In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
Lately, when I think about jealousy or, shall I admit it, when I feel jealous, I remind myself of the story “The Earthgod and the Fox,” by the Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933). When I think about politics, I consider Miyazawa’s story “The Fire Stone.” For my artistic practice, there’s “Gorsch the Cellist”; for my place in nature, “The Bears of Nametoko.” I can’t say there’s a Miyazawa story for everything—the writer died young and lived nearly a century ago in rural northern Japan—but he had stories for many of our basic human vices, and for our basic forms of goodness, too. And this only scratches the surface of his work’s appeal.
Miyazawa was born in 1896, the son of two pawnbrokers in the town of Hanamaki in the rural Iwate Prefecture. His parents were pious Buddhists and wealthy people by local standards; their son became a teacher of agricultural science and a social activist who attempted to improve the lot of farmers in his region. His poetry and fiction were not celebrated or even much published in his lifetime, but word spread posthumously, and he is now one of Japan’s foremost writers, widely taught in schools. When I decided to cook from Miyazawa’s work, I asked Tetsuro Hoshii, a Japanese acquaintance who lives in my Brooklyn neighborhood, to help me with the menu, and he revealed excitedly that he was named after a tribute to a Miyazawa novel—that’s how brightly the writer’s star continues to shine, almost a century after his death.
The stories have a timeless quality and a resemblance to fairy tales or children’s literature. Animals talk. Mushrooms play music (“tiddley tum-tum, tiddley tum-tum”). In one of my favorites, “The Earthgod and the Fox,” the title characters are both in love with “a single, beautiful, female birch tree.” The earth god is a better person, but the fox brings the tree poetry and art books and even promises her a telescope to look at the stars, and she secretly prefers him. The earth god suffers agonies of jealousy until the unexpectedly savage denouement, in which the fox, for all his airs, is revealed as a fraud. His den, vaunted to be full of books, “a microscope in one corner and the London Times lying over there, and a marble bust of Caesar here,” turns out to be “quite bare and dark, though the red clay of the floor had been trodden down hard and neat.” The pocket of his fancy suit contains “two brown burrs, the kind foxes comb their fur with.”
There are many layers to peel back from this story, but on the top level, I can’t think of a better demonstration of the difference between what we think others have when we’re envious and what they actually have.
In another favorite, “Gorsch the Cellist,” a man plays the cello “at the moving picture theater in town.” He has a reputation for being “none too good,” in fact, worse than all the other players, and he is constantly bullied because of it. He has a “great, ugly” cello and lives alone picking grubs off his tomatoes and cabbages in his spare time. Every night, he grumpily “scrub[s] away” practicing his cello. This is often how my own artistic attempts feel, including the preliminary grub picking. But one evening, a cat comes in and demands to hear Schumann. The next, a cuckoo asks to be taught a scale. The third evening, a badger cub pleads for lessons—you see, it plays the side drum, and its father said Mr. Gorsch was a nice man. Gorsch is not a nice man to any of these creatures. He torments the cat, cooperates only reluctantly with the cuckoo, and threatens to turn the badger into soup: “Badger soup, you see, is a badger just like you, boiled up with cabbage and salt for the likes of me to eat.” But grudgingly, he does help and even enjoys himself a little bit, and when he goes back to work, his playing has improved beyond all measure. As a commentary on how painfully and backwardly we improve at our work (or at least I do) and how rarely we recognize our teachers while they’re teaching us, the story is perfect.
The setting for all of this could seem naive, but it was not. The talking animals, human protagonists, and personified birch trees feel like folk elements that could come from any time in history, but that’s a carefully crafted illusion. The telescopes and copies of the London Times and smatterings of scientific concepts would make for strange folktales. The modern elements delineate Miyazawa’s Japan: recently opened to the West, increasingly educated, and slowly industrializing. Nature was still holding its own against man, and so were “traditional ways of life” against the modern, as the translator John Bester writes in the introduction to Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa. But the future was telegraph poles and electricity, and although Miyazawa treated that future with whimsy, he did so knowingly. The whimsy, perhaps, is a serious comment on how we ought to value such things. Remember that the fox claims to have a telescope and a copy of the London Times, but when all is revealed, he’s just a fox with a couple of burrs in his pocket and a “hard and neat” floor in his den. His virtues are not the highfalutin ones he dreamed of, and his pretensions impress the girls but ultimately get him in trouble. The same could be said of humanity’s march toward progress.
I don’t think Miyazawa found modernity to be of the utmost relevance, though. His concerns were religious and profound, and his practice consisted of breathing life into the sphere of our existence, creating a space whose boundaries were the stars and far-off London, as well as a crab’s-eye view of the bottom of a creek. Everything in Miyazawa’s work seethes with life. Each leaf, flower, blade of grass, and berry seems to have its own special action. Flowers bloom “with all their might,” grasses shine “like white fire,” and shadows “flutter, flutter” on their way to the earth. “Mackerel” clouds seem “almost to be reeling with all the moonlight they’d soaked up into their bellies.” It’s a Buddhist view of things, where all creation has equal value and man is just one protagonist. This animism is perhaps best expressed in the story “The First Deer Dance,” in which a group of deer is drawn by the scent of the chestnut-and-millet dumpling a young boy has left behind, but the animals are frightened to discover an unknown white item on the ground beside it: a towel. The deer think the towel is alive and want to understand what kind of creature it is. Their dialogue about this mystery captures the joy of a world where god is in everything. And once the matter of the towel is taken care of, this is how they eat the dumpling:
“Ah, now for the dumpling!”
“Ah, a boiled dumpling ’n all!”
“Ah, ’er be quite round!”
“Ah, yum yum!”
Again, Miyazawa is not all innocent. He is aware of cruelty, both the human kind and that of the natural world. But one senses the Buddhist detachment here, too, and an equivocation between the human predator and the animal. His villains are operating by the rules, just like everyone else. If the rule is that some people take advantage of others, that’s human nature, or nature nature—take your pick. But Miyazawa does, as in the dialogue above, celebrate the beauty and joy of existence again and again. And somehow the living freshness washes away the sin. Why cling to judgment when mountains and the stars are still breathing, when the water gives off its “phosphorescent glow”?
In this way, what start out as human tales end up as divine ones, and the reader travels from thinking about herself—her jealousy, her art, her feelings about nature and politics and industrialization—to thinking about god.
For the modern Western reader, it’s all very unfamiliar. It was this sense of distance between myself and Miyazawa’s world, as well as between myself and the traditions of Japanese cuisine, that inspired me to invite in a guest chef when cooking from his work. This summer, in the brief bubble of time when such things were possible, I’d seen a concert by the jazz pianist Tetsuro Hoshii and heard that he was also an accomplished cook. As I discovered, Hoshii, whose father is from northern Japan, has a family connection to Miyazawa. I gave him a long list of dishes and ingredients from Miyazawa’s stories, including the chestnut-and-millet dumpling from “The First Deer Dance” and a snack of “slices of salted salmon with chopped cuttlefish” eaten by the hunter in “The Bears of Nametoko.” Hoshii enlisted his father to track down the specific dish references in the original Japanese editions of the stories and came up with suggestions for how we might make versions that would be true to the spirit of northern Japanese countryside cooking while making use of the ingredients accessible to us in New York. For the “chopped cuttlefish,” he suggested a preparation of squid and daikon, since cuttlefish is unavailable, and for the badger stew, from “Gorsch the Cellist,” a preparation of lamb and vegetables cooked in a Japanese nabe pot, a rustic-style, lidded clay vessel that goes directly over the heat source. Hoshii explained that chestnut-and-millet dumplings are a dessert made with sweet rice flour, like mochi. We agreed to try those as well.
One of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine is simplicity. The squid dish, ika daikon, uses essentially two ingredients—squid and daikon—both cut into largish slabs and prepared in liquid immersions: cold water to wash the squid; boiling water to simmer the daikon for twenty minutes before shocking it and adding it to the final cooking liquid. The nabe-pot dish is also extremely simple and based on liquid immersion: you make a soup base by soaking dried kombu (kelp) in cold water for an hour, cut up the vegetables and meat (with some additional soaking), bring the cooking liquid to a boil, and then add the ingredients in a specific order. The only additional flavorings are soy sauce and ginger.
The results of this slow-paced, deliberate cooking were delicious and had the depth, clarity, and subtlety of flavor I associate with Japanese fine dining. I was again reminded of just how much “simple” food relies on technique. (When you have only a few ingredients, the creation of flavor is all technique.) Hoshii showed me how to dry-clean a burdock root with tinfoil—“you don’t want to disturb the skin”—before shaving it off with a knife directly into a bowl of cold water, where you soak it for twenty minutes before adding it to the stock. He also made a tinfoil “simmer lid” for the ika daikon, which he claimed was the best way to regulate the bubbles. Small touches like cutting the ginger for the ika daikon garnish in half-matchsticks versus grating it for the nabe pot made delicate differences in flavor. There was also the judgment and intuition factor on when to remove the kombu from the simmering liquid (when the flavor is strong enough but not too strong), how much soy sauce to add to the nabe pot (to taste, without measurements), and so on. The lazy cook might think, Couldn’t I just throw this all together and boil it? But I have tried that with a similar recipe and can attest that it doesn’t taste the same.
Another distinguishing feature of Japanese cuisine is an emphasis on presentation. Here, too, it was essential to have Hoshii’s eyes in the kitchen, showing me things I wouldn’t ordinarily see. I think of myself, in a vague way, as someone who tries to make her food look pretty. In practice, that means I occasionally stack things or add some garnish or present the “best side” after I’ve slopped something on a plate. Hoshii’s techniques were a new level. He arranged everything he plated. For the ika daikon, he carefully chose how many slabs of daikon to put on the plate, then arranged the squid bodies next to them. To cook everything together and then parse out the ingredients for prettier service is something I’d never thought of. I plated the nabe-pot stew for the photographs for this piece, but after we’d taken the pictures, Hoshii served us some more for our lunch, laying beautiful stacks of meat and vegetables on one side of the bowl and letting broth fill the rest, another spin on the principle of separation. Even more sophisticated, for the ika daikon he reserved half the squid bodies to go in during the last five minutes of cooking time, which gave them a color different from those that had been stewed longer; this made the dish more visually interesting.
Considering how important looks are to the final product, Hoshii and I were a little disappointed in our dumplings—there’s only so much you can do with a ball of boiled dough. For this recipe, we wrapped a dough of cooked millet and sweet rice flour around a paste of mashed chestnuts. They were chewy and only mildly sweet. Once they had cooled and dried out some, they made sense as the kind of snack a child might carry on an errand.
The day on which we made the food was cold and sunny, without a cloud—mackerel or otherwise—in the sky. Outside my window, the man-made stretched from horizon to horizon—in one direction the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, in the other, across the water, the cranes on the Jersey shore. I could not imagine any of it coming to life, or talking or singing songs, and if it were to, I feared I wouldn’t like what it was saying. I did like the meal, though, and Hoshii’s generosity in helping me cook it. If Miyazawa’s spirit could be said to be anywhere in my world, it was in the steam rising off the nabe pot and the delicate flavors within.
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
a sheet of dried kombu
4 cups of water
a pound of squid
three-inch chunk of daikon
1/4 cup sake
1/4 cup mirin
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
ginger (for garnish)
scallion (for garnish)
Put the dried kombu and water together in a medium saucepan, and allow to soak until the kombu expands, which should take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.
Wash the squid thoroughly in salted water, drain, and cut the bodies into inch-and-a-half rings. Set aside.
Slice the daikon into four thick slices, and peel. Cut crosses into the center of each slice; this will help the flavors penetrate. Fill a separate saucepan with water, put the daikon in, and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, and cook until the daikon is soft when nudged with a chopstick, about twenty minutes. Drain, and blanch the daikon in cold water for three to five minutes.
To the saucepan with kombu and water, add the daikon, the sake, the mirin, the soy sauce, the brown sugar, half the squid bodies, and all of the tentacles. Bring to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer. Fashion a rough tinfoil “bowl” to put over the liquid in the pan, and use this as a “simmer lid.” Simmer for ten minutes, then remove the kombu. Simmer for twenty additional minutes, then add the rest of the squid bodies, and simmer for five minutes more.
To serve, scoop out the daikon slices and squid bodies and arrange artfully in a shallow bowl, topped with some of the liquid and garnished with small matchsticks of ginger and chopped scallion.
Nabe-Pot “Badger Stew”
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
For this recipe, you’ll need a gas range top and a Japanese-style nabe pot, a lidded clay vessel that sits directly on an open flame.
a piece of dried kombu
3 1/2 cups water
a lamb shoulder chop (about 1/2 lb)
a gobo (burdock root)
daikon (about three inches)
half a bundle of enoki mushrooms
an eighth of a head of Napa cabbage
soy sauce (to taste)
3 tbs grated ginger
Place a sheet of dried kombu in four cups of water inside the nabe pot, and let it sit until it expands, which should take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.
Remove the fat from the lamb, and slice into strips as thinly as possible. Season liberally with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Clean the gobo (burdock root) by crunching up a sheet of tinfoil, wrapping it around the root, and using it to scrub. You do not want to peel the root, or get it wet, since the skin is important for the flavor. When the root is clean, shave slices off of it into a bowl of cold water, making about a cup and a half total.
Peel the daikon, slice it about a third of an inch thick, and cut into quarters.
Separate the enoki mushrooms, and cut them in half.
Roughly chop the cabbage.
Cut the leek in half vertically along the stem and then in half again, separating the green from the white. Wash in several changes of cold water until you find no more sand in the bottom of the bowl. Drain. Separate out most of the green part and reserve it for another purpose. Chop the remaining green part in smaller pieces, about a third of an inch thick, and the white part in large inch-size chunks.
Put the nabe pot on the heat source, and bring to a boil. Remove the kombu. Add the gobo and daikon. Add the rest of the ingredients in the following order, allowing each to simmer for a few minutes between additions: mushrooms, leek, lamb, cabbage, a little soy sauce to taste, ginger. Close the lid, and simmer for five minutes undisturbed. Bring the pot to the table (placing on a trivet or other heatproof surface), and lift the lid just before service, when an appetizing cloud of steam will billow out. To serve, ladle some of the stew attractively into one side of the bowl, and then add a ladle of liquid on top.
Recipe courtesy of Tetsuro Hoshii.
1/2 lb chestnuts, steamed and peeled
1 tbs butter
1 tbs plus 3 tbs brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup millet
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup water, divided
3/4 cup plus 2 tbs sweet rice flour
powdered sugar (to garnish)
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the milk, a tablespoon of brown sugar, and the cleaned chestnuts, and mash and simmer until they form a paste. Remove, let cool slightly, and then blend or use a food processor until smooth, adding water as necessary.
Put three quarters of a cup of water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add the millet, turn down to a simmer, and cook until the millet is very mushy and the liquid is absorbed. Mash to form a paste.
Combine the millet, the sweet rice flour, a quarter cup of water, and three tablespoons of brown sugar in a flat dish, like a pie plate, and mash with your hands until combined. Form a rough square or rectangle, and divide into sixteen equal pieces. The dough should be smooth and only very slightly sticky.
Roll each portion of dough into a ball, pinch out into a circle, and add a teaspoon of chestnut puree each. Fold the dough wrappers over the paste, pinching shut carefully so that no paste shows through, and again roll the dough into a ball using your hands.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the dumplings carefully so they don’t touch one another. When they float to the top, they’re done. Drain, and leave to sit uncovered, not touching one another, until they’re cool and dry. Serve dusted with powdered sugar.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.