I am a novice student of the Tao and a long-time student of food traditions of the world. Trained first and foremost in my parents’ island kitchen, I learned early on that the soul of the family lies in its pots and pans.
My mother, Fumiko, was a reluctant cook, she learned to cook mostly from her husband, then her mother-in-law. But she learned recipes faithfully, and brought her love and attention to everything she made. She cooked to take care of people, and everyone among her family, friends, co-workers, and friends of her children found comfort and a listening ear around her table. Flore, my father, was the creative soul of the kitchen, introducing “exotic” dishes like Italian cacciatore and Spanish paella, to their Okinawan-Filipino household. He can still be found “riffing” on recipes with wild abandon (Emeril Lagasse is his role model) — gaily substituting and making additions to recipes, albeit some where they should not go (sorry, but Worcestershire sauce has no place is chicken adobo. Ever). What these two cooks synthesized in their kitchen together for 44 years was a messy, happy and deep love for food and family. This they have passed on to their children and their families.
As an heir to this tradition, I’ve found my journey with the Tao keeps wending its way through the kitchen – cooking first to comfort and nourish self, then to gather and feed friends, now to nurture and heal family and friends, old and new. To cultivate the Tao in myself has been to understand that my kitchen is both my mirror and my canvas — whether I’m feeling creative, adventurous, tired, obsessed, all these expressions find their way to my bowl and plate.
So how to combine a spiritual journey and a culinary quest? Tao in the kitchen? I think of it as the “Way of cooking.” My goal is to have fun with food and stay open to new food cultures. In this forum let’s cultivate a connection to what we eat and how we cook it. Let’s think of food not just as something to fill the belly, but to nourish the spirit, clear the body and heal the soul. Let’s make shopping for, preparing and enjoying meals simple and joyful exercises. Let’s learn about new foods, and think in different ways about foods we already love. This is what I propose to do and I welcome you to this shared journey!
I’d like to begin by sharing with you a dish that will always remind me of that first kitchen of my heart, my mom and dad’s. This dish may be wholly foreign to you, but it is the epitome of comfort food for my family. Warm and soupy, nutritious and familiar, it is the “chicken soup” for the Okinawan soul. My mother just called it Kombu, which is the Japanese name for the dried sea kelp that is the basis for this dish. In Okinawa, kombu features much more prominently in the local diet than in mainland Japan, and this particular preparation is unique to that island’s tastes. In the mainland, similar dishes called nishime or oden feature nearly identical ingredients, but the proportions of the ingredients are what make the distinction (for instance, oden has more kamaboko). And the Okinawan version is always cooked with lots of pork. Okinawans are notoriously dedicated pork eaters. I remember during childhood visits to Okinawa, having to squeeze myself into tiny doorways as massive 400-500lb. pigs were led down the narrow cobble streets of my grandmother’s village. Pork broth steaming from huge bowls of soba, laden with fish cake and pork ribs; succulent slices of double-cooked pork glazed with a hint of sweet soy….but I digress, more about these in future.
Sea kelp is a good source of calcium, iodine, magnesium, iron and folate, as well as glutamic acid — a rich source of natural umami; and it is the foundation of the famed Okinawan Diet for good health and longevity. A quick google of “kombu” will yield some references to its use to make dashi (a flavoring broth essential to Japanese cooking), and a few recipes where it may play a small part. In this Okinawan dish, however, Kombu is clearly the star.
Prepare the pork and broth
1.5-2lb whole pork belly or shoulder
1 small hand ginger, washed well and sliced in ½ inch slices
3 TBL whisky, sake, or awamori (Okinawan sake)
1 packet dashi no moto
2 tsp. mirin
1 tsp. sugar, prefereably demerara or light brown
Wash pork well and place in large (8qt or larger) pot with ginger. Cover meat with water and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and skim foam off top. Add liquor, then cover with lid and let simmer for 45 minutes. Remove meat and set aside. Discard ginger. Add dashi no moto, mirin and sugar to broth and keep at simmer.
2 strands of Hayani kombu, soaked in 6 qts water for at least 20 minutes (save soaking water)
1 piece konnyaku
1 small daikon (white radish), peeled and cut in 3 in. pieces
2 large carrots, peeled and cut on diagonal
4-6 pieces fresh or canned whole bamboo tips, cut into 3-in pieces
8 pieces dried shiitake mushroom, soaked in 4 cups water until completely rehydrated — about 1 hour
(save soaking water and strain) (fresh shiitake may be used, but dried is preferred for its intense flavor)
1 stick chikuwa kamaboko (fishcake), sliced on diagonal (optional)
1 large firm block of tofu, wrapped in towel and drained in fridge at least 1 hr., then cut in 2-in. cubes
2-3 tsp. Kikkoman soy sauce
Depending on type of kombu, may need longer soak – it should be pliable but not disintegrating. Remove kombu and save water, if you like. If rehydrated kombu is more than 6” across, cut lengthwise before proceeding. Start tying knots in kombu strand, leaving about 4” between each knot. Now cut evenly between knots.
Rinse well. Slice cross-wise into ½” slices — about 12 slices. Cut a lengthwise slit in the center of each slice, leaving ¾” uncut at top and bottom — you should be able to put a finger through the hole. Now the fun part — hold one slice in your left hand, and with your right, push the bottom of the slice through the slit and out. It will create a very attractive spiral pattern in the center. After you’re done admiring your handiwork, add to broth.
Add kombu, 1 cup saved kombu water, konnyaku, shiitake and shiitake water to broth. Simmer about 30 minutes. Add carrots, daikon, bamboo, kamaboko and tofu. Slice pork into 2” pieces and add to broth with soy sauce. Simmer another 20 minutes or until kombu is tender at the knotted middle (test the thickest part with fork — it should slide easily through).
Serve with rice, and Japanese hot mustard or wasabi, and soy sauce for dipping. Pickled vegetables, called tsukemono, are also lovely with this. Enjoy!