My Japanese Table
A Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family
By Debra Samuels
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery By The Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Debra Samuels: Hello, my name is Debra Samuels, and my cookbook is My Japanese Table, a Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family.
Suzy Chase: My Japanese Table, a cookbook designed for people who love to eat Japanese food, but are slightly apprehensive about preparing it at home. It could have been written for me, a western home cook. While reading your cookbook, I couldn't help but feel like this was as much of an affair with Japanese food, as a love affair between two 20-year-old Americans starting life in Japan. Can you describe to us what your first few months were like in Japan?
Debra Samuels: Well, yes. Thanks, Suzy. I think you got that exactly right. Actually, my husband and I are high school sweethearts, and went off to different colleges. And he had an opportunity to go on a study abroad program to Japan, and we just couldn't bear the thought of being separated for six months. So, our parents let us get married in college. And, off we went together to Japan for the first six months of our marriage. We studied Japanese for a year before we went, and then studied intensively there, and lived with families for those first six months.
I like to say that I was prepared for going to Japan, academically, but I wasn't really quite prepared for the sights, the sounds, the new foods ... everything was new. We hadn't been out of the country before ... nice Jewish girl from Long Island, and I've got tofu for breakfast. It was staggering. But I think one of the most telling things for us is the way we were treated by just everyday folks. We were aware that it wasn't too many years past World War II, and we were just embraced. And it made a huge, huge impression on us. And our first host family, from 1972, we are still close friends with their family today. We actually consider them our Japanese family members.
Suzy Chase: So, talk to us about how presentation of Japanese food is so very important.
Debra Samuels: I think it just permeates everything that the Japanese do. I also think it has to relate to, sort of, the small amount of space that they live in, and they maximize that. And so, they do that with the presentation of food, of gifts, of everything.
You know, the Japanese have a saying, "(foreign language)." They eat with their eyes. And they appreciate everything with their eyes first, and then, participate in it. And I think that I learned how important presentation was when I saw people taking almost an hour to prepare a meal for a five-year-old, and thinking that this was important enough for them to be able to absorb this beauty, of food as presented as gifts, wrapping is as important as what is inside, and I think was visually bombarded by that every time I sat down for a meal, every time I went into a simple grocery store or a convenience store for just something. Everything was presented with care.
Suzy Chase: The Japanese word "umami" is everywhere now in American cuisine. What, exactly, is umami?
Debra Samuels: The word was first discovered by a Japanese scientist in the early part of the 1900s. He discovered this umami in seaweed, in kombu, which is a type of seaweed that that they use very often in Japan to make stocks. And, he was able to manufacture this. And, so what it has become is a flavor enhancer. And what we used to know as MSG, which is a bad word in the American culinary lexicon, but, actually, is not as harmful as people think. So it's a flavor booster. And these things stimulate, they have glutamic acid, and this is an element that enhances the flavors of food. You find umami, or natural umami, in Parmesan cheese, in meat, in mushrooms, in seaweed. It's not just Japanese cuisine, but it was first discovered there. And now, we're using words like "umami bomb."
Suzy Chase: So, I feel like Americans use "umami" like they use the word "flavor." Like, "it has good umami." But, I feel like they're using it wrong.
Debra Samuels: Well, they're using it way too much, I would say. It's definitely an over-use of the word. One time, I was looking, I was reading the food section in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, the Boston Globe, which I write for, and I don't know, five out of seven articles had the word "umami" in it. It has become a catch phrase. It has. And really, people are using it just to say "flavor bomb." Extreme flavor.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Debra Samuels: So, I sort of agree with you on that.
Suzy Chase: In your cookbook, My Japanese Table, you write "One thing always leads to another in life." How did you get started training and developing cooking programs?
Debra Samuels: My first job out of college, I went to a teacher's college, was as a 4-H Agent, a county extension agent, in the urban areas of Middlesex County here in Boston. And, I had never participated in anything like raising animals, or canning, or anything like that. And it was my job to bring that concept into the city. I started learning quite a bit about canning, and about food preparation, that I had not originally been exposed to.
One of the first programs I developed was a cooking program for kids in the city, because everybody's interested in food. And this is one thing I thought could kind of translate, from urban ... from suburban and rural to the city. Since I went to Japan, my adventuresomeness in cooking, if you can say that, and eating, just sort of expanded. And I began sharing that.
I also worked at the Children's Museum in Boston, and developed a Kids are Cooking program. I started to teach English to Japanese people who had come to the United States, you know, with their families here in Boston. The first cooking classes ... the first classes we did, was usually in the supermarket, because they did not, the Japanese women did not know what to do with these ingredients.
And from that, developed cooking programs in American cuisine. That's how I started developing classes in a more formal way. Food is that one thing that everybody is interested in, and everybody wants to talk about.
Suzy Chase: Tell us about the five important elements of Japanese cuisine.
Debra Samuels: Well, this, the five elements of Japanese cuisine, is based around these five different colors: red, yellow, green, white, and black. And these colors are thought to ... if you have these five colors on your plate, represented in food, you are thought to have a balanced diet. Each color has a major body organ that they also represent: the liver, heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys. And then, it relates to the five elements out there: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. And then, it goes even further, and they represent five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and hot.
And it is thought that if these colors are represented on your plate, that not only is your nutrition in balance, but your life is in balance. So they think about this in a whole. But color is a major way that Japanese put meals together.
Suzy Chase: It was interesting to read that one way to maintain access to high quality food, within a household budget, is to reduce the volume. Emphasize smaller portions. As an American, where bigger is better, this seems like a brilliant, novel idea to me.
Debra Samuels: It took a little while to get used to the smaller portions. And I wasn't quite aware, initially, that although I had smaller portions, I had a larger variety of food. But the Japanese, in particular, have something called "(foreign language)" which is the way that they look at a meal. They have rice, and soup, and then three side dishes. Meat, or protein like that, is considered a side dish, not a main dish. It's part of an entire, it's part of a whole. People from other countries, not just Japan, are appalled, and shocked, when they sit down at a restaurant and are faced with the amount of food that's on the plate. It's definitely not the way the rest of the world thinks.
Suzy Chase: How did we get to be like that? I think we did start out with smaller portions, and then something happened, in the '80s?
Debra Samuels: Well, I don't know, but I think what started happening was this competition, among restaurants, to provide people with a large amount of food for what is considered a value. And, you know, if you go to some of these sort of vaguely Italian restaurants, and they put a pound of pasta on your plate, their intention, generally, is not that you sit there and eat the whole pasta, but that you'll take some home, so you get two meals from one.
You know, labeling has actually helped things. And now, these fast food restaurants, and other places, are having to display the caloric content of what's on your plate.
Suzy Chase: Moving on to the Japanese lunch box, bento, for my nine-year-old's lunch, I made him the elementary school sampler bento from page 144.
So, I had to get up a half hour earlier than normal, in order to arrange the contents in an eye-catching fashion. It was so stressful, but you know what? He ate the whole thing!
Debra Samuels: He ate the whole thing. It's fascinating. So you got up a half an hour-
Suzy Chase: I did!
Debra Samuels: ... later than most Japanese women get up.
Suzy Chase: Yes! So what's the story behind bentos?
Debra Samuels: Yes. Well, you know, it's a type of eating. It's really, sort of, the original portable meal. And I think bento has become quite popular in the United States now, people see it in restaurants, and they kind of get it in a large box, it's compartmentalized food. Lots of cute little goodies, in a box, arranged attractively, if done correctly.
You know, bento certainly has had its waves in Japan, as well. But, generally speaking, Japanese moms, and I'm sorry to be sexist about this, but they're still the larger ... most of the food for kids are made by moms. And the meals have to be attractive, they have to be nutritious, they have to be something that the child will eat completely. It's the mother's obligation to make the meal, and it's the child's responsibility to eat it in its entirety. And that is something that is taken rather seriously in Japan.
And although not every day is a cute bento day, people are becoming familiar with these very cute character bentos. Everybody doesn't spend their time doing that. But they do spend their time making lunches for their families. But they really see this as a serious job, something, you know ... I'm very serious when I say the word "job." It's part of their job as being a mother. Not everybody's bentos are gorgeous, but they're usually pretty healthy. And they're usually made with either leftovers from the night before, added touches of things made in the morning, but they contain these five, generally, contain these five colors.
There is a dark side to bento, I'll have to say that, too. Because, as you said, you felt a little bit of pressure. Can you imagine everybody looking at your bento when you go to school? The teacher is looking at your bento to see if the parent has put in a sufficient amount of effort, other mothers are looking at the bentos of children, the other children are looking at each others' bentos. And so, there is definitely a pressure involved, to perform, or conform to doing these lunches for kids.
I do understand. When I started making bento for my son, because we've been back to Japan many, many times, while my husband was on sabbatical, and our older son went to a Japanese elementary school, and I had to produce a bento. And at first, I thought, "These people are cracked. They're going to get up an hour early and make something like this for a five-year-old, a seven-year-old? I don't get it." And then, as I began to make the bento boxes, my son wanted to fit in, I understood how aesthetics is learned, and how children become enculturated to what is valued in their society. And it changed my attitude completely.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Debra Samuels: I have a website: www.cookingatdebras.com. And it's all spelled out, the "at" is spelled out, and "Debras" does not have an apostrophe in it. And I have an Instagram site as well, at Cookingatdebras, as well as a Twitter account. And I try to stay present.
I also, as I said, I'm a food writer for the Boston Globe. So, I do articles periodically, not just on Japanese cuisine, but on food and culture, which is always very interesting, especially now, when everybody is interested in food.
Suzy Chase: Thanks, Debra, for coming on Cookery By The Book podcast.
Debra Samuels: Thank you very much, Suzy. It was a pleasure.