In Valerie Stivers’ Eat Your Words series, she cooks recipes from the works of various writers.
Lately when I think of jealousy or should I admit it when i’m jealousI remember the story “The Earth God and the Fox” by the Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933). When I think of politics, I think of Miyazawa’s story “The Fire Stone”. For my artistic practice there is “Gorsch the Cellist”; for my place in nature “The bears of Nametoko”. I can’t say there is a Miyazawa story for everything – the writer died young and lived in rural northern Japan nearly a century ago – but he had stories for many of our basic human vices, as well as our basic forms of Quality. And that only scratches the surface of the attractiveness of his work.
Miyazawa was born in 1896 to two pawnbrokers in Hanamaki City, rural Iwate Prefecture. His parents were devout Buddhists and wealthy people by local standards; Her son became an agricultural science teacher and social activist trying to increase the number of farmers in his region. His poems and fictions were not celebrated or even widely published during his lifetime, but circulated posthumously, and he is now one of Japan’s leading writers widely used in schools. When I decided to cook from Miyazawa’s work, I asked Tetsuro Hoshii, a Japanese friend who lives in my Brooklyn neighborhood, to help me with the menu, and he excitedly revealed that he was looking for an homage to a Miyazawa novel was named – so bright the writer’s star continues to shine almost a century after his death.
The stories have a timeless quality and are similar to fairy tales or children’s literature. Animals talk. Mushrooms play music (“Tiddley Tum-Tum, Tiddley Tum-Tum”). In one of my favorites, “The Earth God and the Fox”, the title characters are both in love with “a single, beautiful female birch”. The earth god is a better person, but the fox brings the tree poetry and art books, and even promises her a telescope to look at the stars, and she secretly favors him. The earth god suffers agonies of jealousy until the unexpectedly wild dissolution in which the fox is exposed as a fraud despite all his expression. His cave, which was touted as being full of books, “a microscope in a corner and London Times to lie over there and a marble bust of Caesar here ”turns out to be“ rather bare and dark, although the red clay of the ground was trampled hard and neatly ”. The pocket of his chic suit contains “two brown ridges with which the friendly foxes comb their fur”.
There are many levels that can be subtracted from this story, but at the top level I cannot think of a better demonstration of the difference between what we think others have when we are jealous and what they actually have.
In another favorite, “Gorsch the Cellist”, a man plays the cello “in the city’s movie theater”. He has a reputation for “not too good”, worse than any other player, and he is constantly bullied over it. He has a “great, ugly” cello and lives alone to pick maggots from his tomatoes and cabbage in his free time. He scrubs grumpily every night[s] away “to practice his cello. This is what my own artistic attempts often feel like, including the preliminary maggot harvest. But one evening a cat comes in and asks to hear Schumann. The next time a cuckoo asks to learn a scale. On the third evening a badger cub asks for lessons – you see, it plays the side drum, and his father said Mr. Gorsch was a nice man. Gorsch is not a nice man to any of these creatures. He torments the cat, does not like to work with the cuckoo and threatens to turn the badger into soup: “Badger soup is a badger like you, cooked with cabbage and salt so I can eat it.” But he reluctantly helps and even enjoys himself a bit, and when he goes back to work his game has improved beyond measure. As a comment on how painfully and backwardly we improve at our work (or at least I do) and how rarely we recognize our teachers while they are teaching us, the story is perfect.
The attitude for all of this might seem naive, but it wasn’t. The talking animals, human protagonists, and personified birch trees feel like folk elements that could have come from any time in history, but that’s a carefully crafted illusion. The telescopes and copies of the London Times and a few scientific concepts would lead to strange fairy tales. The modern elements describe Miyazawa’s Japan: Recently opened to the West, increasingly educated and slowly industrialized. Nature still asserted itself against humans, just like the “traditional ways of life” against modernity, as the translator John Bester writes in the introduction Once and forever: the stories of Kenji Miyazawa. But the future was made up of telegraph poles and electricity, and although Miyazawa treated that future with humor, he knowingly did so. The whim is perhaps a serious comment on how we should rate things like this. Remember the fox claims to have a telescope and a copy of the London Timesbut when all is revealed he’s just a fox with a few ridges in his pocket and a “hard and neat” floor in his den. His virtues are not the high falutin he dreamed of, and his pretensions impress the girls but ultimately get him into trouble. The same is true of human progress on the path to progress.
I don’t think Miyazawa found modernity extremely relevant. His concerns were religious and profound, and his practice was to breathe life into the sphere of our existence and create a space whose boundaries were the stars and distant London, and a crab’s perspective at the bottom of a creek. Everything in Miyazawa’s work is seething with life. Every leaf, every flower, every blade of grass and every berry seems to have its own special effect. Flowers bloom “with all their might”, grasses glow “like white fire” and shadows “flutter, flutter” on their way to earth. “Mackerel” clouds seem to be “swaying from almost all of the moonlight they’d soaked up in their bellies.” It is a Buddhist view of things in which all creation has the same value and man is only a protagonist. This animism is perhaps best expressed in the story “The First Deer Dance,” in which a group of deer are drawn to the scent of the chestnut and millet dumpling a boy has left behind, but the animals are afraid to spot you unknown white object on the floor next to it: a towel. The deer think the towel is alive and want to understand what kind of creature it is. Your dialogue on this mystery captures the joy of a world where God is in everything. And when the towel thing is done, eat the dumpling like this:
“Ah, now for the dumpling! “
“Ah, a cooked dumpling is everything!”
“Ah, be pretty round!”
“Ah, yum yum! ”
Again, Miyazawa is not entirely innocent. He is aware of cruelty, both in the human and the natural world. But here, too, you can feel the Buddhist distancing and an ambiguity between the human predator and the animal. His bad guys obey the rules, just like everyone else. If the rule is that some people take advantage of others, it is human nature or the nature of nature – make your choice. But, as in the above dialogue, Miyazawa continues to celebrate the beauty and joy of existence. And somehow the living freshness washes away sin. Why hold on to the judgment when mountains and stars are still breathing, when the water gives off its “phosphorescent glow”?
In this way, what begins as human stories ends as divine ones, and the reader travels from thinking about themselves – their jealousy, their art, their feelings about nature, politics, and industrialization – to thinking about God.
Everything is very unfamiliar to the modern western reader. It was this sense of distance between me and Miyazawa’s world, and between me and the traditions of Japanese cuisine, that inspired me to invite a guest chef when I was doing his job. That summer, in the short time that such things were possible, I had seen a concert by jazz pianist Tetsuro Hoshii and heard that he was also an accomplished cook. I found out that Hoshii, whose father is from northern Japan, has a family relationship with Miyazawa. I gave him a long list of dishes and ingredients from Miyazawa’s stories, including the chestnut and millet dumpling from “The First Deer Dance” and a “sliced salted salmon with minced squid” snack that the hunter ate in “The Bears” by Nametoko. “Hoshii hired his father to track down the specific references to dishes in the original Japanese editions of the stories and suggested how we could make versions that match the spirit of northern Japanese countryside cuisine and make the ingredients available to us in New York. For the” minced. ” Squid ”he suggested a preparation of squid and daikon, as squid is not available, and for the badger stew from“ Gorsch the Cellist ”a preparation of lamb and vegetables that were cooked in Japanese hub Pot, a rustic clay vessel with a lid that goes directly over the heat source. Hoshii explained that chestnut and millet dumplings are a dessert made with sweet rice flour like mochi. We agreed to try this too.
One of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine is simplicity. The squid bowl, ika Daikon essentially uses two ingredients – squid and daikon – both of which are cut into large plates and prepared in liquid dives: cold water for washing the squid; boiling water to simmer the daikon for 20 minutes before shocking and adding to the final cooking liquid. The hub-pot dish is also very simple and is based on immersion in liquid: you make a soup base by soaking dried kombu (seaweed) in cold water for an hour, cutting the vegetables and meat into pieces (with a little extra soaking) and the Bring the cooking liquid to a boil and then add the ingredients in a specific order. The only added flavors are soy sauce and ginger.
The results of this slow, deliberate cooking were delicious, and had the depth, clarity, and subtlety of taste that I associate with gourmet Japanese cuisine. I was reminded again how very “simple” eating depends on technology. (When you have few ingredients, creating the flavor is a technique.) Hoshii showed me how to chemically clean a burdock root with aluminum foil – “you don’t want to disturb the skin” – before shaving it straight into one with a shaving knife Bowl of cold water where you soak for 20 minutes before adding it to the broth. He also made an aluminum foil “simmer lid” for that ika Daikon, which he claimed was the best way to regulate the bubbles. Small touches like slicing the ginger for that ika Daikon garnish in half matches against rubbing for the hub Pot made subtle differences in taste. There was also the judgment and intuition factor of when to remove the kombu from the boiling liquid (if the taste is strong enough but not too strong), how much soy sauce to add to it hub Pot (to taste, without dimensions) and so on. The lazy cook might think: Couldn’t I just throw this together and cook? But I tried that with a similar recipe and I can confirm that it doesn’t taste right away.
Another differentiator of Japanese cuisine is the emphasis on presentation. Again, it was important to have Hoshii’s eyes in the kitchen to show me things that I wouldn’t normally see. I vaguely see myself as someone trying to make their food look pretty. In practice this means that I occasionally stack things or garnish something or present the “best side” after putting something on a plate. Hoshii’s techniques were a new level. He arranged everything he covered. For the ika Daikon, he carefully selected how many daikon plates to put on the plate, and then arranged the squid bodies next to him. Cooking everything together and then analyzing the ingredients for a nicer service is something I would never have thought of. I’ve covered that hub– Pot stew for the photos for this piece, but after we took the photos, Hoshii served us another lunch, put nice stacks of meat and vegetables on one side of the bowl and let the broth fill the rest, another twist on the principle the separation. Even more sophisticated for them ika Daikon, he reserved half of the squid bodies for the last five minutes of cooking time, which gave them a different color from those that had been steamed longer. This made the dish more visually interesting.
Given how important appearance is to the final product, Hoshii and I were a little disappointed with our dumplings – there’s only so much you can do with a ball of cooked dough. For this recipe, we wrapped a dough made from cooked millet and sweet rice flour around a paste made from crushed chestnuts. They were tough and only mildly sweet. After cooling and drying up a bit, they made sense as the type of snack a kid could make for an errand.
The day we prepared the meal was cold and sunny with no cloud – mackerel or anything – in the sky. In front of my window, the man-made stretched from horizon to horizon – the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan in one direction, the waterfront cranes on the Jersey shore in the other. I couldn’t imagine any of it being brought to life or spoken or sung, and if it did I feared I wouldn’t like what it said. I liked the food and Hoshii’s generosity in helping me cook. If Miyazawa’s spirit could be said to be anywhere in my world, it was the steam rising from the world hub Pot and the delicate aromas inside.
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
a sheet of dried kombu
4 cups of water
a pound of squid
Three inch piece of daikon
1/4 cup sake
1/4 cup mirin
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon brown sugar
Ginger (for garnish)
Spring onion (for garnish)
Put the dried kombu and water in a medium saucepan and let it soak until the kombu expands. This should take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
Wash the squid thoroughly in salt water, drain it, and cut the bodies into one and a half inch rings. Put aside.
Cut the daikon into four thick slices and peel. Cut crosses in the center of each slice; This will help the flavors penetrate. Fill a separate saucepan with water, add the daikon and bring it to a boil. Bring to a boil and cook until the daikon is tender when prodded with a chopstick, about twenty minutes. Drain the daikon and blanch in cold water for three to five minutes.
Add the daikon, sake, mirin, soy sauce, brown sugar, half of the squid bodies and all of the tentacles to the pot with kombu and water. Bring to a boil and then bring to a boil. Make a coarse aluminum foil bowl to add the liquid to the pan and use it as a “cooking lid”. Simmer for ten minutes, then remove the kombu. Simmer for another twenty minutes, then add the rest of the squid bodies and simmer for another five minutes.
To serve, scoop out the daikon slices and squid bodies and artfully arrange them in a shallow bowl that has been doused with a little liquid and garnished with small matches made from ginger and chopped spring onions.
hub-Badger Stew Pot
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
You will need a gas stove and Japanese style for this recipe hub pot, a closed clay pot that stands directly on an open flame.
a piece of dried kombu
3 1/2 cups of water
a lamb shoulder chop (about 1/2 lb)
on Gobo (Burdock root)
Daikon (about three inches)
half a bunch of enoki mushrooms
one eighth of a head of Napa cabbage
Soy sauce (to taste)
3 tbsp grated ginger
Place a sheet of dried kombu in four cups of water hub Pot, and let it sit until it expands, which should take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
Remove the fat from the lamb and cut into strips as thin as possible. Season generously with salt and pepper and set aside.
Clean the Gobo (Burdock root) by crushing a sheet of aluminum foil, wrapping it around the root and scrubbing with it. You don’t want to peel or wet the root because the skin is important to its taste. When the root is clean, shave the slices of it into a bowl of cold water, making about a cup and a half in total.
Peel the daikon, cut it about an inch thick and cut it into quarters.
Separate the enoki mushrooms and cut them in half.
Roughly chop the cabbage.
Cut the leek in half vertically along the stem and then in half again, separating the green from the white. Wash in several cold water changes until there is no more sand at the bottom of the bowl. Drain. Separate most of the green part and reserve it for another purpose. Chop the remaining green part into smaller pieces about an inch thick and the white part into large, inch-sized pieces.
Put that hub Bring the pot to the heat source and bring to the boil. Remove the kombu. add the Gobo and daikon. Add the rest of the ingredients in the following order, simmering for a few minutes between additions: mushrooms, leek, lamb, cabbage, a little soy sauce to taste, ginger. Close the lid and simmer undisturbed for five minutes. Bring the pot to the table (place it on a saucer or other heat-resistant surface) and lift the lid just before serving when an appetizing cloud of steam rises. To serve, scoop some stew attractively into one side of the bowl and then pour a ladle of liquid over it.
Chestnut Millet Dumplings
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
1/2 lb chestnuts, steamed and peeled
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp plus 3 tbsp brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup millet
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup water, divided
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sweet rice flour
Powdered sugar (for garnish)
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the milk, a tablespoon of brown sugar and the cleaned chestnuts and mash and simmer until they form a paste. Remove, let cool slightly, then mix or use a food processor until smooth. Add water if necessary.
Put three quarters of a cup of water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the millet, simmer and cook until the millet is very mushy and the liquid is absorbed. Mash into a paste.
Combine the millet, sweet rice flour, a quarter cup of water, and three tablespoons of brown sugar in a shallow bowl like a cake plate and mash them with your hands until they combine. Form a rough square or rectangle and divide it into sixteen equal parts. The dough should be smooth and only very slightly sticky.
Roll each serving of dough into a ball, pinch them into a circle, and add a teaspoon of chestnut puree to each. Fold the pastry wrappers over the paste and gently press them shut so that the paste does not show through. Roll the dough into a ball again with your hands.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully add the dumplings so they don’t touch. When they float up, they are done. Drain and let sit uncovered without touching until they are cool and dry. Serve dusted with powdered sugar.
Valerie Stivers is a writer and lives in New York. Read previous installments of Eat Your Words.