iwate that make them so perfect in retrospect, like miso soup by candlelight.  

So if you get a moment over the next few days, please spare a thought or a prayer for the people of Tohoku and all they have lost.

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