I must have read something or searched for something that put Strange Weather in Tokyo: A Novel by Hiromi Kawakami*, translated by Allison Markin Powell, in my suggestion list from Amazon. And since I’m always up for reading a book by a new-to-me author, I ordered it! Yes, I’m a sucker for books. I had no idea what to expect and read the book over the course of just two days.
On the Page
After reading – and thoroughly enjoying – this book, I am still unsure into which genre I would place it. It’s a love story, certainly, but it’s also a poignant tale about loneliness. I also don’t really understand the title.
At the center of the story is Tsukiko, a woman in her late thirties, who works in an office and lives alone. One evening, she runs into a former teacher who she calls Sensei, “teacher.” His age is never mentioned, but I pieced together that he’s at least three decades older than she is. Through the course of the novel, their relationship grows from dining and drinking together to traveling together and finally dips into a romantic relationship that lasts for three years before his death.
Because many of the descriptions are mundane, just describing everyday happenings, it’s difficult to gauge the passage of time. Hints include a shift in their beverages of choice – from warm saké to chilled beer – and the blossoms on the cherry trees.
But as sparse as the prose is, the descriptions of the food had my mouth watering in so many passages. When she first encounters her former teacher: “Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered ‘Tuna with
fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots,’ while the old man
next to me requested ‘Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with
fermented soybeans’ almost simultaneously. When I glanced over, I saw he was
staring right back at me. I thought to myself, Why do I know his face . . . ?”
When they travel together to hunt for mushrooms, she explains, “Satoru and Toru had skillfully prepared the mushrooms they
had collected. Toru had cleaned the mushrooms of any dirt or mud, and Satoru
had torn the large ones into pieces, leaving the smaller ones as they were,
before briefly sautéing them in a small frying pan they had also brought along.
Then he put the sautéed mushrooms into the pot of already boiling water,
stirred in some miso, and let it all simmer for a little while.”
Even more food mentions…”Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered.
Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also
have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen. We left
off our conversation about fate and past lives while we focused on eating our
oden for the moment. Sensei, still off-kilter, brought to his mouth the daikon
that he had cut into bite-size pieces with his chopsticks, while I hunched
forward a little to nibble on my piece of daikon.”
And this passage encapsulates their intimacy, “We were at Sensei’s house, eating yudofu. Since it was the
middle of the day, Sensei had prepared yudofu in an aluminum pot for us to eat
while we drank some beer. He made it with cod and chrysanthemum greens. When I
made yudofu, tofu was the only ingredient. As I sat there, my head a little
fuzzy from drinking in the daytime, it had occurred to me that this was how
people who didn’t know each other developed a familiarity.”
I decided to pull out a Japanese cookbook and make dinner.
Sakana No Misoyaki
Grilled Miso-Marinated Fish
Four ingredients are all that it took to create this miso-marinated black cod.
Ingredients serves 4
- 1 cup miso (I used a white, light, sweet miso)
- 3/4 cup organic granulated sugar
- 2 Tablespoons saké (I used an organic sake I found at Whole Foods)
- 2 Tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
- 1 pound black cod, sliced into 1/4 pound filets
Pour an inch of water into a saucepan and place a metal bowl suspended over the water – or you can use a double boiler if you have one.
Combine the miso, sugar, sake, and mirin in the bowl. Bring the water to a boil and whisk until the sugar is dissolved, approximately 5 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. You will have about 1-1/2 cups of marinade though you will only use 1/2 cup for this recipe. It will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
Pat the filets dry and place them in a rimmed, lidded dish. Slather the filets with 1/2 cup of marinade and let marinate from 8 to 12 hours.
When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to broil with a rack about 4″ from the heating element. Wipe off most of the marinade and slice each filet in half so you have four 1/4 pound filets.
Place the filets, skin-side up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Broil until the skin is browned all over and slightly charred in spots, approximately 5 minutes. Turn off the broilers and lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue to bake until the fish is just cooked through, approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Smashed Cucumber Pickles
Now this is one of my favorite ways to prepare cucumbers. Not only is smashing the cucumbers fun and stress-relieving, that action helps so that the brine can penetrate the cucumbers more easily.
Ingredients makes 3 cups
- 1 pound crunchy, narrow cucumbers (I used organic Persian cucumbers)
- 1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2″ knob of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- one 3 to 4″ piece dried kombu (dried kelp)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper chile flakes
- 3 Tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 Tablespoon gluten-free soy sauce or tamari
Halve the cucumbers lengthwise and cut them into 2″ pieces. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, firmly slap each cucumber to bruise it. Hopefully it stays in 1 piece. Most of mine did.
Combine the salt and water in a large container with an airtight lid and stir until the salt dissolves. Add the ginger, kombu, chile flakes, and cucumbers and stir well. Place a weight on top of the cucumbers to keep them submerged.
Cover the container and refrigerate for between 24 and 72 hours. When you’re ready to eat, toast the sesame seeds and let them cool. Crush them with a mortar and pestle and stir them into the gluten-free soy sauce or tamari to create a paste. Spoon out the cucumbers and toss them with the sesame-soy paste. Serve immediately.
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