On essay on how my immigrant self became obsessed with Japanese cuisine. Appeared in the now defunct Gourmet, 2006.
These days I travel to Japan almost once a year. I’m not alone; there’s a whole tribe of gaijin who do the same. Most go because of their love for manga or anime or kaiju kits, because of a girl or a boy or butoh, because of the temples or the shrines or the military bases, because of the sumo season or the hiphop or the fashion or the mountains, because they’re working for an investment bank or an international newspaper or writing a dissertation on Japanese-Brazilians immigrants or because they want to teach English or cash in on a modeling gig or work at a hostess club or because they watched a lot of Sailor Moon in their childhood and feel some deep Neuromancer-Chiba-City-Blues-type connection to whatever simplification of Japan they’ve managed to concoct in their heads. Me I’m simple; I go because of the food. Sure my best friend lives and works in Tokyo and our two families have known each other for close on twenty years and he’s the only one in my group of boys I can talk film and literature with but our wonderful relationship aside I doubt I would have visited Michiyuki as often as I have if not for the locura, the downright madness, I have for Japanese cooking. For the record: I’m not all that interested in super-special-exotic fare you can only score in some temple outside of Kyoto. Maybe I should be more drawn to the outré and the uncommon, to crickets and fish eyeball jellies (both of which I’ve eaten)—I mean, the flight is fourteen hours long so why not aim for the wildness—but what grabs me is your unpretentious every-day run-of-the-mill Japanese food.
Example: my first trip to Japan I fell not for the natto or artisanal tofu but for the lowly proletariat curries that are sold nearly everywhere in Japan. I’ve been eating Japanese curry since my freshmen year in college—one of the first ‘authentic’ dishes I was introduced to by boy Michi on our runs up to St. Marks Street (back when St. Marks Street was still kinda nuts.) The Japanese make some damn good curry and nothing delighted me more on that first trip than eating my curry at those automated restaurants that you can find in almost every train station. The Japanese are big on reducing the interaction between customers and workers to a minimum and these curry automats carry that impulse to its logical conclusion. In these joints a gaijin like me could order and eat a meal without ever once saying a single word in Japanese! You walked in, popped yen coins into the vending machine (which had helpful pictures on the buttons so you knew exactly what you were getting), a ticket would shoot out and you would squeeze yourself into any free seat at the counter and within seconds your ticket would be snatched up and the curry of your choice would appear before you. In these places you never had to ask for anything. Each counter space equipped with its own water spigot, its own collection of glasses, chopsticks, napkins, condiments and of course the ubiquitous little bins of pickled radishes. Even though the quality at these restaurants varied widely (usually the breaded chicken cutlets were over-fried and the curry was too watery) the whole experience—the paying the machine, the silent presentation of the ticket, the almost instantaneous arrival of the meal, the speed which everybody ate, the autonomy of each customer—captivated me. My boy couldn’t get me out of these places, no matter how hard he tried. Resigned himself to eating a lot of curry those three weeks I was in town.
My next trip to Japan I caught ramen fever which I guess was inevitable. Happens to nearly every gaijin who spends more than a week in Japan. (Though my Marine brother who was stationed in Japan a couple times was one of those rare individuals who never succumbed to the temptations of a good bowl of miso-base ramen, preferred the base offerings to anything the Japanese could serve up.) In my case I had watched Juzo Itami’s Tampopo in the weeks before my trip so you can guess what was one of the first meals I insisted on eating when I got off the plane. (If you’ve never seen Tampopo you need to run your ass to video store right now.) People have written entire treatises about the joys of the humble ramen and to the little four-seat ramen shops that are ubiquitous in Japan so I won’t got into all that now except to say that not a single day passed on this trip where me, Michi and his wife didn’t end up in one of these tiny mom-and-pop ramen spots throwing down bowls of noodles and crispy pan-fried gyozo (the natural adjunct to any ramen meal.) I was particular to this one ramen shop in Shimo-Kitazawa, which was where Michi and wife were living and also to the famous Jyangara ramen at Harajuku Station. Only a couple of months ago I took the girlfriend to Jyangara and she’s now a complete convert, already planning our next trip to Tokyo.
In the community I grew up in and to which I still belong it’s considered strange to like any Asian cuisine as much as I do. Especially if like me you’re a true blue immigrant from a poor-ass-background. Many Dominicans from my class background, at least from my experience, tend to be an unwilling to eat anything other than Dominican food. An immigrant reflex, a way to cope with all the changes of that fateful flight out of the home country, to mediate the fact that Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Nothing like immigration to make those who leave Santo Domingo even more Dominican than those who stayed behind. A culinary adventure for the folks I grew up with was Italian or a non-threatening Chinese restaurant that catered mostly to loh-fan. The new generation of Domos are of course a lot more daring. But my family is old-school Island enough that they think it bananas that I can eat with chopsticks (palitos as we call them) as well as I do. Bananas that I have this hunger for Japanese food and that I’m always scanning the magazines and newspapers for anything new and interesting and Japanese hat opens up in our neck of the world. (When everybody’s favorite yakitori restaurant, Taisho, opened up on St. Marks (naturally) my ass was there on like the opening day; I go so often that the wait staff are like my best friends.)
It would be easy to root this predilection for Japanese food, this hunger, on my own searcher self or on my boy Michiyuki and those weekly trips we took to the Yaohan Mall (now Mitsuwa) while in college or on the fact the fact that Molly Ringwald character in The Breakfast Club (a movie that had a huge impact on my generation) ate sushi for her detention meal but in my case it all started much earlier. With my father.
I don’t want to belabor the point but like most of the boys I grew up with I didn’t really know my old man. (Please to be cueing the violins.) Immigration had made sure of that. He’d been a padre in absentia, had been in the States working during my early life in Santo Domingo. For the first six year of my life I knew him only through pictures and occasional phonecalls, dude was essentially a mystery to me; terrible thing was that when he finally sent for us and we were all re-united in the States, in New Jersey it wasn’t like a whole lot changed. Before I could get a fix on who he was—beyond the obvious things like how angry and brutal he was—homeboy disappeared with one of his girlfriends, the whole family thing lasting only about six years in all. Still (actually I should say because of this) the viejo had quite an impact on me. In a lot of areas but most tellingly in my approach to food.
My pops, you see, was nothing if not a difficult man; one of those violent authoritarian ex-military dudes who couldn’t spend five minutes with his kids without smacking one of us around but he was also, surprisingly, incongruously, an adventurous soul when it came to food of all thing. Unlike my mother and our other relatives who to this day don’t much like to eat anything but Dominican good my father had a pretty solid appetite for what my mother called ‘American food’ (by which she meant anything that was not Dominican.) I can still remember him coming home from the late night shift at the warehouse and waking us kids up so we could eat the Italian subs he had bought special from what he claimed was the best deli in the tri-state area. These were the perfect subs of my immigration childhood, what America will always taste like for me: the cold cuts as fresh as you could want, the crudely-ground pepper like black stars on the freshly-grated lettuce, the almost-deliquesced sweet peppers squirting out in every direction. When we visited him at his job at Reynolds Aluminum he insisted on buying hot dogs for us, not your average ballpark wieners either. These were deluxe Chicago style franks with two dogs stuffed into one bun and swathed in pickles, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and enough mustard to gag on.
But what really impressed me were those rare days when instead of putting me and my brother through our boxing moves my pops would roll up his sleeves and cook for the family. Dude was something of a gourmet himself, turned out that during his first years in the States, while we were waiting for him in the DR, my father had actually been a cook at a Chinese restaurant in Perth Amboy. Something he was quite proud of. (Here it is, the key to everything, I guess. Nothing too surprising but isn’t that the way life is?) These days of course almost all Asian food is latino food. Unless it’s a real FOB spot or some high-caliber kitchen most of the staff in the back of so-called Asian restaurants are Latin. But when I was a kid for my father to have been a cook at a Chinese restaurant was quite a distinction. My old man didn’t have a wok in the apartment and would always talk about buying one but even without that vital implement he did pretty good for himself. Made a slamming shrimp fried rice and a delicious pepper steak and sometimes a stir-fried chicken rich in cilantro and snap peas. To be honest these were like some of the only times he was at peace in the house. He never yelled or struck any of us when he was cooking. We could sit in the living room and not worry about when the other shoe would fall or hit us upside our heads. Our very own Chinese Food Armistice. One of the last memories I have of my old man was of him making one of his Chinese meals and then voila, like that he was gone and I never really saw him again.
Isn’t it amazing what stays with you, in the end? What remains? During my difficult unhappy childhood I worked like the rest of my siblings but unlike everybody else I knew who used their money to buy clothes and music and automobiles I spent mine on—what else—food. Talk about the mango not falling far from the tree. During those years I drove my mother berserk; if she made the mistake of cooking something I didn’t really feel like eating I would simply get up from the table and go buy myself something I did like. I ate all over the place, all kinds of grub, would walk deep into Sayreville (which in those days was enemy territory) for a good Sarbrett hotdog. But at least once a week, like clockwork, like ceremony, I had to have a meal at this Szechwan restaurant up the street that I loved. Not a fancy place but the ingredients were fresh and the cook had a bit of swing. I never ate with anybody and nobody really knew I did it. Just me by myself. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out what I was doing. Back then I just thought I was eating something I really really liked.