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food

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As You Like It

Chapter Seven—Food Fight

After I was used by Morgan Taketa, I stay in my bed of Amazon packaging and bubble wrap for almost two weeks straight. Unfortunately for my roommate Risa, whose Manhattan apartment I’m staying in, my bed is in the middle of her studio. Risa is the most kind-hearted person I know, but even she is getting tired of it. Her cat, Tamago, less kind-hearted, just hisses at me from the other side of the room.

“Kao-chan, this cannot continue,” she says to me one Saturday. “You need to get up. Take a proper shower—I mean with soap and a wash cloth—and leave the apartment.”

I know what she is saying is true. I haven’t shaved my legs or armpits or plucked my eyebrows. I feel the hair growing from my skin like moss.

The problem isn’t just Morgan the banker–attorney, of course. It’s my whole miserable life. A life without my parents. Without our family okonomiyaki business and possibly without a home. If I get kicked out of the US for being unable to launch my restaurant business, where will I go?

I feel my body being lifted up from behind. “Kao-chan, this is not a joke.” Risa tries to pull me upright, but she doesn’t stand a chance. I feel bad because she is trying so hard and finally drag myself into the shower. She’s right. As the water pours down on me, I am starting to feel more human again. Through the shower curtains appears her hand delivering to me a new neon pink mesh wash cloth. I’m barely finished covering myself in bath suds when the hand appears again, this time clutching a new razor.

When I appear out of the shower in freshly washed clothes, Risa’s there again—in a sundress and a big floppy hat. She’s up to something, and I’m a bit afraid of what it could be.

“It’s something you will want to do. A food festival,” she announces.

I have to admit that peaks my interest. “Okay, but only for an hour,” I tell her as I head for the doorway to retrieve my shoes. Tamago, meanwhile, has taken over my makeshift bed. I have a feeling it’s going to be a fight for me to get it back.

I follow Risa’s lead like I’m an animal on a leash. We walk to the train stop and we get into the car, hemmed in with other people ready for a weekend outing.

Based on our stops, I finally figure out that we are heading north. “Where are we going?” I finally ask.

“Harlem.”

“No, I can’t—” Then the doors of the train opens and I have to move forward or be crushed.

* * * * *

Risa knows about my series of misadventures with Tom the Harlem butcher. He hates me for some reason and I hate him. But the problem is that he has the best pork belly in Manhattan, and believe me, I’ve been to all the meat markets. But I have one consolation—Tom is so anti-social that I cannot believe that he would be here at this food festival. There’s happy music blaring with white tents pitched and wonderful smells emanating into the streets. No, this is the last place he would be, I tell myself, relieved.

Risa wraps her skinny arms around my heftier one and after buying some food tickets, we head over to the tents.

There’s a long white folding table covered with plates of pie: key lime, custard, sweet potato, peach, and apple. Pie is one of my favorite desserts in the whole wide world. I got hooked on them at Costco Hiroshima, but these look even more delicious.

I exchange one of my food tickets for a pecan pie. Before I can put the first bite into my mouth, I smell something smoky and savory. It’s some kind of meat, maybe some cooked sausage.

There’s smoke billowing from a large grill next door. And when the smoke clears, it’s Tom armed with barbecue tongs and a younger Asian man holding a plate.

“That’s him—” I hiss in Risa’s ear, my mouth still full of pecan pie. I try to move in the opposite direction, but Risa is pulling me toward my enemy. What is she doing?

She flips up the brim of her hat and adjusts her sunglasses. Tom, thankfully, has left to apparently retrieve more sausages from a cooler.

“Would you like a sausage?” the Asian man asks. His accent sounds familiar. He sounds like us.

“Are you Japanese?” Risa asks.

“Oh, yes. I’m from the Narita area.”

“The airport. We are Hiroshima people,” Risa says back in Japanese.

“Really.” The man smiles broadly, revealing a good set of teeth, especially for a Japanese. “I am Gen. So nice to meet you. You live in New York?”

“Yes, we both do. Actually my friend knows him.” Before I can stop her, Risa is pointing to Tom, who is glaring in response.

Raw sausages in his gloved hands, he returns to the grill, his eyes still on Risa and me. “What’s this?” he asks.

“I didn’t know that you had Japanese friends,” Gen says in English.

“I don’t have Japanese friends. And especially not her.” Tom gestures towards me and then places the tongs in Gen’s hands. “Here, you take over. I need to take a break.”

“I apologize,” Gen returns back to Japanese.

“So are you friends?” I can’t believe that Tom could be friends with anybody, much less a Japanese person.

“Oh, we just met last week. Long story.” He then purses his lips as he if wants to tell us a secret.

Did they meet in a random hook-up? Anyway, it’s none of my business, and I awkwardly try to change the subject. “I’m trying to open an okonomiyaki restaurant here in New York.”

“Oh, I love okonomiyaki! There’s an okonomiyaki place right at Narita airport.”

I make a face and Risa explains, “Kaori is rather picky about such places. She thinks Hiroshima okonomiyaki is the best. You should try hers sometime.”

“I would love to.”

“Well, come over to our apartment. We’d love to host you.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, too bad.” Risa then turns back to the pie tent. “Maybe you can get the ingredients and she can make you one right now.”

“No, no, I couldn’t. That’s such a imposition!” I can’t believe Risa wants me to horn in on all these established Harlem restaurateurs.

“There’s flour and eggs over there. And cabbage right here.” He points to some heads of cabbage on a folding table that is obviously for cold slaw salad.

“But we need okonomiyaki sauce. It’s not right without it,” I tell him.

“I’ll take care of that. You start on it.”

This Gen is a character, but then I’m easily lulled into cooking. I break open some eggs into the flour. Whisk in water and I’m set with the mix. I put Risa to work and she chops the cabbage into thin slivers. I take a ladle and after pouring the mix on the hot griddle, I form a circle with the back of the ladle. Slices of pork belly, meanwhile, is already sizzling. I pile cabbage onto the circle and then flip it over onto the pork belly.

I’m so absorbed in my work that I don’t bother to look up. When I finally do, there’s a line formed to buy what I’m cooking.

“Do they even know what okonomiyaki is?” I ask Risa.

“They do now.” She’s created a handmade sign in her beautiful script: OKONOMIYAKI, HIROSHIMA SOUL FOOD, TWO TICKETS.

Some are ready to be served, but it can’t be without the sauce. In the nick of time, Gen runs in with a long bottle. “It’s for tonkatsu. From the Japanese restaurant down the street. But good enough, ne?”

I nod and both Risa and I rush to place the patties on paper plates, while Gen squirts both mayonnaise and sauce on top. We work like a well oiled machine and I feel happy for once, like the best days back at my family’s restaurant. That exuberance, however, is short lived.

“What the hell is going on here?”

To be continued…

 

© 2017 Naomi Hirahara

As You Like It fiction naomi hirahara new york okonomiyaki

About this series

Kaori, 26, is part of an okonomiyaki family dynasty in Hiroshima. A regional specialty, okonomiyaki, literally meaning “as you iike it,” is a savory pancake usually consisting of cabbage, pork belly, and in Hiroshima, Chinese noodles. When her father dies, her uncle takes over the eatery and kicks Kaori out of the business, forcing her to try to introduce the family recipe to New York City, where her best friend now lives. While Kaori is ambitious, she’s also naïve and is taken advantage of in both business and romance. Will she learn from her mistakes, or will her family’s okonomiyaki legacy die in America?