I had a Japanese pen pal for a while. It was a totally different experience than when I was eight and corresponded with a girl my age from Alaska. Naturally, being interested in food and cooking from …
I had a Japanese pen pal for a while. It was a totally different experience than when I was eight and corresponded with a girl my age from Alaska. Naturally, being interested in food and cooking from a young age, I inquired of both as to what they liked to eat. The Alaskan gal chowed down on sockeye salmon, wild berry jams and the meat of reindeer and caribou. I was disappointed to hear that blubber was never on the menu. I would’ve liked to get a real feel for the flavor and texture. I never noticed that the letters my mother periodically handed me had no stamp or postmark. That’s because once I’d gone to bed, my sister, Janet, was writing them at the kitchen table, nowhere near Anchorage.
Keiko, on the other hand, was a real flesh-and-blood correspondent. I met her one evening in June of 2003 at a tiny, dark jazz joint called The 55 where I had once worked as a bartender. I was hanging out, visiting with former customers. Keiko stepped up to the bar to order a cocktail and had some difficulty, as her English was hesitant and, it was obvious, she wasn’t much of a drinker. I suggested a sweet concoction she could try, and she thanked me profusely before returning to a little table in the back of the room where she sat alone. An aura of sadness clung, like a cloud, over her.
A little later, I made my way to her table and saw by her shy smile that she was grateful for the company. Slowly and haltingly, she explained that this was her second time in New York and that she had returned to pursue a man, a filmmaker whose movies she’d seen in Japan and greatly admired. She had been to a film festival here, met and briefly studied with the man, and had fallen head over heels in love. He was very kind to her, she said, but did not return her passion. Disappointed and blue, she was returning to Japan.
We exchanged addresses, and I suggested we write postcards to keep in touch. I took one from a stack on the bar and told her I’d write within a week or so. A few days later I happened to be meeting an old friend at The 55 and, while I waited, I wrote to Keiko. Her subsequent postcards mimicked my salutations, from greeting to closure. I have a habit of starting, “Dearest so-and-so” and ending by signing off either “With love” or “Lots of Love.”
Hi! I am Keiko. How are you? I loved your postcard. How about the night at The 55 bar? I guess you had a good time with your friend. It’s wonderful that you have a friend of almost 20 years. I had a friend, too. We corresponded for many years. She was a congenial friend to me. But, I alienate her now... I saw that she is self-centered person. I can’t believe her as same as before. I’m sorry if I make you boring with my complaining. I’ll write about my particular man next letter. I am thinking of him very much and missing him.
A few postcards later, I mentioned that I write a weekly column on food and cooking, and Keiko asked if I’d send her one. I received a quick response.
Hi! How are you? I’m suffering from summer heat. Thank you for sending me your column! I enjoyed it very much! I felt your love for food from the column. I also love eating and I sometimes cook. I like dumplings, too. I like vegetable, Chinese, Italian food. I think sushi is one of the most delicious food. Have you eaten soba? Soba is Japanese noodle. I like soba very much. I often eat tempura-soba at summer. The way to eat is simple. I eat cold soba and hot tempura (fresh fry of vegetable and seafood) dipping a soup with a flavor of soy sauce. It is a great pleasure to eat delicious food leisurely. I also am a little obsessed by food.
By the way, I think it’s wonderful your lifestyle. You have the way of expression, who you are. I’m sure that you love your life and people who love you. I’m sorry if I’m making you boring. I’m searching my own way and place just as I am. I found that NYC makes me free. NYC relaxes me. I hope you and your sister spend happy time at the house in the country.
With huge love,
Time passed. Keiko couldn’t shake her feelings for the filmmaker and decided to return to New York to study film. She wrote asking for my phone number and said she looked forward to seeing me again. I heard nothing for months, but one afternoon, I came home to a voice mail message from Keiko. “Hi, Jude, I am Keiko. Please meet with me soon this week.”
She’d left a phone number and I called, leaving what I hoped was a clear message about when I was available to see her. I was a little nervous at the prospect of getting together. We didn’t really know each other, after all, and I knew that speaking English was difficult for her. Still, I had been touched by her and had been particularly moved by her last postcard in which she’d written, “I cannot help feeling wonderful tie with you. Japanese call it EN. It’s a miracle that we met at The 55 bar. It makes me feel pleasure that we write each other. Your words make me happy. I’m thankful for our meeting.”
After a round of phone tag, we eventually spoke and made plans to have dinner at a Japanese restaurant a couple of blocks from the “55.” I had heard that the owner of the restaurant, a woman, was also the chef—a highly unusual circumstance in Japanese cooking. Additionally, she made all the ceramic vessels on which the food was served, and they were said to be beautiful.
When I arrived, I caught sight of Keiko standing at the foot of the stairs that led to the restaurant. We greeted each other tentatively and then walked inside. I was grateful that she liked the idea of splitting a bunch of little dishes from the menu, though we were both disappointed that the place was under new management and the female chef had departed, along with her handmade crockery.
The food was wonderful. We shared an assortment of sushi and sashimi, including raw octopus, mackerel, tuna, yellowtail, scallop, shrimp and salmon, as well as grilled eel glazed with a sweet sauce made with sake, mirin, ginger, sugar and soy sauce. We had vegetable tempura, tender chicken teriyaki, steamed egg custard with seafood, a briny seaweed salad and slippery soba noodles.
We shared, as well, our thoughts on film, literature, family, life and love. The meal was a long lesson in concentration and patience. Conversation for Keiko was laborious and difficult. I had never paid attention to someone in quite the same way. Her vocabulary was extraordinary, yet she took a long time to form her thoughts and, subsequently, to choose her words, so each question I asked took an inordinate amount of time for a response to be formed. And when she asked a question of me, I found myself attempting to put my answer in the simplest of terms. Though exhausting for both of us, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Outside the restaurant, we embraced warmly. We were both happy with the evenings’ experience but worn out from the effort spent communicating so intimately. We turned and waved goodbye again and again as we headed in different directions. That was the last I heard from Keiko, except for a postcard I received one day more than a year after I’d met her for dinner.
My dearest Jude,
I am Keiko. I’m so sorry for being silence for a while. I don’t mean to be brusque, but in fact, I was. I’m sorry... Because of the obsession with unobtainable love, I was getting more and more depressed. I tried to forget him to move on. But it made the matter worse. I lost all energy for life because he was everything to me. Now I realized I should accept myself, just as I was, even though I had a crush on him. I decided to go back to Japan. I’m grateful for your kindness. The moment we spent together really warmed me. Thank you so much. I hope your life is filled with joy.
Serves 2 – 4
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat; they are high in antioxidants and a good source of fiber. I particularly like the brand Hakubaku, which you can find in Asian groceries, online, or in many health food stores. Hakubaku also makes excellent udon and somen noodles. This soba dish can be eaten hot or cold and you can add any number of ingredients to it to stretch it to serve as a main course.
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce, preferably tamari or shoyu
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 garlic clove, grated
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup or honey
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, preferably black
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves or Thai basil leaves (or a combo of both)
For the soba noodles:
Bring a pot of unsalted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for 4 – 4.5 minutes. Immediately drain in a colander or sieve and rinse well with cold water. Toss the noodles in a big bowl with about 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil and 1 tablespoon avocado, grapeseed, or vegetable oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
If you want to serve the noodles hot, you can either immerse them momentarily in a pot of boiling water or stir-fry them briefly in a tablespoon of coconut (or vegetable) oil in a skillet until warmed through. Place them in a bowl and pour the dressing over them and toss to combine. If serving cold, simply pour the dressing over the noodles in the bowl you had set aside. Garnish with a bit more sesame seeds, if desired. Serve as is, or add any of the following:
1/2 cup edamame or sugar snap peas
2 radishes, very thinly sliced
Cooked shrimp, chicken, beef or pork, cut into strips
Cooked broccoli, sauteed mushrooms, or other vegetables