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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II

The Tempura King

They called Nozomi the Tempura King of Little Tokyo. He manned the tempura bar at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant, holding court each night and delighting guests with his wizardry. People came from all over Los Angeles to enjoy Nozomi’s perfectly crisp and flavorful tempura. A lot went into making it perfect, but the real secret was in the oil. Not too hot or the outside would burn and leave the inside raw. Not too cold or the batter would soak up the oil and leave a greasy mess. Nozomi never used a thermometer to determine the best moment for frying. He didn’t have to. He just listened to the way the oil sizzled, like his father taught him to do all those years ago.

Before he was the Tempura King, Nozomi was a little boy growing up in a small town in Japan where his father ran a small tempura shop that had been in the family for generations. Nozomi and his father lived alone above the shop. His mother had passed away shortly after his birth, and Nozomi’s father had double duty of watching little Nozomi and running the shop. Nozomi’s earliest memories were of watching his father get the shop ready for business, which included sweeping out front, putting out the signs for the day’s specials, and of course, making sure the oil was just right. Nozomi’s father checked the temperature by dropping a little bit of batter into the oil, closing his eyes, and listening. When the sizzle was just right, he’d open his eyes with a “Yosh!” and bring the oil to life, putting in shrimp and vegetables in a symphony of pops and splatters.

As Nozomi grew from boy to man, he started learning his family’s trade: First, by sweeping floors and mopping counters, then by peeling shrimp and chopping vegetables. Next came the intricacies of learning how to make the batter. Finally, after a few years, Nozomi learned how to fry. Although, he soon learned that it wasn’t as easy as his father made it look. Diagnosing those first charred batches, Nozomi’s father reminded him that the secret was listening to the oil. “Can you hear it whispering to you?” Nozomi squeezed his eyes shut and listened intently, but no matter how hard he tried, all he could hear was the mundane sound of sizzling tempura batter. Nozomi’s father patted him on the back. “It’s okay. Some day, son. Just keep listening.”

As the years progressed, Nozomi continued to help at the shop. By day he did prep work, and by night he practiced frying. At age 18, his technique was flawless, but his tempura still wasn’t close to his father’s. Nozomi’s father would take a bite of a fresh batch, furrow his brow, and say to Nozomi, “You’re not listening.” Nozomi still didn’t understand what his father meant. The sound of sizzling oil still sounded like the sound of sizzling of oil. “Don’t worry, son. Just keep listening. Soon you’ll understand.” Soon wouldn’t come quickly enough, though. Nozomi’s father passed away suddenly shortly after Nozomi’s 19th birthday.

That time was all a blur for Nozomi. A giant crash. Rushing into the kitchen. Finding his father on the floor. The trip to the hospital. The funeral. The condolences from friends and family. His father’s will gave control of the shop and building to Nozomi’s uncle until Nozomi reached 21. Nozomi intended to run the shop in his father’s place, but his uncle had other ideas. He sold the building to pay off a gambling debt. When Nozomi confronted his uncle, he replied with a curt, “This is life, kid.” With nothing left for him in Japan, Nozomi decided to try his luck in America. His cousin Masato had recently migrated there and cheerfully reported that he was making a good life in a place called Los Angeles. Nozomi packed what little he had and set sail across the Pacific.

Nozomi arrived in San Pedro harbor on January 16, 1959. Masato was there to greet him with a big grin and an even bigger hug. They hopped into Masato’s Buick and made their way up the 110 freeway to Little Tokyo, where Masato had secured a room for Nozomi at the same men’s dormitory where he lived. “Nozomi, it’s so good to have you here with me. America is great, but it can get lonely. Some of the people aren’t very nice to Japanese, either. I try not to leave Little Tokyo if I can help it.” Masato recounted tales of unpleasant encounters outside Little Tokyo, like being called Tojo (and other less flattering names) or having a much-too-close shave at a barbershop. “Little Tokyo is safe, cousin. Best to stay here.”

At that time, Little Tokyo was transitioning back into a hub for Japanese American culture as those who had suffered through Internment began trickling back. Little Tokyo had the feeling of familiarity and home that people craved after the alienness of the camps. In addition to Japanese Americans, there were also a good number of intrepid Japanese immigrants trying to make a go at life in America. As both groups began to set down new roots, Little Tokyo dusted off the unpleasantness of its wartime existence and started to regain its prior energy and vibrancy.

Masato was working as a cook at Ryutaro’s, a greasy spoon on Second Street. He was able to convince his boss to hire Nozomi, and in no time at all the ten-don became the most popular dish at Ryutaro’s. Masato would often sneak a piece of tempura when no one was looking and offer his compliments. “Nozomi, umai-zo! Just like your dad.” Nozomi thanked him, but knew deep down that he still wasn’t as good as his father. Despite frying thousands of batches of tempura, he still couldn’t get it just right. Nozomi kept listening to the oil, but didn’t hear more than the same old sizzle.

Days morphed into weeks and then into months until a year had passed since Nozomi’s arrival in Little Tokyo. He’d gotten used to life in America, but he felt like something was missing. His life had become a rut, shuttling from home to work and back. Even with the always-chipper Masato to keep him company, he still felt alone. It didn’t help that his tempura had plateaued. It had gotten better, but still wasn’t as good as his father’s. After all this time he still couldn’t “hear” the oil. Was he not listening properly? What did his father mean? The dark specter of doubt began to rear its ugly head as Nozomi contemplated the reality that he might not ever be as good as his father. Fortunately, Masato was there as usual to cheer him up as usual. “It’ll be alright, cousin. I still think your tempura is the best. Here, take a look at this flyer. It’s for a job at a new restaurant. The pay is good so you can have money for a girlfriend.” He added with a wink, “Maybe that’s what you need in your life, huh?”

The flyer was in Japanese and advertised positions at a new restaurant on First Street, the Tokyo Kaikan. The head chef would be a man named Matsumoto. Nozomi didn’t know much about him, except that he’d studied with the masters in Japan and that he didn’t have much of a sense of humor. Masato filled in some more of the details. “Matsumoto is assembling the best Japanese chefs in the area for this restaurant. It’ll have some interesting elements to it like a sushi bar, robata station, and something you’ll definitely be interested in—a tempura bar. I’m not good enough to work there, but you should give it a shot. And if you get the job you can stop being depressed about your tempura being so horrible.”

Nozomi stared at the unassuming little flyer. Masato was right. Matsumoto was a master. If Nozomi’s tempura was good enough for him, then that’s a victory, right? His tempura might not be as good as his father’s, but maybe he was aiming for something that didn’t really exist. In any case, the pay at Tokyo Kaikan was much better than Ryutaro’s. Nozomi went down to the pay phone in the men’s hotel and called the number on the flyer. A gruff voice told him to come in tomorrow at 10 a.m.

When Nozomi arrived the following morning, there were a dozen or so hopefuls waiting their turn to showcase their talents to Matsumoto. Nozomi recognized a good number of them, most of who also worked in restaurants in and around Little Tokyo. It wasn’t just tempura chefs either. There were those auditioning to make sushi and robata and traditional kaiseki ryori. After about an hour of waiting, Matsumoto called over Nozomi and the other tempura hopefuls to the tempura bar. It didn’t seem like much. Just an unassuming square with counters on three sides. The fourth side was against the wall and included the frying station.

Matsumoto was standing with his arms crossed at the counter directly opposite the frying station. He was an intimidating man. Tall and bald with a large, stocky build. He was impatient and decisive with a sharp tongue, but he was also a man who possessed the confidence born of having run several successful restaurants in Japan. After giving all the hopefuls a once over, Matsumoto began the auditions.

One by one the tempura hopefuls took turns frying up tempura. Each presented his tempura to Matsumoto with a smile, and each was greeted with a gruff “dame” and sent packing. Nozomi’s palms began to sweat. These guys weren’t amateurs. Most of them were twice Nozomi’s age and had studied extensively in Japan. When it was Nozomi’s turn, Matsumoto summoned him behind the tempura bar with a flick of his head.

Nozomi stepped behind the bar, fastened his apron, and took a deep breath. He then began preparing all the ingredients for frying, going through the same routine he’d gone through a thousand times before; the same routine he’d watched his father go through back at their shop. His father. What would he say if he saw Nozomi right now? Probably that he should just listen. Nozomi chuckled to himself and then went to check on the oil. He paused. Looking at his own reflection, he was taken aback by how closely he now resembled his father, as if his father were staring back at him. The image brought back memories of his father’s shop, including the sound of the faint sizzle of batter as his father checked the temperature of the oil. He’d almost forgotten what it sounded like. Nozomi was overwhelmed. He finally understood what it meant to listen. It had nothing to do with the sound of the sizzle, but rather what the sound represented: their family. Tempura was a bond. It was a labor of love that tied generations together. The sound Nozomi hears today is the same sound his father heard and his father before him.

Matsumoto unceremoniously roused Nozomi from his epiphany. “Oi, kora! Chanto senka!” Nozomi apologized and quickly resumed preparing the tempura. He dropped a small bit of batter into the oil, closed his eyes, and listened. For the first time, he heard it. The sound of his father’s shop. That soft reassuring whisper that everything is perfect; that he is at home. Nozomi smiled. His father was gone, but lived on each day through Nozomi and his tempura. Nozomi opened his eyes with a “yosh” and went to work, gently dipping each piece in the batter and placing it in the oil. Watching the pieces fry, he knew this batch would be different. It was so much more than just a combination of raw ingredients and technique. It was imbued with pride, joy, happiness, history, longing…and love.

Nozomi placed the perfectly fried pieces before Matsumoto, who took a bite of shrimp tempura and let out what vaguely resembled a smile. Matsumoto was impressed. The batter was crisp with a satisfying crunch while being light and airy enough to let the taste of the shrimp shine through. It was clear that Nozomi was skilled, but there was something else to his tempura. It had an air of familiarity to it. A warmth and comfort that made Matsumoto feel like he’d tasted it before. Matsumoto composed himself and let his face return to its natural grimace. He finished off the rest of the tempura, savoring every bite, and signaled his pleasure with a terse “kore wa ikeru.”

Needless to say, Nozomi got the job. As the Tokyo Kaikan opened and word of Nozomi’s tempura spread, so did the line of people waiting to sit at the tempura bar. Just like Little Tokyo itself, Nozomi’s tempura meant different things to different people. To Japanese Americans, it was a taste that reminded them of the journey that those before them had made. To recent Japanese immigrants, it was the taste of natsukashii, an anchor to hold on to in a sometimes-chaotic new land. To curious Americans, it was a window into a strange-yet-familiar world. And, just like Little Tokyo itself, Nozomi’s tempura brought people together. It was one of many things that helped bind a community together. Nozomi was proud to share his family’s love. He loved seeing the customers’ smiles and loved even more seeing their empty plates. The hustle and bustle of a full tempura bar filled him with pride. Still, the moment he cherished most remained the beginning of the shift when he tested the oil with a small drop of batter. He’d always take the time to close his eyes and listen for that soft whisper. That quiet reassurance that all was well. The sound that let him know he was home.

 

*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II.

 

© 2015 Kent Morizawa

chef cooking fiction food immigration little tokyo restaurants short story tempura

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society conducted its second annual short story (fiction) writing contest which concluded on April 22, 2015 at a reception in Little Tokyo in which the winners and finalists were announced. Last year's contest was entirely in English whereas this year's contest also had a youth category and a Japanese-language category, with cash prizes awarded for each category. The only requirement (other than the story could not exceed 2,500 words or 5,000 Japanese characters) was that the story had to involve Little Tokyo in some creative manner.

  • First Place English: “Fish Market in Little Tokyo” by Nathaniel J. Campbell from Fairfield, Iowa
  • First Place Japanese: “Mitate Club” by Miyuki Sato from Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese only)
  • First Place Youth: “Kazuo Alone” by Linda Toch from Corona, California

Some of the Finalists to be featured are:

      English:

      Japanese (Japanese only)

      Youth:

 

*Read stories from the first Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>