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

Yaki-Saba Bento and Shime-Saba Sushi

My 17-year old, Brazilian-born son currently attends high school in Florida, and he spends all his time playing competitive golf.

With his high school graduation coming up next year, he is entering a crucial time in deciding on which college to attend. As part of that process, he is traveling this summer to compete in junior golf tournaments across North America.

Among the preparations we need to make for golf tournaments, the key essentials are securing lodging, transportation, and preparing meals. These days, arranging hotels and rental cars have become quite convenient—from the moment you make a reservation online, there aren’t many surprises for what to expect, no matter what city you fly into. You can see pictures beforehand on Google, and the difference between what you’d expect to see and what you actually do see tend to be minimal. It’s a repeating déjà vu, and it seems like there is a lot less excitement now than there once was. It has pretty much become the same everywhere we go.

However, eating on the road is something that is completely different. It’s something very special. Not only is it essential to an athlete’s nutrition, but mealtime itself brings enjoyment. We can share stories and meet new people over meals, and from there we can learn to grow mentally, socially, and culturally. We are completely devoid of such experiences during the predictable, commercialized processes of renting a car or checking into a hotel. Although it may be monotonous—moving around carrying heavy golf clubs, feeling exhausted from consecutive days of competition—meals have become an important secondary event during our road trips.

Our family consists of my Brazilian Nikkei Nisei husband, by Brazilian-born son with Brazilian/Japanese dual citizenship, and myself from Japan. At some point, it became our tradition to almost always eat Japanese food during tournaments. Wherever we are, my son types in “Japanese restaurant” or “sushi” into the GPS. Although other Brazilians in North America are very kind to us, we really can’t be eating Brazilian barbecue all the time.

We’ve moved around quite a bit for the tournaments. Beginning in Florida two and a half years ago, we have visited Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, California, Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware.

In states with no local Nikkei communities, we’ve often relied on the care of Koreans. This is because many Korean immigrants in North America own restaurants that serve Japanese food. This was very interesting since it’s something that is never seen in Brazil. The Korean people are especially nice to my son, after learning that he is a junior golfer of Asian descent. The hostesses kindly take down his orders, and sometimes they treat us to some extras as well.

Of course, we’ve also met Japanese families, like those who immigrated from Tokyo Ebisu over 20 years ago and now operate a restaurant as a family business. To think that they had immigrated to Florida just as I was moving to Brazil, there is a curious affinity between one another, leading to some lively conversations. Sometimes we ask about where the restaurant owners had come from, and we discuss how it may have affected the flavors in their cooking. Well, we do make sure to be considerate and speak in Portuguese when talking about how the food tasted, or about their prices.

In Tennessee, my husband and son said a sushi chef at a Japanese restaurant made them a special Japanese menu, including natto-maki (fermented soybean sushi roll) and such.

We receive a lot of questions wherever we go, presumably because we look like a family from Japan. When we explain that we’re Brazilian, we get even more questions; eventually, the person asking the questions would end up talking about what their own immigration experience was like. When we visit the same places again, some people would give us soba (buckwheat noodles) or manju (steamed buns) as gifts, and also pack us omusubi (rice balls) for us to take on the road. Just like that, we uncovered a support network all across the U.S. by making connections with people through Japanese food.

We spent the first half of the summer tournament season in San Diego, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In San Diego, there were two large Japanese supermarkets, so we shopped for Japanese delicacies and groceries almost every day and we were able to cook our own meals. At Las Vegas, there were also a few stores that sold Japanese groceries, and some of the stores had premade bento-boxes, which was really helpful. This place was actually recommended by a mother of my son’s friend, who is Mexican. We brought back some of her favorite Yukimi Daifuku (mochi ice cream) as a thank-you gift. During these two tournaments, my son chomped down on his onigiri (rice balls) every time he sank a birdie.

One thing that my son became addicted to in these two cities was saba (mackerel). He found a lot of gratification eating yaki-saba (grilled mackerel) bento and shime-saba (vinegar-cured mackerel) sushi.

Interestingly enough, this yaki-saba bento and shime-saba sushi are things that we normally don’t see in the Nikkei community in Brazil. As evidence, we quickly learned that saba is “mackerel” in English, but we still don’t know what it’s called in Portuguese. In Brazil, grilled Chilean salmon usually takes the place of yaki-saba. My son, while in Brazil, had an unparalleled love for salmon—he must have eaten thousands of salmon since birth—so much so, that you’d think he could have been a bear in his previous life. But in California, he became absolutely addicted to saba. It seems that the saba in America is similar to the Chilean salmon due in part to their rich, fatty flavor.

During the trip, my son suddenly declared: “Yeah, I’m going to go to college in California.” Amazingly, his reason was that he thought it would be best if he can live in an area where he could go to the supermarket and easily find and eat yaki-saba bento or shime-saba sushi . As a parent, I was considering several criteria such as: a college with good engineering courses, a strong golf program, safe environment, good weather for year-round golfing, future employment opportunities, and somewhere easy to get to in case of an emergency—but his final decision came down to… saba ? Seriously?

My son is fluent in Portuguese, Japanese, English, and Spanish, and he has a sociable, bright, Latino-type of personality, with many friends from all over the world. Therefore, he is fully capable of adapting to life anywhere in the world with just a golf club in-hand. Still, one thing he refuses to give up is Japanese food. The nostalgic aroma of roasted nori (seaweed) that he ate at his grandparents’ house; natto on rice; fresh sashimi; shrimp tempura, hot from the fryer; Japanese flavors galore from a party at a relative’s house in Brazil; the taste of grilled eel brought over from Japan by a customer; the familiar taste of yakitori (grilled chicken), onigiri, maki-zushi (sushi rolls), and udon (Japanese wheat noodles), available at the churrasco parties hosted by the Nikkei Association in Rio—these foods had formed the roots of his cosmopolitan food culture.

“It was a struggle at my high school in Florida, not having access to these basic flavors,” my son would say, laughing. “It would be great to go to college in California so that I can eat yaki-saba bento, shime-saba, and the delicious salmon-filled onigiri even during my rounds. After I graduate, maybe I’ll go on a tour of Asia because the food is so good. I can really be my natural self there.”

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that yaki-saba bento and shime-saba sushi had decided his future. You may ask—who would decide their future with their stomach? But perhaps a lot of our decisions in life are made based on something as simple as that. Food culture is something to be reckoned with; you can’t stop loving what you love. In fact, my son used food as starting point to discover an environment where he feels he can be at his most natural and comfortable state. Although my son generally has a very westernized, Brazilian way of thinking, this summer in North America really made me feel that, when it comes to food culture, it’s his Japanese roots that run deep.

Family photo: From the right is my son, myself, my husband, and my husband's cousin and her husband, living in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Satomi Takano Kitahara)

© 2012 Satomi Takano Kitahara

athlete Brazil california family florida food golf Itadakimasu Nikkei Chronicles rio de janeiro traveling US

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