Life in Foreign country always comes with mixed baggage. On one hand you are apprehensive leaving your comfort zone and on the other you are excited about the unknowns and look forward to enrich your life. First year is always tough as you are new to system and meet with frustrations. When I first went to Japan in 1999 newly married it was indeed a cold-water bath. We were staying in small town of Saitama north of Tokyo. While language and culture were totally different the lifestyle of Japanese Company Guesthouses (SHATAKU) were too foreign (and strict) for me. The place was based on absolute community living principles. The residents were in charge of keeping the premises clean; keep track on collecting funds and keeping tabs on accounting besides so many things and everything had their rules. Fortunately or unfortunately we were also considered just as locals and had to participate in all these. The warmth of people around me was making me feel welcome but enormity of missing desh was taking its own toll as there were no Indian or international families around. We had to shift back next year and it coincided with my pregnancy. While honestly I felt quite liberated but somewhere I started missing those orderly lifestyle and all the while wondering what different could have helped. Also this experience of not living among Indian or expats proved a blessing in disguise later for me, as I was forced to learn Japanese, which came immensely handy. However when we left one of the old family friends from Japan Mrs. Inoue (she is like mother to me) cried too. She played a major role, as you will read later.
Tokyo Calling Again:
The next chance to live in Japan came in late 2004. My son was five years old and I was mentally prepared. This time we decided to stay in cosmopolitan locality of Tokyo in Setagaya. My son's International school also helped me settle into lifestyle faster. Some familiarity with language helped me settle down faster than anticipated. Also whenever I saw someone new, helping them out with whatever knowledge I had made my experiences enrich further. I made many new friends on the journey both Japanese and Global including Indians. Some of the Japanese moms turned out to be life long friends. Life was going on smooth. But something interesting happens as you start living in foreign country. You start becoming more aware of your culture. More so, than you were in your own country. The experience enhances when you start learning about another culture.
Thanks to Mrs. Inoue, I started visiting Origami classes and Japanese Veg cooking classes. I must be honest that Cooking was never a passion but living in Japan it became bare necessity to survive. Non-availability of ample Vegetarian food forced me to innovate keeping in mind nutrition, taste and health for kids especially. When I visited Japanese Veg. cooking classes, I realized how ruthlessly clean and process driven the whole activity was. While interacting in such forums with fellow learners, not only I enjoyed, it help me lessen my stress and unconsciously started
picking up a thing or two on their culture. This helped me regain confidence. In the later part of our stay, few Japanese Moms who would love Indian food to teach them on how to cook some Indian curries approached me. I did not know this humble beginning is going to change my tryst with Kitchen and cooking. The appreciative nature of Japanese people encouraged me more. I had to meet their perfectionist expectations and challenge myself to answer as well portray results even though we were cooking simple dishes. My family, starting with my in-laws and husband (who had post-graduation from Japan) had long and deep association with Japan. Further In 2006, my daughter was also born in Japan, thus we had three generations related to Japan. I got further attracted and attached to the country, people and culture thanks to newfound passion sharing with my Japanese friends. More I shared, more I learned. My Bond with Mrs. Inoue only increased, as she proved to be more than a mother during and after my pregnancy or helping me understand life better. Her parting words, when I was leaving for India in 2009 were “The secret of 5000 years old civilization must be in food – you must help Japanese people understand that”. I thought it was too much a task for a simple housewife like me. Her second advice, Try to help people when they are new in your country, this help people will never forget in life. How true it was for me too, I pondered.
Life in Gurgaon:
In 2009, it was again back to square one. We moved back to Gurgaon. Still missing those lovely experiences of Japan, while battling daily woes to restore sane life. It took me one year to adjust and settle down (still in process to be honest). In fact it was so funny that while searching house in Gurgaon, we surprisingly bumped into one Japanese family in super mart and took their guidance for further search! She became my first friend in Gurgaon, later thanks to her also made many good Japanese expat friends in neighborhood.
Somehow we started liking the place in spite of the chaos the community living, everything in vincity and high quality education and highly global people. I started getting associated with my kids' school too. Another thing helped of Japanese life was learning basics of Origami. This has become family hobby (along with Jigsaw puzzle). It came in very handy when my daughter started going to Nursery at Pathways School Gurgaon. Sharing a bit of simple paper folding to the class brought lot of joy on kids’ faces.
Back to cooking:
With my new Japanese friends, would meet often at my place and they would enjoy some homemade food. When they
learned about my teaching Indian Vegetarian cooking in Japan, they requested it for them here. I agreed as this would at least take me back to Japan days and I can pass my time gainfully by interacting with them. But what followed just overwhelmed me. The word of mouth simply opened the floodgates. I have been trying to restrict classes during time where my kids are at school, so the new requests had to be met on more days of week. Now I have close to forty Japanese ladies as learners. We all enjoy cooking together as well as enjoying the meals. Based on demand, once in a while I also take them to shopping tour to help them choose right ingredients, which adds further joy and give them confidence to enjoy their life in Gurgaon. Their efforts in really learning some part of our culture made me feel humble. Sometimes looking at their face, I get some satisfaction that in minute part; I am able to repay my indebtedness to the lovely country's nice people. At the same time thanking them from bottom of my heart that if I did not have this positive activity, I would have been lost in this chaotic city. The challenge is increasing day by day both with the number of people and running a very organized class. Starting from choosing the right ingredients to explaining them in the backdrop of Japanese context, I feel more like learner than teacher. Even my old recipes now seem not good enough to me as I am striving to answer their queries. Some of the learners are still pressing me to continue teaching new recipes even they have been with me for a nearly year. I have to challenge myself to figure out what you don't find in restaurant but still can make easily at home, keeping me glued to cookery books and shows.
I am only realizing the hidden message Mrs. Inoue told me on food and civilization. It’s still a tall task, but meanwhile I am happy to collect my reward in form of smiles that I see on their faces and thanks mails. If a time spent while cooking together can make them feel happy in India I feel my purpose is served.
Encouraged by GurgaonMoms, this is my humble contribution, which may inspire others to share their own stories; we all can gain confidence from. I am also sharing a common Japanese recipe:
Miso Soup :
- 5 grams dried seaweed (Wakame)
- 1 packet of soft tofu
- 400 ml Dashi
- 1.5 tsp of Miso paste
- 2 medium spring onion
How to cook miso soup (For Dashi preparation see below)
- Pour the Dashi (stock) into a large saucepan, turn the heat up high.
- In between soak 5 grams of seaweed (Wakame) into small bowl of water to cover Wakame completely. Let Wakame absorb water and expand .
- Put one and half tbsp of Miso paste in a cup add enough Dashi from the pan to melt it. Stir it well till everything is dissolved. Then pour into pan and stir again.
- Cut the tofu into small pieces and add to the soup,quantity depending on your taste and liking.
- Finally add expanded Wakame and turn the heat to low. Let it warm at low heat till all ingredients mix well. Be careful not to boil it.
- Turn of the heat and put soup into individual bowls. Garnish with chopped spring onions.
Dashi (Stock) Recipe:
this is the most common stock and used in many Japanese delecacy preparations.
- One litre of Water
- 20 Grams of dried Kombu
- 50 Ml of cold water
How to prepare Dashi
- Put dried Kombu into one liter of water and leave it at least for two hours. Be careful not to leave it longer than 5 hours, as it may lose flavour
- Put the saucepan on high heat. When water reaches boiling point, remove Kombu by using long Chopsticks.
- Boil for one more minute and turn off the heat.
- Add 50 ml water to cool off quickly.
- Strain off and you will get tasty Dashi.
- If you are non vegetarian, you can use fish stock instead of dashi.
To enjoy it the authentic way, use chopsticks for the solid ingredients and sip the liquid straight from the bowl.
Hope you will enjoy it. please let me know your comments.
You can get all the ingredients in Spencer at Mall road, Modern Bazaar at Arjun marg.
Shailee Mayur Shah