In My NYC Apartment, I’m Finally Finding Fluency in Japanese Cooking

published May 26, 2023
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okonomiyaki on plate next to bowl of miso soup and chopsticks
Credit: Katey Laubscher

Although I’ve learned many Japanese recipes from my mother, for a long time I didn’t really know how to cook Japanese food. My family immigrated from Japan to Hawaii four generations ago, and as a result I know how to make Hawaiian fusion food like Spam musubi or simple meals like chicken katsu. But traditional Japanese cooking is largely a mystery to me. 

That started to change when I watched the Netflix show The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House. The show tells the story of two friends who move to Kyoto to become geisha, then one of the girls discovers that her real passion lies in cooking. I was immediately drawn into the beautiful, comforting world of the show, and found myself hungry for the dishes featured in each episode. More than that, I wished that I belonged to the world the show is set in. I recognized cultural bits and pieces from my childhood, yet as a fifth-generation Japanese American who has never been to Japan, I also keenly felt just how rich and expansive this world was beyond my reach.

If nothing else, I decided, I could try and make the mouthwatering dishes the show depicted. A quick internet search led me to Just One Cookbook, an incredible resource packed with authentic Japanese recipes both modern and traditional, by Namiko Chen. I chose to start with a classic dish I know I love: miso soup. Shopping for the ingredients was a challenge. I can’t read Japanese, so trying to compare the available brands to the recommendations I had found online was a struggle. But with newfound resolve to practice my hiragana (the Japanese lettering system), I got what I needed and headed home to prepare my dashi: the stock that’s used for miso soup and many other Japanese soups.

The first step to making dashi is to steep clean pieces of kombu, or kelp, in water. I leaned over the not-quite-simmering pot, and it hit me: Gramps’ kitchen. The scent of kombu transported me to my great-grandfather’s house in Wahiawa, Hawaii. I haven’t been there in the decade since Gramps passed away and I didn’t even remember that his kitchen had a smell. I had forgotten, too, that he loved miso soup. Yet there it was: the warm, comforting, not-quite-briny smell of kombu. The simple act of preparing this soup had awakened a memory I didn’t know I had, and brought Gramps’ kitchen into my New York apartment.

The rest of the miso soup came together easily. I added and strained out the bonito flakes, carefully dissolved the miso, and added the wakame seaweed and soft tofu. The soup was delicious, rich and warm yet light, and it brought back all the comfort of childhood in my great-grandfather’s kitchen. 

Credit: Katey Laubscher

Cooking Japanese food quickly became an obsession. I worked my way through the recipes: okonomiyaki, teriyaki salmon, gyudon beef bowls, baked Japanese sweet potato, egg drop soup. Everything I tried tasted wholesome, delicious, novel, and yet familiar — reminding my tastebuds of the less traditional Japanese dishes I grew up eating. I added new utensils to my kitchen drawer: cooking chopsticks, a miso muddler and strainer, and ceramic chopstick rests for my table. I watched Japanese YouTubers make their own meals and was delighted every time I saw that my Just One Cookbook techniques matched their own, confirming that, if nothing else, at least I was teaching myself to cook Japanese food correctly. I sent photos of dishes to my family and basked in their praise for my efforts. 

Months from my first miso soup, I am steadily building my repertoire. Little by little, I am building my fluency in Japanese cooking. I may never have the eloquence of a native speaker or be conversant in social subtleties, but I am learning how to express myself through Japanese food. Food is the language I learned first, and it’s thrilling (and comforting) each time I rediscover a long-forgotten taste or smell. Although part of me will always long to feel like I truly belong to the culture of my heritage, the act of cooking my way toward Japan — and my family’s story — is a whole meal on its own.