My mother at age 27, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1973. Photo credit: Alejandro Milberg
My father has a library of cookbooks. He has collected them ever since I can remember, organizing the books by food regions on dark wooden shelves in his bedroom. The collection grows bigger over the years, an unwieldy monster of recipes, alongside cultural anthropology books, his other passion. There is the Larousse dictionary of chocolate, the Australian book on strange foods (prominently featuring insects), and the Joël Robuchon tome that weighs as heavy as a small child and is more of an art book than a recipe finder. Among these is a Clairefontaine faded red notebook, similar to the ones I used in school.This is my mother’s handmade cookbook.
The way we eat and cook is shaped by where we come from and where we’ve been. Leafing through these falling-apart pages, most of them loose, felt like turning the chapters of my mother’s life. I followed her eclectic culinary progression. The gefilte fish recipe from our neighbors in Melbourne who invited us to Shabbat dinner most Fridays evenings; Kimchi from my mother’s Korean friend; the fish coconut stew which was a staple at many dinners when we lived in France; pasta recipes from a cooking class we took together in Florence, Italy; a Seitan recipe from her macrobiotic and vegetarian years; and the list continues. The recipes are in English, French, Spanish, and occasionally Japanese.
I have memories of my mother waking up at five or six in the morning to cook me a full savory breakfast and lunch. I once asked her how she learned to cook, and she replied, “It took me a long time to learn, I had no one to teach me, but I had to learn.” I can’t imagine a time when she wasn’t an expert. The precision with which she chops vegetables is astounding. Yes, her hands are weathered from being in constant contact with water, the tips of her fingers cracked and rough. She rarely follows a recipe. She makes both pickling cucumber and cooking a gigantic Argentinian steak look effortless.
When I taste her food I can sense the flavors of different countries melding together in my mouth. The staple ingredients in her kitchen are a testimony to her multicultural upbringing: a hint of soy sauce as a salty base, extra virgin olive oil, fresh parsley, umeboshi (salted plum) vinegar quick pickled radishes tinged pink, and rice. As a kid I ate rice three times a day. Rice porridge for breakfast; brown rice for lunch and dinner. My name, in Japanese, means little rice seedling. My brother rebelled and ate white rice, and eventually I followed suit.
My mother is a small woman, slightly shorter than me but slender and with a body the size of a girl. Aside from the wrinkles on her hands she looks remarkably young for her age, sixty-six. She is Japanese, with a head of almost entirely black hair, and a skin tanned from having spent years in the South American sun. She was born outside of Tokyo in the mountains. It was 1945, just after the war, and her mother had taken refuge in a Buddhist monastery. My grandfather was a diplomat and very early on, my mother and her sisters embarked on a journey around the world, following their parents. They began in South America before my mother was ten years old, making their way through Colombia and Uruguay. Later, she lived in Switzerland at a boarding school where she learned French. There, the girls fussed over eating less to avoid gaining weight, and my mother eagerly took their portions of food, eating double. She moved to Argentina to visit a friend and stayed in Buenos Aires for twenty years, until she met my father, and moved to France. I was born in Paris, then we lived in Australia for seven years before returning to France.
Along the way my mother’s cooking followed us. I learned how to make my first fried rice when I was nine. While my brother slept in—he is ten years older—I would cut onions and carrots into miniature squares, imitating my mother, beating eggs, and cooking the rice. I often added leftovers, fish or chicken. And then I would rouse my brother from bed and feed him what I thought was a resourceful creation. This is still my go-to dish when I have little in the fridge and am craving a warm meal. My mother’s fried rice is simple to make, takes half an hour at the most, and is much less oily than other fried rice. There is barely any oil, just enough to sauté the onions until they are translucent. Sometimes I eat it as an afternoon snack if I’m hungry.
In Australia my mother was swept into what I call her food phases. Vegetarianism, macrobiotic food, and various diets. We started eating according to our blood types, which meant that my father, my mother and I all had different diets. Our diets were never to lose weight, on the contrary at home we often helped ourselves to second or third servings and a bottomless pot of rice, but these were bizarre diets that often lasted months. We followed her prescriptions to the word. There was the German doctor who told us to eat only rice and vegetables and a trickle of oil. We couldn’t eat sugar, salt, wheat, most fruits, or any processed foods. Throughout my childhood I wasn’t allowed to eat any sugar and only very little meat or cheese. Thankfully I was at a Waldorf Steiner school. There was no temptation to eat sweets and burgers. And yet, I’d stare at chocolates in store windows like a hungry animal, I’d salivate at the smell of cheese and tomato sandwiches sold at the school cafeteria. When I came to France on holidays, my aunt would feed me spoons of jam and nutella as soon as my mother turned her head. When I was nine, my father took me to a delicious restaurant overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg. There, I gorged myself on gratin dauphinois and a steak with sauce béarnaise. I was sick for hours, the food too rich for my stomach. The same happened when we visited my godmother in Argentina. The thick milanesas made my stomach churn, as did the apple pancakes served with dulce de leche for dessert.
There was the one time at a summer camp when the counselors thought I had diabetes because my mother told them not to give me anything sugary. They banned me from the afternoon tea table. I was hurt and furious, and later I stole a pain au chocolat from the table and hid under bushes to eat it quickly. Although I hated going to French classes in Australia, I somewhat looked forward to these classes. I knew that my teacher would feed me three cookies before we began. To this day, I have more of a salty tooth than a sweet tooth. I indulge in chocolate and creamy desserts—my mother has admitted that this too, is her weakness—but I prefer a bowl of noodles to a box of candy. I like the taste of tempeh, seitan, tofu, quinoa and millet. I have a secret tendency of adding a dash of soy sauce to almost everything, including spaghetti, and most people never notice. They only identify a flavor they can’t quite place, but which they love. If I had the time, I would cook myself a savory breakfast every morning.
When she was visiting last weekend, my mother said that she never stopped taking care of me when I was young. “I didn’t stop for the first two years,” she told me. For emphasis she said, “I’d be cooking always with you on my back, crawling over my shoulders as I stirred pots on the stove.” Later, I thought, of course her first example was that of cooking. In our family preparing a meal has to do with feeding yourself properly, keeping your body in good health, but also, and perhaps more importantly, taking care of one another. We cook for each other to show that we care. When I think of how my mother raised me, my mind turns to the kitchen. It’s the center of our household, where we inevitably congregate, men and women and children, where we reach a certain balance, where the energy resides. We’ve never been very good with words in our family. We prefer the smell of steaming rice. We don’t talk as much as we probably should and we’re very rarely prone to long intimate conversations. But when we eat a good meal together, every bite, nod of appreciation, and licking of lips draws us closer together. The attention that my mother brings to cutting radishes into perfect circles, or carrots into her tiny squares, affects me more deeply than any words. When I think of my mother, I still see her, an artist in the kitchen moving from sink to counter to stove with the graceful movements of a dancer and the poise and calmness of a Buddhist monk. She never falters, and if she does once every so often the most she’ll do is mumble under her breath “mensch” which means “human being” in German, but is the only word she swears with. Cooking is our loving gesture.
Because my father was often traveling – he lived in Japan for a year while we stayed in Melbourne – and my brother left home when I was seven, it was really just my mother and I, deep in our kitchen. She tended to her magical pots, grated ginger, sliced daikon, marinated eggplant, steamed Chinese buns, while I waited or picked at food half prepared. There were the rules: never double dip in jars of pickles and jam or the food will mold, wash rice until the water is clear, clean as you go, eat slowly. I watched as she tasted sauces and dressings by letting a few drops fall on her hand, the flat space between her thumb and wrist, before licking them away. As I grew older, I stayed in my bedroom for hours studying for the four hour-long exams at my French high school. I’d wait impatiently for her to call me down, Gohan, she yelled in Japanese, meaning dinner was ready.
Aside from spending hours climbing trees and gobbling up books while everyone was asleep or as I soaked in the bathtub, among my favorite childhood moments are those spent making gnocchi. On weekends, we boiled potatoes, mashed, mixed, floured the countertop, cut the ropes of gnocchi into small squares and rolled them on forks or gnocchi rolling devices.
Last year my mother gave me a journal she started writing when I was born. It is filled with details of when I first began to eat, what I ate, and recipes of the grain porridges she fed me. Grated apples, Japanese pumpkin, boiled carrots, azuki beans, millet, and rice, were among my favorites. Already then, she was preparing me for a lifetime of eating through her art of preparing food from scratch.
And so, my mother, Akiko Okuma, has given me the tools to set out into the world and know how to feed myself—really feed myself, with balanced meals. I’m never satisfied with a bowl of pasta and cheese. Even though for a long time I resisted eating brown rice, our three-times-a-day ingredient for fifteen years, today I enjoy the familiar slightly sweet taste of the grain, which I was told needs to be masticated for a long time before swallowed. She taught me to always finish my bowl of food and never leave a grain of rice. Luckily, I’m particularly agile with my chopsticks and can chase down that last grain of rice in seconds.