My Japanese mother was born ten years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She met my American father during the 1950s, when he was stationed near Tokyo with the U.S. Army. After a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1955. Three years later, she traveled with him to Buffalo. My mother arrived in her new country, eager to begin a new life with the man she loved, yet wondering if she’d ever see her hometown again.
The youngest in a family with six children, she came here with limited cooking skills. The new American housewife enthusiastically learned some recipes from her mother-in-law and Betty Crocker, but a yearning for her own mother’s cuisine inspired Mom to teach herself how to re-create familiar tastes. Within a few years, she’d perfected meals that would fatten her adoring husband’s belly and sustain her three children. As a child, I enjoyed hot breakfasts of okayu (rice gruel) with miso and sumptuous meals of teriyaki chicken, pork tonkatsu, and yakimeshi (fried rice with chunks of ham, peppers, egg, and onions). One of my father’s favorite suppers was oyako donburi — a big bowl of chicken, egg, and vegetables atop steaming white rice. Christmas dinner meant a sukiyaki feast, with fresh ingredients handpicked at the local grocery store. Family picnics meant a basket filled with handrolled norimaki made of nori (seaweed), vinegared rice, sweetened omelet, cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, and pickled ginger. Still, I often wondered why we never packed hotdogs or hamburgers, like the other American families.
Mom’s culinary prowess made her rather famous among the more adventurous eaters in my parents’ growing circle of friends. I always knew when company was coming over for dinner. The telltale aromas of tempura — julienned carrots, green beans, and scallion, deep-fried in a delicate golden batter — and gyoza, the Japanese version of Chinese pork dumplings, wafted from my mother’s kitchen all the way up to the third floor.
This was the 1960s and early ’70s, when there was no such thing as packaged tofu, frozen edamame, Wegmans sushi, or “Asian fusion.” Thanks to care packages from concerned aunts and uncles, Mom received generous provisions of nori and furikake — dried seaweed and fish flakes to put on our white rice — along with green tea and other delicacies. As she opened up each package, my older brother and I hovered impatiently, just to catch a whiff of what we called “the Japan smell.”
On the weekends, my parents often took us to Tsujimoto’s, a charming gift shop run by a second-generation Japanese couple out in Elma. As soon as my brother and I entered the store, scents reminiscent of all those well-traveled packages captivated our nostrils. We spied candy, osenbe (rice crackers), as well as origami paper, toys, mobiles, kites, lanterns, and other treasures. Ever the gracious hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Tsujimoto made us feel completely at ease. We wandered the narrow aisles and freely explored the different colors, shapes, textures, and smells. Sometimes, it felt as if we could have wandered forever. I fixated on the dolls staring back at me from the shelves, their eyes so reassuringly similar to my own. My brother’s most prized discovery was a cricket cage made of bamboo, which he used to catch grasshoppers in the field right outside the store.
Mrs. Tsujimoto passed away in 1992. We lost my father in 2007. This past autumn I learned that Mr. Tsujimoto, long since retired from the gift-shop business, had died at the grand age of 93. My brother tells me his route to and from work takes him by the former site of the store each day. For me, the childhood pilgrimages to Elma seem so distant in memory. And yet the tastes and smells from my mother’s glorious kitchen, her gift to each of us growing up, are never far from my consciousness.
My mother doesn’t cook elaborate meals as often as she used to. Last October I took her to the Sun Restaurant for a birthday celebration. It was her first time to try Chef Kevin’s Burmese twist on a Japanese import. I anxiously watched as she reached over with her chopsticks, meticulously picking up a mouthful of black rice sushi. “Delicious,” she said with an approving smile.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Buffalo Spree.