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Passing on the traditions of Japanese home cooking: Food writer, Sonoko Sakai

Growing up overseas, but "Japanese" at home

I asked Sonoko Sakai, who is a contributing writer to The Los Angeles Times and has been writing articles about the culture of Japanese food for the last ten years, if she was willing to be interviewed. She replied, if I was able to come out to Venice (a beach front community in Los Angeles) where she holds a class on the weekend, she would be able to speak to me afterwards.

Sonoko Sakai (Photo by Katsuhisa Sakai)

As I arrived at the designated location on Saturday afternoon, it turned out to be a Japanese general store that had all kinds of handcrafted items, including a temari (a traditional Japanese threaded ornament) which reminds me of the old-time Japan. On this day, Sonoko was teaching onigiri (rice ball) to American people in a space somewhat separated from the store.

When I entered the room, the class was already over. But one by one, students were coming up to enthusiastically speak to Sonoko who was putting her things away. Each time that happened, she would put down whatever she was doing, confirm her student’s name, and listen carefully to their thoughts about her class.

As I watched Sonoko with the Americans who she taught how to make onigiri , I wondered what kind of background this woman has. I listened to the conversations with her students and my interest was certainly piqued.

We changed locations to the tea room next to the classroom before I began to ask her questions. Sonoko suggested, “There are all kinds of different teas here. There’s cake, too. Why don’t you try one?” In her case, I can already sense her love of food.

After the iced tea and cake were served to us, she began to speak about her personal history.

I was born in New York. My father was in the aviation business. If you say that you were in New York in the fifties, you were considered as pioneers of expats. So after I was born in New York, I was brought up from New York to Tokyo, San Francisco, even Mexico City…in all kinds of places. Then, I returned back to Kamakura, Japan, and moved again to Tokyo. During my second year of high school in the seventies, I came back to Los Angeles. I have been in the United States ever since. Oh yes, for college, I went to UC Davis and spent one year in Japan at the International Christian University as an exchange student.

Sonoko grew up in the English and Spanish speaking world, but at home, she spoke in Japanese. The food that she grew up with was homemade style Japanese food that her mother cooked:

When I think about my Identity, the first thing that I related to is the culture of food. Since I lived overseas, I had been raised to conform to that country’s customs when you took even one step outside the house. I always went to local schools so that I was surrounded by local friends. I was able to absorb the good parts of both the West and Japan. Looking back at it, I really think I was blessed in that regard.

Out of all her food memories, the most memorable one is the rice that her grandmother made in the iron pot at the house in Kamakura. She says, “Isn’t the fresh rice cooked in an iron pot really tasty?? I’d be happy with just that. I don’t need anything else.”

The wonderful teacher who encouraged her

Sonoko has been fond of the cooking of her mother and grandmother since her childhood. The one who gave her the drive to introduce that to other people was Lou Stoumen, a photographer and film director who won two Academy Awards. She explains:

During my graduate school years, I was interested in photography and filmmaking. I worked as an assistant for Lou Stoumen, a professor in UCLA’s filmmaking department. He taught me about the art of phorography and cinema. One day, I brought him an onigiri that I made. He exclaimed that it was delicious, and suggested me to write something on Japanese home cooking. For a long time, I didn’t have a confident in my language. Changing places every three years, my English was far from perfect, while I couldn’t even really say that I was raised in Japan, either. So that I always wanted to find my own voice. After thinking it through, I came to believe that writing about food might be the most natural. Lou helped me a lot with my writing. Through that, I became more comfortable about writing in English. Prof. Stoumen is truly a wonderful mentor.”

Sonoko published a book called The Poetical Pursuit of Food (named as Sonoko Kondo).

Since then, Sonoko pursued her main profession as an importer/exporter of films and later engaged in producing film. At the same time, she continues to introduce the Japanese food culture in English as her second profession. According to her, “cooking is her passion.”

Making soba by hand

Of her cooking classes for the general public, the one that she especially loves is the soba noodle making class.

In one of her classes, a happy coincident occurred, “Someone who does film editing happened to be in my soba class. At a different soba making class, a camera man showed up. The soba making left a very deep impression on them. So they suggested me to make instructional video. In the end, they put together a film about twenty minutes long with soundtrack. They attended the class for free; in return, they created the film for free. Like this, I am able to make more friends by teaching Japanese cooking.”

Her particular affinity with soba comes from “the desire to eat truly good hand-made soba.” Therefore, she went to a soba-making school.

Everyone said that soba is much more difficult to make than udon, but that’s actually not true. Making soba flour from scratch into noodles is so incredibly fascinating to me. Handling fresh flour is very therapeutic.

This world is overflowing with processed goods, Sonoko laments. While she is making soba, she can cut herself off from the processed goods that surround her in this convenient life, and at least she can simply let go and immerse herself in the warm essence of humanity.

The passion of her soba led her to purchase a plot of land two hours away from Los Angeles in a place called Tepachapi Valley. She is planning to grow soba.

I asked her what her goal is in continuing to teach Japanese home cooking, Sonoko’s answer is very clear:

Even if you’re not an Italian, you make pasta at home, don’t you? But, even if you eat Japanese food outside of the house, you will not cook Japanese at home unless you’re not a Japanese or Nikkei. I wish that regular Americans make onigiri at their homes. Japanese home cooking is not just delicious, but fairly healthy. Through home cooking, I would like to keep Japan’s traditions. I really want to pass it on to the American people.

* * *

History & Culture of Japanese Pastries, the Chocolate Alternative
Saturday, Nov 19, 2011 @ 2pm
Japanese American National Museum

Tokyo based pastry chef Chikara Mizukami and food writer Sonoko Sakai will discuss the healthful aspects of Japanese pastries, perspectives on Japanese pastries and tea, and Japanese influence on Western pastries.

For more information >>

© 2011 Fukuda Keiko

food writer soba Sonoko Sakai