Thursdays are my favorite days. I get to walk up and into the hillside to my cooking class. I wanted to learn basic Japanese cooking. Emi-san found me a cooking class promoting healthy traditional meals. It is the perfect place for me.
The class is held on the third floor of some kind of family education center. The kitchen is a bright, sunny, huge room. On the south wall is a row of windows; outside you see the lush hillside. There is a long stainless steel sink with four faucets. It reminds me of the sink in our barn back on the farm. On the counter to the right of the sink is a drying rack with about ten beautifully used thick, wooden cutting boards. To the right of that are tall, narrow convection ovens. An American baking pan would not fit in it. The kitchen has five cooking stations. You might not see them right away, but here are five strings hanging down with a tiny clip on the end. On the north side of the room is a huge cupboard full of Japanese dishes. The doors are glass and slide. The stacks and stacks of dishes inside remind me of a Dr. Seuss story. On the counter is an example of how the table will be set today. Human produced posters on the walls inform us of measurements, how our kitchen stations should look, timetables and other things I can’t read. There is a smaller kitchen room tucked in the eastern corner. I have only seen the teachers go in there.
If you come early you get to help in the kitchen. I love coming early. The kitchen is quiet with only the busy hum of teachers getting ready. I settle in and get my bearings. There are six teacher leaders. The book study leader is at the sink creating bouquets for our table. She hums while she clips and fusses with the flowers the teachers have brought from their own gardens. There is always a pot of water with a big sheet of seaweed soaking. Other ingredients for the day await their transformation fish, chestnuts, root vegetables of every shape and color, bundles of spinach, plates of tofu. They are always glad to have help; they put me to work right away. You get to do that job that will make the day go easier. You might roll sweet red bean paste into balls or peel and cut a long skinny beige root called gubo. The Japanese cut most vegetables julienne style. This is cutting vegetables the size of toothpicks. Somehow they make even chopping vegetables feel like an art form.
There is an ebb and flow to the day. When you come in on time, you get your name tag, pick up the recipe and sit at tables put together in a horseshoe shape. We sing a hymn. I like this because it is written in hiragana and I can do it. Then we do a book study. I cannot participate, but I can follow along. I am really present in the moment. I intently listen to the sound of the readers voice, their facial gestures, the attention of the listeners. I notice when they stop and when the next reader begins. The books open from the left, the words start at the top of the right page and go vertical, periods are a circle not a dot, there are no question marks (they use the symbol for the syllable ka to mark a question). I notice that sometimes the reader doesn’t know how to read the kangi and someone will help. After everyone has read a couple pages, the leader calls on a couple of students to give their reflection. I notice that the speaker doesn’t make eye contact and apologizes for speaking before speaking. They also say, “finished” when they are. The first time I was there without Emi-san to interpret, the leader apologized to me that it would be difficult. I reassured her that listening to Japanese is good for me. She then asked everyone to read slowly to help me understand. Small gestures of hospitality will be woven into my day here.
In an instant book talk is over and everyone is rapidly putting on their aprons and head kerchiefs. No matter how fast I try, I am the last one to get seated at the cooking demonstration in the kitchen. There is always a stool awaiting me. The cooking teachers are very serious. They meticulously go step by step through the recipes; showing the tricky parts, explaining nutrition, encouraging utility. We learn how to debone fish, toast sesame seeds, cut kuri (cucumber) into a cool spear shape for the fishplate. This takes an hour.
It is always a relief to get started. I don’t hear a gunshot, but the ladies act as if they have. The energy in the room moves from low gear to high gear. The beautiful cutting boards hit the counters; knives start chopping, timers are set, teachers assign tasks. Gas is lit, pans clang to their positions, students and teachers are scurrying around in their slippers. I notice right away all the indirect, humble, quiet language disappears. The teachers instruct in no uncertain terms. There is no please or thank yous, bowing is slight as they scurry to the next station avoiding the recipes hanging from the ceiling.
A cooking station is a big rectangle. On one end of the station are two gas burners, on the other a big sink, the center is workspace. There is a tray of basic ingredients by the burners. Below are cupboards with each side having specific items. There are photos on the wall showing exactly what should be in where. Under the stove is a huge dishpan and beautiful copper pot. I always think about how at home my grandma and mom would be in this class. Cooking class is like canning season, pots boiling, fresh food, and timers. Everyone is hustling around. But we are also talking and laughing. Japanese cooking takes a lot of steps. All the ingredients are raw materials-rice, water, fish, seaweed, and vegetables. I keep my eyes open and go with the flow. With all the boiling, frying, and mixing, the kitchen smells and sounds wonderful. I have come to appreciate the magic that shoyu-soy sauce, shio-salt, sato-sugar, sake, miren-a type of rice vinegar and omizu-water can make. In different ratios these ingredients transform ingredients into Japanese cuisine.
The context of cooking is great for my Japanese language. The vocabulary can be embellished with gestures. The teachers talk in short, simple sentences. They talk like that to everyone. There is no time to be grandiose when there is full flame under the pan. I have learned to not ask too many questions. Unintentionally this can divert the teacher’s attention too long and nearly cause a cooking disaster.
As the dishes are completed, they are put in their assigned vessel. The tables have been rearranged into two groups. They are dressed in white linens and a bouquet of flowers. And just like that, the leading cooking teacher says something and everyone is taking off their aprons, head kerchiefs, fluffing hair, heading to the classroom. Again, somehow I end up being the last to sit. Phones document our hard work. We sit with the people we cook with. Everyone, including the teachers are back to the demure women they were before they put their aprons on. We eat quietly and talk about the meal. At the end of the meal, two students, one from each table, are asked to share their thoughts about the food. Then one of the teachers describes the flowers in the vases.
Although the meal is over, class is not. After the meal, there is a lecture about some aspect of Japanese cooking. One day it was about the difference in soup stock, how Hiroshima is famous for our clear, flavorful stock, whereas Tokyo’s stock is very dark. Different dried seaweed and fish were shown. It is surprising how many different types of fish are used depending on the use of the stock. Another time, the topic was how to set a table for company or special festival. On that day, I was pulled aside and instead a teacher showed me how to sharpen knives. Another example of how they show me special consideration. The whetting stone is a great souvenir. Most of the time, I help wash the dishes. While the leading cook is lecturing, the rest of the teachers are washing the meal’s dishes. I like doing this. It gives me time to decompress. There are many dishes. Each dish is hand washed and dipped in boiling water-using chopsticks, before it is dried and put away. I am tall so I get busy putting away the stacks of dishes. One boiling copper pot is full of the white cloths we use to wipe up spills and dry dishes.
By the time the last dish is put away, the rest of the students have joined me. Without a word they all grab a cloth and start wiping down every inch of the kitchen. We all end up on the floor together, mopping the floor. It is my second favorite time of the day. When we are finished, and returning our name tags, the teachers hand us each a bouquet of the flowers, redistributed, wrapped in newspaper. I walk down the hill and back into my neighborhood. It is after 3 o’clock.