Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Sharing Soup and Stories

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A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft's recipe.

A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft’s recipe.

My father died several years ago.

In my grief, I needed comfort. I began craving mochis. They’re a Japanese food—rice pounded to a dough-like texture, then cooked over a hot grill, finally bloating into a crusty ball with an inner texture of chewing gum. Finally, the dough is mashed into soy sauce sweetened with sugar. Yummy!

I love these little treats, but you probably have to have some Japanese blood to start salivating at their description.

Now, I find myself stressed for other reasons and have started craving miso soup. Not the wussy little bowls of nearly clear broth with tiny cubes of hydrated tofu served in most Japanese restaurants. No, what I want is my own recipe. The way I concoct miso is probably rooted in my hybrid Japanese, Polish and Lithuanian heritage with a tad of Russian thrown in. My soup has to have mounds of sliced shitake mushrooms and a block of tofu big to make a vegan family happy.  If available, I also throw in a hand full of spinach.  I add slices of green onion, some MSG and of course the miso, about a half a ladle full. It serves 4-6 folks, depending upon the size of the bowl and how hungry everyone feels. It’s a meal.  Include a few Japanese pickles and maybe a cracker or two and I feel satisfied.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

I learned to make this soup just a month ago when a dear friend of mine, Lucy Craft, an NPR and CBS correspondent based in Tokyo, showed me the simple recipe:

Heat four cups of water in pot.  Throw in a teaspoon of Hondashi, (aka MSG) found in any Asian food store, 2 or 3 finely chopped stalks of green onions, tofu cubes and sliced shitake mushrooms. You can add additional veggies as you prefer. When the broth begins to steam, mix in half a ladle of miso paste (also available in Asian food stores). Mix the paste slowly with the broth using a long pair of cooking chopsticks. Heat until the broth approaches boiling, but remove from heat before boiling begins. I often add  spinach to the broth just before I remove it from the heat.

I find it intriguing that I crave foods from my mother’s homeland whenever I’m stressed. Its like I’m genetically wired to need comfort food from a place I never lived, save as a small child. My mother rarely made Japanese food. When she did, she served it with a side dish of haughty arrogance and declarations about the superiority of Japanese people. My mother lived in her own cosmology, separate from the rest of society. Her stories were entertaining, but over the years I learned never to trust them.  Starting in fifth grade, I made dinner nearly every night.  If my mother was home, she would stand by my side, helping with some chopping and a lot of storytelling, usually about her childhood spent in a small fishing village during World War II.

My father was my best friend. After I married and moved away, we spent hours on the phone solving the world’s problems. Whenever we had the opportunity to be in the same location, we’d sit outside until the sun went down. He had his own tales to entertain me—stories of his upbringing on a farm in Pentwater, Michigan. Once he told me how he and his two younger siblings saw what they thought was Big Foot in the wild Michigan forest. They screamed all the way home. Oddly, no one else ever caught a glimpse of that creature. My father and I would drink glasses of red wine, watching day turn to dusk, appreciating the moment.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

As close as I was to my father, the only ethnic food I ever attempted to cook for him was black bread. I would spend days trying to master the recipe. It required fermentation and my house smelled like a brewery. My father had borrowed a vintage Lithuanian cookbook from a friend and made a copy. Then he made me a copy of his faded copy. This was the 1980s, and books on obscure ethnic foods were hard to come by.

Somehow I could never stomach making other Lithuanian or Polish treats, like the duck blood soup that his mother made for him during the Depression. Once I tried to make him Kugelis, a kind of baked potato torte brimming with butter, bacon, pork chops, milk and eggs. I felt like I was committing a criminal act. The cholesterol in that dish would have killed a weak heart in seconds.

As I get older I realize, like it or not, I am the sum of my parents. Not all of that is pretty. In fact, there are some parts I’d like to leave behind. But at my ever-advancing age, what I have accepted and embraced is my diversity. Growing up poor and enduring the stresses of my youth shaped me into the person I am today. Making food connects me to those two very different people who found each other in post-war Japan, married and became my parents.

When I’m in the field working, my most enjoyable moments are sharing a meal with the people I meet. Often they’ll ask me, “Are you hungry?” When I hear those amazing words, I know that I’ve been accepted into their extended family and a wonderful evening is about to begin.

Despite our crazy schedule, my husband and I try to share a meal with whichever of our children happens to be home. If we’re lucky, they’ll both share the table with us.  Our meals are often filled with laughter as the kids who have inherited their dad’s gift of humor try to outdo each other with exaggerated stories about their day.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water--is a tasty side dish with the soup.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water–is a tasty side dish with the soup.

I grew up seeking story—my parents sharing stories of their upbringing, my children interpreting their days, or the tales told by my subjects who allow me to photograph their lives. Food is a wonderful way to begin that sharing.

Written by kasmauski

June 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm

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