Mom starts with rice. Japanese rice, one, two, three Japanese cup-fulls of rice grains into the cooker, because Sis eats a lot of this stuff. It's one of her favorite dishes, taco rice, and Mom's always happy to make it for her because it's the only way Sis will eat her tomatoes. But back to the rice. "You want to rinse at least three or four times, until the water's kind of clear," Mom says as she cups her hand under the cooker pot, letting the cloudy water wash over her hand.
Rice cooking's easy though – just fill enough water to the point the rice's covered, punch in a time (or set it to "Quick Cook," which with our creaking rice cooker still takes about an hour) and let the cooker do its thing.
Ground meat goes into a well-greased and heated frying pan. Break up the block so that it crumbles into fine little pieces, and do this with wild abandon, because this is taco meat. Mom uses any taco seasoning that happens to be cheap; most seasonings rack up to $2 per packet, an amount Mom doesn't want to shell out just for taco meat.
Lettuce and tomato into a colander – wash these well so there's no influx of stomach problems in the family. "You all have strong stomachs anyway," Mom laughs as she runs cold water over the veggies and spritzes them with some orange-scented veggie-cleaning solution, "so I'm not worried about my girls." Chop both lettuce and tomatoes into smaller pieces – really seems like you're making a taco, right? Mom keeps the tomato seeds in, though: "You won't die, and you won't have tomato vines growing in you, trust me." She separates red from green and dips a spoon into the tomatoes, to scoop them later. She also pulls out a bag of shredded Mexican cheese and opens it in preparation.
Sis is already sitting at the kotatsu, holding a massive spoon and eagerly tapping its butt on the wooden surface. "Is it ready yet?" she pants and drools, "Mommy, is it ready yet?"
"Almost!" Mom laughs back. "Just wait a little longer; it's almost done!"
No Japanese portions for this Okinawan dish – Mom pulls out an American dinner plate once the rice cooker beeps in finality. She scoops a plane of rice onto the plate, fluffing and primping the rice into a moon on the plate. Then she steps over and grabs lettuce by the handful and piles it on top of the rice before turning around to the frying pan and scooping taco meat on top of the lettuce. Then she spoons tomatoes on top, and purposefully spoons even more without smiling or batting an eye, but Sis knows how Mom thinks. "Eugh! Too much tomato, Mommy! Put some back!" But once the cheese covers the tomatoes and Mom sticks the mountainous plate of taco rice into the microwave to melt the cheese, Sis doesn't care about how much tomato she needs to dig through. She squirms and taps her spoon even harder. "Meshi! Meshi! Meshi!" she squeals. "Hayaku!"
"You can't rush this though!" Mom exclaims. "You like your cheese melted all the way, right?"
Sis drops her tongue out of her gaping mouth and bobs her head – a comical impression of a dog.
So when the piping hot plate finally graces Sis's eyes and she immediately drills her spoon into the taco rice after a hurried "Itadakimasu!" she doesn't take the time to watch the medley of color and flavor swirling on her spoon. Rice and lettuce, though bland and white and green, reinforce the browned meat and bold spice, topped off with tomato-red cubes, and all of this wears a film of melting cheese as my sister gleefully shovels this concoction into her mouth. She dances a little jig as she chews and already loads her next spoonful, to the hilarity of my mother.
Taco rice, from springtime Okinawa, with love.
Unbearable summer heat, the kind which stings your skin as you blink sweat away from your eyes. You slurp down bottles upon bottles of water but that amounts to rushing to the bathroom every twenty minutes. During this kind of heat when all you can do is flop about on bed and couch, Mom makes it even more unbearable with one of her favorite dishes: gōyā chanpurū. Bittermelon stir-fry.
"Natsubate shirazu," Mom coyly remarks when she announces dinner for that sweltering night. "It's my job to keep you two from getting heatstroke, and gōyā does that for you. You're going to eat it – you two call yourselves Uchinanchu, right? So you've got to eat it!"
Sis drags herself back to her room for more screaming at video games. Mom recruits me to help.
Cut the gōyā lengthwise and scoop out the seeds; wash any that may be left behind – it's called "bittermelon" for a reason. Slice the gōyā into half-circle slices and set them aside. Wrestle Spam pork out of its can and cut the block into smaller chunks. The more Spam pork you have, the more you can distract your kids away from the bittermelon. Cube your tofu too, and wash a load of bean sprouts. Also have a couple of eggs cracked and beaten – 'cause it's all flash cooking from here.
Start with the tofu: stir-fry those cubes quickly and set them aside. Heat and oil your pan again, and throw the Spam in, and fling the chunks about until they're browned enough for the sliced gōyā and washed bean sprouts to fly in, and keep tossing the contents of the pan, to spread the saltiness of the Spam, and don't allow the gōyā or bean sprouts to shrivel and lose their crunch, and once they've all been tossed about and the gōyā looks really green, add the tofu back in and flavor the mixture with a pinch of salt, pepper, a bit of fish flakes, and for Mom's brand of chanpurū, a hint of soy sauce, then dump the egg in and toss it all together – don't let that gōyā lose its color.
Mom can eat this stuff by itself, but for the sake of your kids, have a lot of rice and a lot of juice ready.
We sit around the kotatsu together, the gōyā chanpurū taunting us from its little mountain on our plates. Mom has her chopsticks in it already, picking bittermelon, tofu, and Spam pork into her mouth. With a nod and smile of approval, she points at the rice and miso soup we have next to our portions of chanpurū. "Wash the bitterness away with that," she suggests. "Eat up, okay? It's really good for you."
Sis looks at me with watery eyes, a desperate expression to get me to figure out a way to get her out of this dinner, but I agree with Mom – this chanpurū's really good against heatstroke. So I dig in, beaming at the crunch of the melon and relishing the salt of the Spam pork. Combined with miso soup and rice, the bitterness takes a back seat in the theater of my attention span. Sis finally relents and shovels the chanpurū into her mouth, wrinkling her nose at the bitter flavor. She stuffs her face with rice and tofu in the hopes of mitigating that awful taste.
Mom and I laugh at my sister's chipmunk cheeks. "It's an acquired taste," Mom sympathizes. "I didn't like it either when I was younger, but your Ji-ji- forced me to eat it because it was good for me. I hated it then but I do enjoy it now. I don't even need rice!"
I pinch a slice of gōyā, a cube of tofu, a chunk of Spam, and a string of bean sprout, then marvel the egg caking it all, and wrap my lips around my chopsticks. That unmistakable taste of bittermelon shoots through my nerves, but the crunch of that same melon and bean sprouts, along with the saltiness of Spam and softness of egg and tofu, all paint a picture of traditional straw roofs and tatami floors, and sugarcane fields in the backyard.
Gōyā chanpurū, from summertime Okinawa, with love.
When I tell Mom I want kūbu irichii sometime soon, her first reaction always consists of a lamenting groan followed by a wearied "Really? You really want that for dinner?" and when I say yes, pleeease, Mommy? she smiles and nods and says "I'll need to make time for it, so soon, okay?"
It all starts with dried konbu and kiriboshi daikon – dried kelp strips and dried daikon strips. Reviving these things takes a while; I've seen them swimming in a pool of water for hours in preparation. And the smell from their revival can make nose hairs curl, enough that someone unfamiliar with the smell of an Asian household – seafood and radish – may very well gag and evacuate the premises. Sis luckily never seems to mind. The odor is a good joke to her. She often bursts into the kitchen in a squeal-storm of laughter, cackling, "Augh, Mom, did you fart in here?" and dashes away before Mom can protest in embarrassment.
Mom tells me the pork takes the longest, because it needs to cook enough that it's soft, but not dry. And to save time on an already long process, Mom puts the konbu, daikon, and pork into the pot all at once and fills it with enough dashi jiru to cover the contents. "You want to let it stew," Mom says, "and you also want to let the water out, so it's okay to leave the lid off for the most part."
And as the stew starts to boil, Mom adds soy sauce, mirin, and sea salt. "Wing it," she says. She never measures her ingredients, trusting her taste buds to clue her into the taste.
From here, it's just a lot of waiting. Waiting for the water to recede. Waiting for the rice to cook. Waiting for the daikon smell to leave the house. Waiting for the kūbu to become the soft and chewy medley I'm wanting. A lot of waiting, a lot of bored stirring, and a lot of chatting – yuntaku – with Sis occasionally coming in to cackle about the smell or join the yuntaku.
Sis: "When do you think we can turn on the kotatsu?"
Mom: "Probably soon. It's getting colder than usual out here."
Me: "How much of the Belgian chocolate's left?"
Mom: "Of that ten-pound chocolate bar you got me last Christmas? Enough for you to have hot chocolate every morning during the winter!"
Sis: "You're not going to eat the chocolate?"
Mom: "Do you want me to get fat? Thanks to that chocolate, though, I can never eat Hershey's again! Only gourmet authentic chocolate for me from here on out! Thanks a lot!"
We go at this for a couple of hours, laced with laughing and tasting the kūbu.
Mom: "Try it. You think it's good?"
Me: "Mmm…It can probably use more salt, maybe?"
Mom: "Salt? Mm, maybe…bring me the soy sauce."
My sister walks in again. She's hungry and wants to know when Mom and I will stop flappin' our yaps and get dinner going. She also wants Mom's fried egg with the kūbu. Mom looks at me and smiles. "I'm tired. She likes the eggs you fry anyway."
I say I've never tasted a difference between our fried eggs and pull three eggs from the carton, cracking and beating them in a bowl. I throw in a few pinches of sea salt and cover the bed of a frying pan with a flowing blanket of oil – that's the key to a fluffy fried egg.
Mom checks the kūbu again, and after a stir, starts pulling out plates and bowls, and loads rice into the bowls. Sis hears the clatter of dishware and races out of hiding to set the kotatsu with chopsticks and napkins.
Chewy and yet crunchy, kūbu irichii, and it goes incredibly well with fried egg. Sis demolishes her egg in seconds, and quickly follows up with stuffing strings of konbu and daikon in her mouth, along with wayward chunks of pork, as she laments her days at school, her impressions of old friends and new teachers.
I'm too happy enjoying the sea in my mouth to complain about projects I don't want to do. Mom shirks rice again and compliments me on my eggs while sampling her portion of kūbu.
Kūbu irichii, from fall-time Okinawa, with love.
Winter's when we finally mount the kotatsu with a thick comforter and turn on the heating lamp underneath. Sis and I, whose extremities freeze before anything else, huddle under the comforter and rub our feet together in the warmth of the lamp. Often we'll have steaming mugs of hot chocolate or tea before us, and we argue back and forth on who's colder.
Mom saves this recipe for when she really feels like cooking, a rare occurrence, but for me and Sis, she gives it her all.
Sōki is pork. For the purposes of this popular Okinawan noodle bowl, it needs to be soft and flavorful without being dry. Stewing the pork takes about three to four hours because of this necessity, and Mom says you actually have to boil the pork multiple times to get the pork-smell out. To save time, though, Mom boils the pork only once, and keeps the water for making the broth later. Once the pork's brought to a boil again, add sugar, soy sauce, awamori, and mirin, in that order. Mom says any other sake would work in the place of awamori, but being from Okinawa, awamori adds a flavor that no other sake can. She also stresses watching the water level to make sure the pork never goes dry. The result? Tender and rich-tasting pork whose pieces peel off with very little effort.
For the broth, Mom uses the water with which she initially boiled the pork. After skimming out the wayward pieces of fat and pork floating about, she brings this water to a boil again, adding sea salt and katsuo dashi, bonito flakes. And don't bother with asking how much, either – she'll say the same thing she always says when it comes to cooking: "Wing it. Taste as you go along."
Mom buys everything else: the Okinawa soba noodles, beni-shouga, kamaboko, and negi. She slices the kamaboko – fishcake – as thinly as she can, because Sis practically inhales it. She also chops the negi – green onions – into tiny ringlets, and boils the soba noodles in preparation for serving.
The soba noodles, yellower in color than other noodles, goes into the bowl first, followed by the sōki on top, then the broth, drenching the noodles and sōki in a sheen of clear molten gold. Mom then adds color to the mix: a few slices of kamaboko, pink and white, arranged like a flared hand of cards next to the pork, a green sprinkle of negi next to it, then beni-shouga – red pickled ginger – in the center of the steaming bowl.
Sis and I slurp away at the noodles and soup, and tear away at the pork with such a gusto we often forget to savor the meal until Mom tells us to slow down. We blow puffs of broth-warmed breath into the winter air and wipe away snot running from our noses, sniffling up the rest as we drain the bowl of broth. Sis tries to steal my share of kamaboko while I take some of her sōki.
Mom sits at the kotatsu with us, a mug of green tea in her hands, and laughs at our antics. She's tired, but watching us in our mock argument and food battles lights a small smile on her lips.
Okinawa sōki-soba, from wintertime Okinawa, with love.
Mom and her smile and her cooking, from Okinawa, with love.