Miso Soup for the Soul: Take Two
From fried balogna to fiddleheads
by Sandy Usami
How I could i not tell of our O-shogatsu? This is a word I only learned as an adult. For our family, it was always New Year’s Day at Ba-chan’s. My grandmother Usami was technically a nisei, among the first born in Vancouver, but her skills were well-steeped in Japanese tradition. She played shamisen, danced o-dori and made sure all of her daughters learned o-dori.
My Ba-chan made all of the dishes for our family shogatsu by herself. The table was always decorated with a little snowman consisting of a mikan topped with mochi. We started with ozoni soup with mochi and proceeded to a table laden with everything else. Everything. O-nigiri, age-zushi and maki-sushi arranged artfully in lacquer containers adorned with bright red ginger; dried sardines in a bowl; sweet black soybeans with chestnuts (kuromame); kazunoko; gobo with sesame seeds; chicken and vegetable soup, usually Japanese potatoes with carrots, daikon and lotus roots (chikuzenni, I learned this term today), kamaboko (store-bought, always a colourful variety arranged on a Japanese platter); shrimp, always with the heads on; kombu in little knots; salmon teriyaki; chow mein (I believe it was a version of the Cumberland style). At that time, the only sashimi we could get was frozen tuna, it was always presented on a bed of thinly sliced iceberg lettuce with a small dish of prepared dry mustard (pre-wasabi times). As a kid, I always looked for my ba-chan’s devilled eggs, each egg half with its own mast and sail, a fleet on a platter. Homemade baked manju, anpan and the half-moon shaped ones (?) filled with anko. All arranged with either store-bought or Buddhist church-made steamed manju.
To this day, my aunts wonder how their mother could have made all of this by herself in a tiny kitchen in Toronto.
One of my father’s favourite dishes was fried bologna with rice. If memory serves, he would add shoyu (yech, as if it was not salty enough). Sometimes a fried egg would be added.
When the rice was particularly hot, we would break an egg on top, add shoyu and mix it all together. Sticking with rice (sorry couldn’t resist the pun), often we would add green tea to rice, I know there is a name for it, but I can’t remember what it was called. As a family we would often have home-made tsukemono, either cabbage, cucumber or the daikon. My grandmother and then my mother would have a large container in the basement weighted down with bricks if memory serves. I think rice with umeboshi was a tradition from my mother’s side, she would have it with rice and tea whenever she did not feel well.
My mother’s side. My mother loved telling the story of her father occasionally cooking for the family in Nakanoshu-ku. This ‘settlement’ of Nikkei from Sendai was on the north shore of the Fraser across from Don and Lion islands. My grandfather seems to have made friends with people of different nationalities. She remembers him making pancakes, a dish he learned from a Sikh man.
My maternal great-grandmother had a still in Nakanoshuku. Apparently that was a common thing. My uncle tells the story of her having an agreement with the Mounties. While kids would run through the settlement warning that the mounties were on their way, my great-grandmother would hide her still under floorboards and stand directly overtop. The mounties would check everywhere except where she was standing and leave. Family myth? Maybe.
Lastly, I remember walking with my mother and grandmother through woods in Ontario in the 1970s. All of a sudden my grandmother noticed fiddleheads growing among the trees. As a young teenager, I was mortified when she started to pick them with obvious glee. A hakujin woman walking the trail was greeted by my grandmother who, with a giggle and holding a fiddlehead to her mouth in the universal gesture for food, exclaimed in broken English “eat, good, mmm, good eat.”
Oh-oh, not the last. I am prompted to remember searching everywhere for matsutake mushrooms in Ontario with my father. He bought and read so many books about mushroom habitat and forest growth. We never did find any.
Sandy Usami is a freelance graphic designer. One of the founding members of Isshin Daiko at the Toronto Buddhist Temple, she has now forgotten every song we have ever played and blames it on Covid 19.