Japanese-British-Australian author Katherine Tamiko Arguile shares her own memories to reflect on the important role of food in Japanese culture, and in her exquisite debut novel The Things She Owned.
Back in the seventies, my mother would pack a five-kilo bag of Japanese rice in her suitcase whenever we flew to England for the summer. In those days only long-grain or pudding rice was available in British supermarkets, and going for weeks without the short-grain sticky rice that formed the heart of almost every Japanese meal was too much for us to bear.
In Japan, rice is more than just a side of carbs. It’s sacred. Though younger generations eat less of it these days, it’s been cultivated in Japan for millennia, its cultural significance embedded deep in the national psyche. The Kojiki, or ‘record of ancient matters’, which chronicles Japan’s origin legends, tells how Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, bestowed rice grains upon Jimmu, the first emperor, so he could turn the wilderness into rice fields. There’s even a kami (deity) responsible for rice – the Shinto spirit-god Inari-Ōkami, commonly depicted as a white fox. If you’ve travelled in Japan, you’ve probably seen the stone foxes with red bibs around their necks standing guard at shrines.
Each person in a Japanese household has their own rice bowl. I still love and use the rustic blue-and-red-striped bowl my mother bought for me over forty years ago. There are rules: the bowl is meant for rice and rice only; it should be held in the palm while eating from it as it’s disrespectful to do so without picking it up off the table; it should be empty at the end of the meal as any uneaten grains of rice will incur the wrath of the kami —– so my mother warned me – and a curse as punishment for wastefulness and ingratitude.
My mother taught me the ritual of preparing rice, just as my grandmother taught her. Rinse and drain the rice repeatedly in the pot until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly and add fresh water – one and one-fifth of a cup for each cup of rice – and soak for half an hour in summer, an hour in winter. Although everyone uses suihanki (electric steamers) now, my mother insisted I know how to cook it the way it had been cooked over fires in earthenware or iron pots for generations. She’d recite the rhyme:
Hajime choro choro, naka pappa
Akago naite mo futa toruna
At first go slowly, in the middle, go strong
Even if the baby cries, don’t take off the lid
That is: let it simmer slowly to begin with so the rice absorbs the water; when it boils, lower the heat to medium so it doesn’t burn, and whatever you do, don’t lift the lid to check it as steam should stay in the pot until the rice is ready.
There are more words in Japanese for rice than there are for love. There’s ine (the plant), genmai (unhulled rice) hakumai (hulled rice), kome (uncooked rice), meshi (cooked rice: informal), gohan (cooked rice: formal) and raisu (adapted from the English, used for rice in a non-Japanese dish, such as curry rice). The words for cooked rice are interchangeable with the word for meal. So asa-gohan, hiru-gohan and ban-gohan mean breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In my mind’s eye I still see my grandmother or mother mounding steaming rice into bowls with a wooden shamoji (rice paddle), their faces peaceful with the knowledge that food is plentiful in a way it wasn’t during the war. My life in Australia no longer includes three rice-centred meals each day, but I still eat it a couple of times a week. I cook Koshihikari, a variety whose texture and taste is worlds away from the kind you get in your local sushi takeaway. The way I feel when I eat it, I can only describe it as soul food. When I’m sick, my partner makes me okayu, an easily-digested rice porridge, the way I showed him and the way my mother showed me. When I’m heartsick, I’ll prepare a traditional meal just like my mother used to. The quiet mindfulness of arranging the table precisely with rice bowl to the left, miso bowl to the right, and chopsticks laid horizontally beneath the two, surrounded by satellites of smaller dishes, goes a long way to settling my restlessness. When I eat, it’s more than an act of nourishment. It reconnects me with those I loved and lost, taking me back to the country where I was born and raised.