I’ve heard people rave and rave about Shin-Okubo: Japan’s largest Korea Town. Easily accessible on Tokyo’s Yamanote line, I went there today not quite knowing what to expect. The moment I stepped out of the station, I felt like I was transported to a different country.
I realise that a Japanese man is about to serve hawker fare to a very fussy Singaporean. I have ridiculously high and stringent standards when it comes to the food of my childhood. It comes with the territory. Whenever most people do something that’s foreign – they inevitably end up leaving their accent on it. It’s not a bad thing. But I know better than to expect it to taste like it does back home.
“We use yuzu in baths on the winter solstice,” she says. “We also make tea, dressings and yuzukosho with it. Yuzu also has a little brother. Its name is Kabosu: commonly grown in the Usuki and Taketa areas in Oita. Unlike yuzu, kabosu is less well-known.”
For meze, we ordered Hummus and patlıcan salatası (similar to Baba ghanoush). Oh dear lord, there are not enough words in my vernacular to describe how satisfying it felt to indulge in this after so many years. The dips tasted homemade. Having it with hot and fluffy Turkish bread warmed me inside out. How I have missed Mediterranean cuisine.
Uzbek Plov is quintessential comfort food. Rice, carrots and meat all cooked in one thick pot. It’s the kind of dish that warms your heart and your stomach. It has the power to lift you out of a bad mood with one bite. To say that I love plov would be a huge understatement.
Bah Kut Teh (meat bone tea) is one of those dishes that I often ate at the hawker centre growing up. It’s a pork rib soup slow cooked in a broth of herbs and spices. Despite the name, Bah Kut Teh has no tea in the soup and is a reference to the oolong tea which is ordinarily served alongside the soup. The older generations believed that it cancels out all the fat in the soup. Hmm… about that…
In the tarot deck, the Empress is the great mother. As number three in the major arcana, she represents the Earth Mother – the archetype of old school femininity and fertility. She is that person who cares for, nurtures and emotionally provides for others.
Don’t you dare put anything on my plate that my mum won’t approve of. Food that is heavily catered to the Japanese palate is not for me. I’m also not a fan of the greasy takeout type restaurant. I want soul food. You know what I’m talking about. I want a meal that takes me back to my thousands of years of heritage with that first bite.
Vegetarianism is common in my culture. Although ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine) doesn’t insist on vegetarianism, it does recommend it. The concept of ahimsa – nonviolence towards other living beings – is a core tenant of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Vegetarian food is also easier to digest and vital to colon health.
Ayurveda is an old Indian medicine system that stresses the importance of the mind-body connection and eating right for your type. Even as a kid, I understood that we eat for nutrition as much as we do for taste. Unfortunately, most of my mother’s recipes take HOURS (sometimes even days?) to recreate. Tasty vegetarian food isn’t easy to cook. And in Japan, it’s really hard to find all the ingredients I need.