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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

A Japanese-Jewish Family Remains Bonded through Shared Recipes

My earliest memory is a black and white image of my young, round face peering over my parent’s dinner table. I can still smell the sweet and endless aromas that swelled from the kitchen and made their way into the dining room that anchored our family home.

All curious-faced and wide-eyed, I would climb on my father’s large art books to catch a glimpse of my mother’s Japanese and American dishes that warmed my every sense and sensibility.

On any every given night, I was thrilled to see warmed platters of shabu-shabu or sukimono; tsukemono or takoyaki, and nikujaga or nizakana that she made each night from scratch, and always with graceful hands and a gentle spirit.

The meal I asked her to make in honor of Girl’s Day included American-inspired recipes of sukiyaki and yakitori, which made my mouth water just by hearing their names.

Sukiyaki is known as “One Pot ‘steamboat’ cooking” as savory ingredients are carefully placed in a large pot and allowed to simmer, including thinly sliced pieces of savory beef with an array of fresh vegetables cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and sake.

Yakitori is a delectable serving of barbecued beef, chicken, or pork placed on skewers or served over a hot plate of rice, and often served as an appetizer. The blend of tangy sauce in my family been passed down for generations and like no other I have enjoyed with its perfect blend of sweet, rich, and zesty taste.

My grandparents were first-generation Japanese born in Hawaii and highly influenced by both American and Hawaiian cultures, including an endless variety of recipes that were piquant and full-bodied, helping make the Big Island of Hawaii the culturally rich and unique place that it was.

Grandfather Masao Aoki

My grandfather was a farmer, carpenter, and fisherman and often brought home a daily catch of yellowfin tuna, swordfish, or red snapper that he caught off the seal-lined shores of the Kona coast which he gave to my grandmother to cook for their five children, who were more than hungry after hours of school and tending to their family farm.

A nightly meal included American influences as well, including canned spam, an oversized pot of spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni salad, and Coca Cola, brownies, and coffee cake for dessert. These were the days of World War II when many of the delicacies of Japanese cuisine were not available or affordable.

Two of my mother’s older brothers fought in World War II and volunteered to join the 442nd Battalion, the most highly decorated infantry in United States history. The soldiers of the 442 were comprised 100 percent by Japanese-American boys, many of whom had families who were placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. My family was fortunate in that Hawaii did not intern families as more than two-thirds of the population were Japanese, which would have devastated the state’s economy.

As a child, I was proud to be part of an American family with my father who was a mischievous blend of Russian-Jewish, Scotch, Irish, and French and raised liberally in the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles; and my mother who grew up as a Japanese Nisei-generation farm girl in Hawaii who would later become a school teacher and later, a successful fashion designer and entrepreneur.

There was no talk, disquiet, or confusion about the differences we might have easily felt as an ethnically blended family.

If anything, my parents celebrated the heritage their four children had the rare opportunity to be a part of, as they introduced us to the cultural intricacies we shared through music, art, literature, and of course through the exotic meals we shared as a family.

Our childhoods were filled with adventure and curiosity as we explored all that life had to offer in the rooms of our ocean-swept Southern California home…a place where we were encouraged to read, think, paint, sew, write, and simply experience the wonders of childhood that now seems somehow more than a hundred years ago.

My parents were like that too, with their own sense of adventuresome and free spirit, but also with a sensible amount of order, dignified intellectualism, and respect for learning new things in new ways; while also maintaining a sacred place for tradition, and a perfect semblance that allowed us to enjoy both cultures in a way that made us the bonded, unique family that we were.

As the “number two daughter” of three girls, I seemed to revere my position in the family as I often found myself in the middle of situations, with a bright spotlight on my curious nature and overall zest for life.

“Don’t touch mama’s food with your dirty hands,” my older sister would say to me, as she set the table each night “in just the way” my mother liked.

“But they smell so good I just can’t wait,” I would answer, while jumping up one more time as my dimpled hands reached for a spoonful of sweet rice that also steamed my grinning face.

Each night I was rambunctious about what the main entree might be; hoping that some of my other favorites of tonkatsu, a dish of deep fried and breaded pork cutlets; nikujaga, a beef and potato stew flavored with soy, or that fried gyoza would be awaiting my young and already well-seasoned taste buds.

But in classic Japanese fashion, there was always more than one main dish. Usually, there were three to four entrees placed in a neat and effortless fashion on our wooden table we inherited from my paternal grandmother, each one more appetizing than the next, along with an endless array of side dishes that were both Asian and American-inspired.

This meant there was always more food than needed, which to my mother meant joy, comfort, and the glue that fused our family unity together.

“It is better to have a lot of leftovers than not enough to eat in just one night,” she always said.

And she was right. As my three siblings and I were the only part-Asian children in an all-Caucasian neighborhood, we were the envy of our friends with lunch boxes that resembled Bento boxes inside. And this was long before sushi and chicken teriyaki were hip mainstays of fancy and even casual restaurants at malls and beyond.

You can bet we did not have peanut butter or bologna sandwiches with only chips and cookies for lunch. For my mother, this would not only mean “shame” and embarrassment for her, but would have sent the message that she did not love us enough. In Japanese culture we often show our love, respect, and caring through food, as opposed to outward signs of emotions and public displays of affection.

Dinner at my house was a relaxed tradition, and yet the most meaningful part of our day as we never missed sitting down together to share a well-mannered meal after long days of school, playing, and working.

My father was a well-respected artist and art professor at UCLA, and my mother was a successful fashion designer and owner of a boutique where she designed and worked seven days a week without fail.

As a young girl, I assumed that all mothers came home from work and quickly dashed into their already-warmed and well-spiced kitchens from the night before to cook large dinners without complaining, and with never a sigh or lament to be heard.

There was nothing my mother “delighted in more” than preparing the family meal each night that brought us all together and soothed our spirits for the evening ahead.

It took becoming a mother of three daughters myself to appreciate her love; her teaching and her unconditional grace that embodies the best of what mothers have to offer.

Sometimes I watched her manage three to four pots and pans at once as if she were a conductor who knew that all of the spices and carefully chosen ingredients would somehow fuse together in a perfectly harmonious way.

And they always did.

On some days I was lucky as she would ask me to help snap the ends off well-greened peas, cut garlic, onions, and cucumbers into thin well-groomed slices; help shake and stir homemade salad dressing, roll homemade wontons laden with pork and subtle spices, or simply be allowed in the kitchen, as long as I didn’t get in the way when I was still just a toddler while I watched her fast hands and gentle precision.

Asian mothers and daughters know this is a sacred relationship.

There is no greater beauteous and treasured bond than the act of a mother teaching her daughter how to cook, preparing a meal together, and having the daughter eventually and successfully make a family dinner all by herself, and with great honor.

This, they know will ensure that traditional cooking, valued recipes, and an overall respect for cultural ways has been successfully passed on to the next generation.

Even though I am only half-Japanese, I have never felt any less a part of my heritage than my mother. As a matter of fact, I probably feel even stronger than she does about keeping traditions alive as I fear they may become forever lost if my two sisters and I do not take heed.

Being a multicultural child and adult is not easy, and can be ladled with experiences of bigotry, racism, and unfounded stereotypes by others who have often wanted me to fit into either “one neat and tidy ethnic box or another,” but never a fusion of both.

This is why food becomes such a particular passage of importance when you are a child of parents who come from two strikingly different cultures.

As a kid who grew up racially mixed in Southern California during the 1970s, life was always interesting, and sometimes more so than I wanted it to be.

But I was fortunate because my parents were educated in not just an academic fashion but a moral and creative way as well; as they taught us children that even though we grew up with parents who were raised in completely different cultures…that what they shared in common was more important than what was uncommon.

We also lived in a community where people were more accepting than most, as they were comprised of creative liberal types; namely writers, artists, directors, producers, and musicians who were accepting of new ideas and respected others for their differences rather for their presumed similarities.

Grandfather Robert Biller

What also bonded our family together was that my mother incorporated my father’s brand of ethnic food into our family feasts as well. This let my siblings and I know that she respected his culture as well, helping us all to feel better connected.

Some of the dishes and appetizers inspired by my father’s side of the family included brisket with potatoes and carrots, meat knishes, potato latkes, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, moussaka, beef short ribs, and on Sundays without fail—bagels, lox, tomatoes, capers, and onions.

My favorite dish from my father’s side was my grandfather’s recipe of sweet and sour cabbage soup, a favorite of Jews who are of Ashkenazi descent. This is a slow-cooked soup made with ingredients of beef shank, onions, celery, cabbage, peppercorns, and tomatoes.

I will never forget the first time I cooked a meal “all on my own” for my family. I kept putting it off from one year to the next as I was nervous I would not measure up in some way, even though I knew it would make my mother feel proud, grounded, and respected.

I was about 13-years-old and I began the meal with a large green salad with tomatoes and mushrooms topped with my mother’s dressing, as well as macaroni, potato, and cucumber side salads.

Francesca Biller with Family Recipe of Teriyaki Chicken

My main dishes were a long-roasted whole chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce and filled with stuffing made from rice; pork-filled potstickers; and borsht soup which was a staple of most Jewish homes.

Vegetable dishes I prepared were roasted corn, edamame, and simmered eggplant.

And for dessert, I simply served Rocky Road ice cream, poundcake, and fresh strawberries bought at our local market.

It must have turned out well enough as I continued to cook after that fateful evening and still do today for my three daughters, carrying on the loving, cultural traditions and combined recipes of both my father’s and my mother’s families.

And even though my children are only one-quarter Japanese, they are immersed in their culture one hundred percent and want to “know everything” and “live everything” they admiringly call “Japanese-style.”

My thirteen year-old daughter has a dream of one day visiting Japan and told me that she wants to start cooking recipes that have carefully been handed down from four generations back.

While it sounds sentimental, when she enquired how to prepare rice for our family meal, I felt my eyes tear up and told her to call her grandmother and ask her.

“It will make Meme happy,” which is what we lovingly call her. “She will be proud you are beginning to cook and she will be honored to be asked.”

Not long from now, I am sure I will basking in the glow of my exotic Asian daughters and the carefully cooked meals they will prepare for me, as their nationalities also include Italian, Polish, and Spanish.

And what a day and a feast that will be.

© 2012 Francesca Biller

family food hawaii Itadakimasu Jewish Mixed multi-cultural multi-ethnic Nikkei Chronicles sukiyaki yakitori

About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture