Heirloom Sushi by Patti Kameya
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
In this thoughtfully written creative non-fiction piece, Patti Kameya writes about reconnecting with her roots through the food that her family has prepared for generations, reminding us that there is power in the remembrance of these culinary traditions and that what we are told is "authentic" may only speak to the marketing and not to the deep cultural and personal roots of the food.
Patti Kameya was born in Newport Beach before it became “the OC.” She forages wild plants and treats historical amnesia in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Dakota homeland. Her writing appears in This Was 2020 by the Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project (2021) and The Saint Paul Almanac (2019). She recently performed in the Funny Asian Women Kollective Super Show. Find her other work at https://pattikameya.com.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Writing Prompt: In Patti Kameya's piece, a big theme is remembrance and return. Think of a moment in your life where remembrance returned you to a place of clarity. Write a piece in your preferred genre, that starts at the forgetting/leaving and ends with the remembrance/return. Your piece does not have to center around food.
By Patti Kameya
I rarely eat sushi when I go out, even at Japanese restaurants. In the United States sushi always means raw fish, a status symbol only casually acquainted with Japanese food. I often feel suspicious about conspicuously trendy sushi joints. Entryways with textured stone sliver mosaics, opening to high ceilings and pulsing music engineered to attract those-in-the-know. Such places mask their under-seasoned or overcooked rice with flashy sherbet-hued soy paper. They might toss in avocados, squirt mayonnaise and Sriracha sauce, crackle tempura batter bits on top. Their crisp lime-green menus may sparkle with Japanese authenticity, but when the rice and vinegar seasoning fall flat, I cannot call it sushi.
When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, sushi was for special occasions. Our sushi usually meant makizushi, sushi rolled with fillings that took hours of cutting, pickling, and boiling ahead of time. We could not buy sushi ready-made, except in Japanese American neighborhoods hundreds, even thousands of miles away from us. So we made it at home, even though I wouldn’t eat it. The rice alone took a mighty effort to obtain. Supermarkets in our semi-rural Massachusetts town did not stock our US-grown Kokuho rice, so every few months we drove deep into the heart of Cambridge to buy huge bags at Joyce Chen’s. A fat cheerful Budai figure greeted us at the door, promising every East Asian product we might need and more—foods with names like “thousand-year-old eggs,” imported dishes and giftware guarded by small warnings in simplified Gothic script: “So lovely to see, so lovely to hold…but if you break it, consider it sold!” The noisy cash register area displayed Japanese sweets like Milky, Pocky, and Botan rice candy with a cellophane-like inner wrapper that melts in your mouth. And then there was our rice.
Like many Japanese Americans of their generation, my parents prepared rice in one-button rice cookers and served it at almost every meal. As a kid, I often poured gravy or furikake over plain white rice to make it more savory. On the other hand, I thought sushi rice had too much flavor. I hated the vinegar, a sensory overload of salt, sour, and candy-sweet. This chaotic flavor clash made sense to me only after many years.
When it was just the four of us, we did not bother to prepare the vinegar and all the fixings. But without fail Mom made sushi when Hawaii-born friends from towns near and far came over for New Year’s Eve. The cut sushi pieces looked too pretty to eat. Elegant dark nori edged around snow-white rice, which embraced blots of yellow and brown, and red and green jewel tones. Mom also occasionally made inarizushi by stuffing cold oily fried tofu pouches with sushi rice mixed with sesame seed, pickled carrot, and simmered mushroom. Like makizushi, the tofu pouches assaulted our tongues with sour, sweet, and salty all at once so my sister and I avoided it. The sushi gave off a distinctive scent: a mysterious whiff of dried and pickled foods from the Asian market, moistened and released by ancestral knowledge guiding our hands as we prepared it. Arrayed on Mom’s vintage Chinese-style brick and cobalt platters, it made a banquet alongside the New Year’s foods that we liked better—tempura, wontons, and rainbow-layered Jell-O.
Sitting at the long kids’ table, I used to pick apart the sushi. It’s no wonder I hated the fillings separately. The mushrooms and calabash gourd strips turned deep caramel in their sugar and soy sauce bath, and resembled rubbery worms eating stray grains of rice on my paper plate. The scrambled egg was sweeter and creamier than the eggs we had for weekend breakfast. Green and red powdered shrimp tinted some of the rice to glow unnaturally like sugar on Christmas cookies, except with a fishy smell. I only liked the canned tuna, which Mom mixed with soy sauce and rolled in along with everything else.
In my childhood I did not like sushi, but I loved how we gathered around it every New Year’s Eve, evenings when Mom and Dad adopted lilting Hawaiian pidgin tones. We kids exchanged notes on tiny red Hello Kitty stationery with toothpick-sized pencils purchased far away at Gift Gate near Faneuil Hall. We eagerly dug into the dried cuttlefish, arare rice crackers, and crispy sweet honey balls, treats that my best friend spit out into the sink at our nearly-completely-white elementary school. No one batted an eye if my sister and I wore muumuus handed down from our California cousins. When new Japanese American families joined the group, no one struggled awkwardly with names. In retrospect, our sushi helped create a space of safety for us in our colonial New England town. A space where no one felt alarmed at more Japanese cars cruising the streets. Where we knew we were not Communists, and that neither Don Ho nor Hawaii Five-O defined us.
Shoe-free parties. Family feeling. That was and remains our sushi. I did not know that some people rolled sashimi into sushi until I was older.
Our sushi is all about the rice, followed by eggs, mushroom, and gourd. They make an empty belly feel full, and provide the flavor platform on which the other fillings rest. As the vinegar in the rice clears your palate, the gourd and the mushroom shock you with the intense salty depth of soy sauce, which foodies now call umami. But sugar harmonizes all of these ingredients, and grounds anything else from the buffet table.
Dried gourd often appears as kampyō in authentic sushi restaurants. It refers to long ribbons sheared off head-sized calabashes, and dried outdoors into a gummy cord. Its slightly fibrous texture resists your teeth like seaweed, except kampyō has no taste of its own. It soaks up the sugar and soy sauce, the foundational flavors of Japanese food.
Indeed, kampyō reaches the heart of Japanese culture. In the classic The Tale of Genji, the gourd plant appears as a humble flower called “evening faces” that adds unexpected beauty to a run-down neighborhood. You may not impress your date if you order it, but chefs who keep it on the menu understand and cherish Japanese cuisine. Although gourd originated elsewhere in Asia, Japanese may be the only people who eat it. Recently I scoured local Asian grocery stores with the term carefully copied out in Chinese and Korean. When I finally found a place that carried it, the storekeeper shot me a satisfied smile that declared, “A-ha! I thought you looked Japanese.”
Long ago, Basan chided Mom for not assembling the makizushi properly. It might have been New Year’s Eve, when Mom and Dad took a trip back to their hometown in Hawaii as newlyweds in their early 20s. Mom and Basan rolled the sushi together in the sea-green entertainment area, a former patio sunlit by creaky jalousie windows. A koi pond bubbled in from outside, and a caged myna bird sang out, “Kameya! Kameya!” Mom spoke in the polite idioms of her childhood Japanese school, but Basan probably nudged Mom’s pale college-educated hands aside in Uchinaaguchi, “You must start with the gourd.”
Mom felt the force of her grandmother-in-law’s words, but she might not have understood the power behind her hands. Basan’s hands bore geometric tattoos, perhaps coins on the back of her hands and small rectangles on her knuckles. In my memory the faded tattoos hid behind sunspots collected from years working outside. By Okinawan custom she got those ink-black tattoos as a young girl, so that Japanese colonizers wouldn’t abduct her. Japanese law would have taken her husband as a Japanese Imperial Army conscript, so they left one empire for another.
Basan’s tattooed hands labored for decades to keep her family fed and together. They stripped dried sugarcane stalks on Hawaiian plantations before the war. After the war, they sent clothing and other supplies to relatives in US-occupied Okinawa. And then Basan’s tattooed hands kept order when my father and the other grandchildren did warusa around the house. We do not know if Basan learned to roll makizushi as a bride in freshly-annexed Okinawa or as a laborer in freshly-annexed Hawaii. To this day, Mom places the gourd strip first on the bed of sushi rice and tells my sister and me to do the same. The kampyō binds us to her and Basan, and her life-saving darkened hands.
Basan and the other plantation hands used dried imported shiitake since they lacked both the capital and the proper climate to grow it themselves. I grew up with dried shiitake and never saw it sold fresh until I lived in Japan as an adult. Now in the US shiitake appear everywhere—skewers, sliders, Midwestern farmers markets. Eat shiitake however you like, but pronounce the word with respect. Say shiitake with distinct vowels, like in Spanish class. Don’t let those white foodies convince you that it rhymes with “hockey.” When shiitake shrinks and shrivels, it reclaims the scent of old-growth forests deep in East Asia. The shiitake caps are revived to their slippery glory in hot water, releasing a woodsy broth that wraps the sugar, soy sauce, and kampyō as they cook together.
Against the chewy bite of soy sauce in the mushrooms and gourd, the scrambled egg adds a fluffy, slightly fatty heartiness, with a hint of table sugar. It provides the main protein in my sushi these days. My ancestors could not afford sashimi-grade fish, even though they spent their lives on islands. Only rarely did my parents buy a compact slab of sashimi-grade tuna, and it never went in sushi. Mom sliced it thinly with her special knife inscribed in Japanese on the handle, and reverently garnished it with wasabi and daikon. Dad usually ate most of it, savoring it before the 48 hour mark where it would go bad.
For generations my family used canned tuna, a gift of mainland US military culture, along with SPAM and Vienna sausage. When my grandparents were young, canned tuna was cheap, kept well, and could be stretched over many meals. Now, it’s a phantom ingredient as tuna cans shrink ever smaller to stave off the global collapse of fish stocks, and as bloated plastic continents replace the fish. Sometimes I use dried bonito flakes with soy sauce, but I’d rather leave the fish alone and let the oceans heal. I don’t buy the colored powdered shrimp Mom used. For the familiar splash of green I use cucumbers or blanched spinach, and red pickled ginger adds a kicky spot of red. The kaleidoscope of green and red pushing against the brown and yellow kindles in me the wonder of childhood.
I took my first trip to Japan for my junior year abroad in college, and there would be no more excuses. The orientation director told us, you must eat everything that your homestay family serves, and thank them for it. And so I ate everything I shunned as a child, and more. I drank bitter green tea. I ate sweet miso dressing over my raw and cooked salads. And so my palate became acclimated to sweetened soy sauce shuffled into daily meals. I dipped cold buckwheat noodles in fish broth tempered with soy sauce and sweet mirin. I drizzled another soy sauce-based condiment over fried pork cutlet at the school cafeteria. Same foundation for oden, daikon and hard-boiled egg stewed on a skewer. Almost always alongside plain white rice and pickles: eggplant, cucumber, mustard greens, and so on, steeped in varieties of vinegar, miso, salt, and dyed into an unfamiliar rainbow with shiso and other herbs. I finished every bite.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened. It could have been one morning I helped my homestay mother roll sushi for a neighborhood party. Perhaps I was at a school function, or at a fellowship lunch after Sunday church service. But one day over the course of that year I stood before a buffet table and without hesitation I helped myself to makizushi not unlike what I hated as a child. I took my place on the floor, listening to stories next to a sunny window overlooking the street. I nibbled hungrily, sipping on a steel can of oolong tea and felt nourished.
Nourishment. In the context of all of the other foods. I tasted the soy sauce and sugar in which burdock root was simmered, punctuated with sesame oil and hot pepper. The beef-wrapped asparagus spears, too, were basted in sweetened soy sauce zapped with ginger and garlic. Alongside these, the sushi provided a concentrated bite, a bridge to all the other flavors. Any morsel on my plate could have stuffed the makizushi. They were clearly family to one another. The calmly insistent bitterness of my steel-can oolong tea seemed to smooth together the other flavors—it almost tasted sweet.
In one of the “family restaurants” popular in Japan since the 1970s, you can order heaped portions of spaghetti with marinara sauce, or rice with Japanese-style curry. But makizushi resists heaping, and it even resists portions. Each bite contains a small symphony celebrating the work of many hands. Even if one pair of hands cooked the rice, chopped all the ingredients, simmered them, rolled them tightly together, it is impossible for one set of hands to cultivate nori, harvest the rice, collect the eggs, gather the mushrooms, grow the spinach, shave the gourd. Even with the aid of modern farm machinery, the rice alone is a group effort. Each makizushi gem collects the labor of a community, however unaware or far-flung that community may be.
Our sushi is about the rice. But I can’t give out that recipe.
Our recipe comes from Ukulele Grandma, our quiet yet feisty maternal grandmother who stole Burger King ashtrays and snickered at people who ogled naked figures at the art museum. With her basic education she couldn’t read music, but she could pick out a tune on any instrument. Her talents far exceeded what the world wanted to offer her. She once sent us a handwritten recipe card prefaced with firmly scrawled instructions, “No give nobody.” It joined several other cards in Mom’s recipe file, each transcribed for “nobody” relatives. These recipes were improvised in camp house kitchens from missionary staples, refined in shrinking Buddhist churches, sustained in mom-and-pop shops tucked away in yellowing strip malls, ever threatened by mainland retail behemoths that devour market share of Hawaiian favorites from poi to li hing mui. By and by, our sushi may survive only in our homes.
When my parents downsized their dwelling, I ended up with a dozen or so Hawaiian Buddhist church cookbooks. They look like church cookbooks from anywhere else in the US. Optimistic mid-century sans serif typeface, printed on canary yellow and office-issue green, pink, and blue. Bound with plastic multi-ring spines still intact after several cross-country moves. In those hand-annotated and shoyu-stained pages I found a recipe that comes really close to “no give nobody.” It makes enough sushi vinegar for a full standard rice cooker, about five traditional Japanese cups (1 gō = 180 cc) of rice.
It might look like too little liquid, too much sugar, and far too much salt. But it all dissolves into a neat polish of sour, sweet, and salt to complement the white short-grain rice. When I heat it the vinegar vapor attacks my nose and eyes, but this is no time to hide—time to commit to making real sushi. You must add sushi vinegar to the rice until the sour, sweet, and salt collide noisily on your tongue. That seasoned rice must shake your mouth awake, “I am here. Where’s the party?” Most supermarket sushi does not make the cut.
It’s been years, but my hands remember the motions I’ve learned watching Mom, middle-aged Japanese housewives, and non-Japanese friends who have also lived in Japan. I feel their eyes back on me as I let the freshly-cooked rice tumble into a wide shallow wooden tub and ladle the vinegar over it in a widening spiral. The paddle slices through the rice in parallel strokes and turns some rice over. Slice again, turn again. Add vinegar until it speaks clearly, and the rice grains glisten like candy, gliding around the bottom of the tub. Turn and slice. I follow the motions of Japanese people current and cremated, lettered and lyrical, mountain and seashore, authentic and improvised. Turn and slice. I spread the nori on a bamboo mat and quickly coat it with rice, leaving bare the edges that come together in the roll. I position the gourd strip across the rice, then the mushrooms and egg. Spinach, red ginger. Today I have minced pork loin seasoned with salt, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and purple dried shiso. Not too much. Pressing my fingers firmly into the fillings, I curl the bamboo mat under and bear down with my weight as I roll as tightly as I can. The moisture from the hot rice seals the nori together. The first roll is usually too soggy, but by the time I get to the end of the batch they look all right. Basan and Ukulele Grandma may laugh at me, but a stack of makizushi means that others will soon join us to eat.
Sushi is all about the rice. Not about fish, either raw or canned.
Ten or so years ago I centered my poor man’s sushi on a New Year’s Eve potluck table, alongside bowls of tabbouleh, Caesar salad, pans of lasagna, Swedish meatballs, and hot wings. I stacked it carefully on a thick paper plate three or four rolls high, with the cucumber, red ginger, and yellow egg greeting the eye festively. Other than the plate, it was just like how Mom used to serve it. I looked forward to sharing family stories about the sushi too.
Just then another couple arrived bearing a majestic platter of makizushi gleaming with raw tuna and salmon. They beamed proudly, “We love sushi, so we had fish flown in fresh from San Diego!” A mound of wasabi and garlands of carrot and daikon curlicues floated on the edges, just like what you might see at a hotel reception, borne aloft by white-coated servers, consumed under dimming chandeliers and an unobtrusive soundtrack. Most guests seemed to believe that the other guys brought in the real sushi. Another piece vanished every time someone reached the food table. Before long the platter stood empty. Sure, it was good, as defined by those-in-the-know: the freshest fish, expertly rolled with each rice grain neatly in place. The rice seasoning seemed like an afterthought, not a full partner to the premium-grade fish. It lacked the creativity, the contrasting flavors coaxed from company store goods, stern warnings enforced by Basan’s hands. I tasted the conspicuous consumption to which my ancestors aspired, but not their struggle to get our family into privileged suburban spaces such as this. No traces of the culture we developed and preserved as we sought our own version of the American dream. It wasn’t our sushi.
Throughout the evening party guests nibbled on my humble sushi, but no one asked me about what was in it, those flavors that made it unmistakably Japanese. New Year’s Eve invites a wealth of other conversation topics, however. Bundled in a fluffy beaded holiday sweater, I picked up the latest about Sally’s new squeeze and who Selena knows on the committee, sipping imported Chardonnay, weaving through the eveningwear. Before they tuned in to Times Square, the one other Japanese American at the party took the last piece and approached me with a serious expression.
“This is what I remember. I like this better.”
Perhaps he caught me glancing anxiously at my little plate. The television snapped on, and I missed my chance to ask about his makizushi memories. Still, that kept me humming well into the New Year.
With their thickened hands and slender savings my laborer ancestors sliced, pickled, simmered, steamed, and rolled together our sushi. The aromas gave them a temporary passage home: seaside nori, forest mushrooms, sugar and shoyu with sharp sweetened vinegar. The polished white rice alone was a luxury never to be taken for granted, especially in wartime years. As they washed down their multicolored treasure with cheap sake, they felt slightly less poor. With simple ingredients they crafted a feast for kings. Those flavors became an heirloom gifted to “nobody” family members, cherished in Japanese American enclaves, discarded on children’s plates, whispered from Hawaiian church cookbooks in kitchen nooks from Maui to Massachusetts. As we gather around our heirloom sushi rice, ancestors join us to celebrate the survival of our community.
(Use for Sushi and Namasu)
Adapted from Favorite Island Cookery (Honolulu: Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 1973), p. 22.
5 oz. Japanese vinegar
1 ¼ c. sugar
3 T. + 1 t. salt
1 T. Ajinomoto (MSG. Skip it if you want.)
Boil the ingredients until the sugar dissolves. Pieces of ginger and dried shrimps may be added. Store in refrigerator. (It keeps for a month or so in a sealed jar.) Use as needed—warm mixture before using for sushi.