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Home Kitchens: Cluttered with Convenience

by Elizabeth Andoh

Japanese home kitchens are rarely on view to guests, or even friends and relatives for that matter. No doubt, that's why Totsugeki! Tonari No Ban Gohan! ("Surprise attack! To the neighbors for dinner!) is such a popular TV show. Stressed-out salaried workers and harried housewives are able to peek shamelessly into their neighbors' kitchens, and lives, while they watch this Candid Camera-like program.

The host of the show, Yonesuke, barges into the Tanakas' or Suzukis' home at dinnertime, unannounced. The camera mercilessly sweeps past a giggling, startled housewife to expose a hallway strewn with children's toys and piles of laundry not yet sorted. In the kitchen, the camera captures what remains of a thick curried stew waiting to be zapped in the microwave. Next, the lens focuses on the dining table: a messy mix of traditional foods and modern leftovers: takuan pickles, miso soup and fried chicken from a local fast-food chain. A soft plastic tube of mayonnaise lies limp near a bowl of half-eaten shredded cabbage and cucumbers. Clearly, dinner in this urban household is served in shifts: elderly in-laws and young children eat early, older kids returning from juku (evening cram school) are fed later, while husbands having already eaten out (entertaining, or being entertained by, clients) are offered tea, perhaps poured over a bowl of cold rice to make ocha-zuke.

As the Totsugeki camera momentarily pulls back to survey the dining-kitchen area, we see a panorama of gadgets, appliances and tools piled on shelves, jammed into drawers, and hanging from hooks. Ironically, nearly half of this unsightly clutter is devoted to making food appear more attractive; the remainder is meant to make food preparation more convenient.

Despite the domestic disarray, or perhaps because of it, the Japanese savor beautifully arranged food. This enjoyment is cultivated from a very early age. Infants are treated to snowy rice porridge dotted with bright, confetti-like flecks of carrot, chopped spinach, and jet-black hijiki, a calcium-rich sea vegetable. Attractive tableware, designed for use by small, unskilled hands, encourages babies to enjoy mealtime. Young children take boxed obento lunches to school that have been elaborately styled by their mothers. These women vie with one another to create the cutest omusubi, shaping the stuffed rice "sandwiches" into cars, trains, rabbits, and pandas. A dizzying array of implements assist these homemaker-cum-food artists in their lunch-making duties: rice molds and razor-sharp vegetable cutters help fashion food into decorative shapes; fancy foil cups and green plastic leaves help separate foods from one another; miniature screw-capped containers, shaped like animals and vegetables, enable mothers to pack soy sauce or salad dressing in their children's lunches. These devices, and a host of other nifty tools for making beautiful picnic lunches, are sold in department stores and neighborhood supermarkets. With the first warm days of spring, and the start of the new school year in April, many stores feature obento-making paraphernalia in their katei yohin (housewares) sections.

Browsing through the housewares section of any Japanese store, it's clear that convenience is valued along with culinary beauty. And, that word play, especially punning, is part of many marketing campaigns. Witness the raku da zo (literally, "truly convenient") series of bags for re-heating leftovers in the microwave: packages sport line drawings of cute camels (rakuda) and elephants (zo). With raku da zo agemono pakku bags, tempura or fried chicken can be made hot and crisp again. Similarly, raku da zo mushimono pakku bags prevent steamed and baked goods, such as croissants or Chinese pork buns, from getting soggy, tough, or dried out.

Deep-fried foods, such as crunchy ebi furai (breaded fried shrimp), are a favorite lunchbox item for many Japanese. Disposing of the cooking oil, though, can be a problem. Pouring oil down kitchen drains invites plumbing problems (and pollutes waterways); soaking it up with paper towels is messy, expensive and produces bulky waste that must be stored in cramped, urban kitchens between infrequent garbage pick-ups. No wonder, then, that katameru tenpuru, a pulp powder that solidifies hot oil, and suwaseru tenpuru, a sponge-like pulp block that soaks up cooled-off oil, won instant favor with Japanese consumers.

Among the many items that can be found dangling from hooks, tucked away in drawers, or laying on my own kitchen counter, is a fushigi kurosu: literally, a "wondrous cloth". Indeed, I've found this cloth to be true to its name, since it magically absorbs, and then repels, liquids. Rayon and polyester fibers are woven into a fuzzy-textured fabric that can mop up spills, then be rinsed free of stains in plain tap water. I use my wondrous cloth to wipe wet cutting boards and counter tops, too.

I have yet to receive a visit from the Totsugeki camera crew, though friends, and some relatives, do drop by my place unannounced. Peeking into my pantry, they find the "usual suspects" lurking there: a tub of turnips pickling in brine; softly wrinkled, pink and impossibly sour, umeboshi plums; soy-simmered tsukudani kombu, made from bits of kelp leftover from making dashi stock; calcium-rich, shirasu-boshi (minuscule snowy white, whole sardines) to sprinkle on late night ocha-zuke or morning porridge, and at least five varieties of fermented bean paste, from smooth, dark fudge-like Hatcho miso to chunky and pungent inaka mugi miso. When I offer my uninvited guests a cup of tea, I'll whip out a package of disposable ocha pakku bags to fill with freshly roasted hojicha tea leaves. Like most contemporary consumers in Japan, I want flavor, but I like convenience in my life, too!

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(First published in The Daily Yomiuri, April 5, 1997. Copyright (c) Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.) Published with permission.
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