My grandmother says that opening your home is like opening your heart. By inviting people in to see how you live, you are showing them your soul. Sharing a meal is sharing something of one’s self—it is a special gift.
We arrived in Madison, Wis., on a Sunday afternoon in late July to spend two nights with our old friends. My husband, Seth, and I pulled up to Jason and Satoko’s house and were welcomed into their bright, whimsical and carefully decorated home.
Over the course of the evening it became clear to Satoko that I was very interested in food, and Japanese food in particular. I told her how it was difficult for me, when I would go to a Japanese market, to pick out the best ingredients without the ability to read or speak the language.
Naturally, I was eager to have her as my guide, and she was happy to present some of the many Japanese ingredients in her fridge and pantry. She saw that I liked the salty umeboshi plum and, emboldened, had me try natto, a slimy fermented soybean paste. When I tried the pungent and unattractive-looking food and my eyes lit up (“The slime reminds me of okra!”), she was surprised and amused. She generously offered to cook us a full Japanese breakfast the following day.
When I awoke the next morning, Satoko was busy in the kitchen, methodically maneuvering around ingredients and pots. I noticed a flurry of preparations, but she did not seem flustered, and about an hour later breakfast was served. The table became filled with small dishes—each of us receiving four. A bowl of miso soup with eggplant; a plate with Japanese omelet (tamago) and cucumber pickles with sesame and bonito; a shallow dish with a plump piece of sea bass, shiitake mushroom and a flavorful broth; and a small bowl of white rice.
We were in awe of the impressive-looking assortment and the seeming effortlessness of the meal. When I began eating I savored clean tastes of sesame, vinegar and fish, and I was struck by the simultaneous subtlety and complexity of the flavors. It was hearty, simple, nourishing and delicious. Satoko, Jason, Seth and I lingered over the meal for nearly two hours; it was a leisurely morning of stories, music and enjoyment. And then we cleaned up and began our day.
Satoko shared part of herself with me; she gave me a gift. I wanted to give her one in return, in attempt to repay her for her gracious hospitality. I thought it would only be appropriate of me to make dinner for us all to share, this time showcasing my Jewish and Israeli cultures.
I was inspired by her use of eggplant and sesame and aimed to pay tribute to the ingredients she used in her breakfast through my meal. I went to the local food co-op on Willy Street and bought what was seasonal and local. The store lacked certain key ingredients, so I improvised. When I returned, I boiled down frozen pomegranate kernels to make molasses, and added some of Satoko’s umeboshi plum for flavor. There was no food processor in the kitchen, so Satoko helped me mash the chickpeas for hummus by hand. Since there was no halloumi cheese at the store, I coated pieces of paneer in sesame seeds before crisping them up on the cast iron and serving them with date puree and mint. I pan-fried an assortment of eggplants and shiitakes in sesame oil and topped them with herbs, nuts and our makeshift pomegranate molasses. I made couscous with dried fruit, herbs and toasted nuts to serve alongside our meal.
Again, the table was filled with an array of small dishes. We used the same plates, but this time they were filled with flavors inspired by the Middle East and the local bounty of the Midwest. The four of us sat for a deliciously long time, sharing stories of funny things that happened that day and relishing the company of old friends.
Yes, the cultural analysis of our gastronomic day was invigorating: I was thrilled to learn to make Japanese rice, and she to learn about couscous. I enjoyed realizing the similarities of ingredients used in such different cuisines; I lost myself in thoughts of food as a universal language that can transcend differences in culture and politics.
But cultural exploration aside, the best part of both meals was undoubtedly what took place once we left the kitchen and sat at the table. Though the contents of the plates were different, their purposes served were the same. Both meals acted as a tool to share quality time with people we appreciate, a means to linger at the table, nourish our bodies and just take a moment to sense and enjoy. That, to me, is a true gift.
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