When you move to a foreign country, one thing that really helps you to acclimate is to eat the local foods. But if you really want to embrace your new surroundings, don’t just eat those foods out--cook them at home. Expand your horizons, right? I mean that’s what I did when I first moved to Italy. I admit that it was a pretty easy conversion to boil water, cook some pasta, and tear off chucks of fresh bread that I lovingly spread with soft cheeses. I mean, embracing the local foods of Italy was a breeze. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t exactly making pasta or sauces from scratch, but neither were most of the Italians that I knew, so I didn’t feel bad about that. Strolling thru the aisles of the Italian market was a whirlwind of things that I desperately couldn’t wait to eat. The meats, the cheeses, 1000 kinds of pasta (I vowed to try them all!), the breads, the wine…..did I say wine? The hardest thing I encountered about Italian food was learning how to order pizza for delivery, but in time I conquered it, and would anxiously await the little boy on a Vespa ringing my doorbell to bring me the doughy spoils of my victory.
Fast forward to now, If I’m actually brave enough to even GO to the grocery store, you’ll find me wandering around, picking things up trying to comprehend just what in the hell half of this stuff is! In a far away land, what could have been an aisle of cured meats was now an aisle of dried fish, whole ones, parts of ones, fish in flake forms, fish in tube form. And as I think back in time to see what could be around the corner, is it an aisle of cheeses or pasta? No, It’s rice. Giant bags of dry rice, precooked rice, rice crackers, rice balls, rice seasonings. Then I push my little cart past the aisle with all the sake and shochu. Long gone are the stretches of shelves that held the Chianti, merlot, valpolicellas, pinot grigios, and the proseccos! Now I’m just an illiterate foreigner who’s too scared to try about 75% of the items in this store.
I started out small. I made yakisoba, which is really just noodles with meat, vegetables, and a sauce. I watched a few YouTube videos (because there’s a video for ANYTHING), figured out what I needed to buy and headed out to the store. The shopping list was easy enough. I recognized all the ingredients and knew that even though I can’t read anything in the grocery store, I can tell by just visuals that I’m doing ok. I’d say the first thing I cooked was a success. Yakisoba is pretty equivalent in difficulty to making spaghetti, same basic steps.
Now, I’m gaining a little confidence on the heels of my most recent victory in the kitchen, and decide to take it up a notch. “I’m going to cook fish in the fish drawer!” What is a fish drawer you ask? Well it’s a small drawer at the top of the stove, right above what the Japanese consider to be an oven (its more like the size of a toaster oven). Apparently people eat so much fish in Japan that they have dedicated part of a built-in appliance just to properly cook it. I guess it’s similar to how Paula Deen had a built-in deep fryer in her kitchen, different strokes for different folks.
So like any novice, again, I began with some YouTube videos. In several of the videos, whole fish were being used, what kind I don’t know. So at the store, I selected mine based on the fact that they “looked” like the same type of fish. The fish weren’t cleaned, but I had seen my dad clean and gut many fish in my day so I figured, no problem. But just to be safe….let's YouTube it! I watched several techniques that “inspired” my process (I mastered none, and just hacked them up basically). Once cleaned, I just salted the hell out of them, as directed, and broiled in the drawer for a few minutes on each side. Easy-peasy. Overall it wasn’t a difficult thing, but I don’t think I’d go the whole fish route again. For one, I wasn’t a huge fan of ripping the innards out, and second—I HATE BONES. I think it’s pretty impossible to eat a whole fish without having to deal with rogue bones ending up in your mouth, no thank you. And to complicate things even more, trying eating a whole fish with my terrible chopstick skills!
Since cooking the fish, I also fried tofu for the first time. I served it over rice with miso stir-fried veggies. I made a pork curry too. I really am trying to slowly expand my repertoire of recipes and embrace the local foods. Luckily though, we still eat out several times a week so I have time to incorporate new meals into rotation. And when I have something in a restaurant that I like, I know I’m just a few YouTube videos away from being able to recreate it at home! (hopefully)