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Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Just a lighter shade of bland


Hello. My name is Tom Dillon and I'm a tofu-holic.

Yes, I fork down tofu by the saucerload. I slice it and dice it into salads and dump it wholesale into sukiyaki. I spear it up from the misty depths of my miso soup and snarf the deep-fried variety like candy. When I raid the fridge late at night and find a tofu tub quivering in fear behind jars of jam and wrappings of "chikuwa," I show no mercy.

But it hasn't always been like this. There was a time when I considered Japanese food -- and indeed much of Japanese life -- to be the epitome of bland. I didn't accept either right away.

I first encountered tofu back in my youth. In my sleepy Midwestern town, it came in thick supermarket packets that anybody could boot for 20 yards. Real footballs would fly farther, of course . . . and perhaps taste better, too.

Hence, most people avoided tofu, although weight watchers would sometimes give it a try in an effort to lose pounds and seem international at the same time. They stuffed it into lasagna in place of cheese -- which gave them an excuse to eat five helpings instead of three -- and gorged themselves while giggling at "Gilligan's Island" on TV.

Meanwhile, we kids pronounced it with a sharp nasal rise -- toh-FOO -- as if it were a lost martial art from China, one we didn't care to learn. The very thought of its real identity -- bean curd! -- made my stomach do back flips.

Yet by the time I arrived in Japan, my stomach had long outgrown such gymnastics. Living alone and being awkward in the kitchen, I developed a firm philosophy toward bachelor dining, a principle I called, "If it's food, I'll eat it." So I wolfed down large and repeated portions of everything Japanese.

But rarely did anything hit the spot. A plate of tofu and a bowl of rice? Accompanied by a cup of green tea? I didn't exactly slobber for this. Instead, I would bloop mountains of ketchup on my rice and plaster my tofu with ginger.

Once, at the house of foreign friends, I grabbed the meat sauce bottle and began to paint my white rice brown.

"Arrgh!" screamed my hostess. "Have you lost your mind?"

I put the bottle down and felt my head. "No. I think it's still there."

"Well, what you're doing is nuts. That's not the way to eat in Japan!"

I admitted that I had ruined some good sauce, and she then made me promise I would never commit such a culinary gaffe in her house again. So I agreed to eat future rice plain -- as long she would dump some sugar in my green tea.

"At least three lumps, please."

I later learned that many Japanese sip green tea mixed with rice. To me, this sounded like an old Dylan album: "Bland on Bland."

Yet, in my early months here -- circa 1976 -- it was not just Japanese food that I deemed as dull. Buses and trains of black-haired people all cloaked in dark suits and uniforms, streets with 80 percent of the vehicles painted white, apartment buildings stacked together like warehouse crates, and even a language that relied on set formal expressions -- at times I felt like the entire culture needed to be drowned in Heinz 57.

As for the more "colorful" aspects of Japanese tradition, I squinted with my young and discriminating American eyes and reasoned that if you'd visited one temple or shrine, you'd visited them all, if you'd viewed one samurai swashbuckler, you'd viewed them all, and so on. The entire nation sat like a block of pale tofu.

Yet somehow my ideas changed. Per most change, it did not occur with a bang. It came in subtle and delicate shades, very much like the layered culture of Japan itself. I can't tell for certain when it began.

"Sure, you can," says my wife. "It began when you met me."

Maybe. Maybe the blush of romance and the hint of commitment did encourage me to see Japan and not just look at it. Maybe, with no investment beyond my work contract, I would have soon returned to the States and, like so many other short-term visitors, have claimed to know all about this land without knowing anything at all.

At any rate, I stayed, and one of the things I soon saw was . . . tofu.

Which tastes best, I have found, when served chilled. On top of the tofu, scatter tiny O's of sliced green onion and add a fat dot of ginger. Splash this with one quick dash of soy sauce. Black, white, green and yellow shimmer on a saucer of light blue. This tofu cuts with the press of a chopstick and dances with flavors as it melts in the mouth.

"And it's healthy too," adds my wife.

In the States for visits, I have offered this delight to my U.S. family.

"Not the rubbery stuff you get here, but the real thing. C'mon. My wife can make it."

"No," declines some hesitant relative. "I'd rather have this." They then hack off a wedge of double-fudge chocolate cake with inch-thick frosting and slap this atop a paper plate. "How about you?"

I gulp. Chocolate vs. tofu? Is that even fair? But in the nick of time, my wiser addiction beckons.

"Nah, I'll have the tofu. . . . At least to start."

"Suit yourself." I hear them grinding sugar as they chew, and watch as they gurgle down swigs of diet soda. They wiggle deeper into their reclined La-Z-Boy and flick the TV to some sitcom. Canned laughter fills the room.

"But if you ask me," they say, "you guys in Japan don't know what's good."

Now -- after many years -- I can see that they're wrong.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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