Backlog Pt. 2

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When I posted this on Instagram, here’s some of the responses I got:

“Why did you post this?”

“Out of all the things you’ve made, of course you chose to Insta this one.”

“That looks gross.”

“Ew, is that Spam?”

I present to you the sweet yet salty, kind-of-disgusting-if-you-think-about-it-too-hard, absolutely delicious delicacy known as spam musubi. This creation, deceptively minimal in design, requires its own special musubi molder. As we all know, any dish that requires special equipment must be exotic and/or gourmet.

I’ve always found it kind of funny that spam musubi originates from Hawaii. When I think of Hawaii, I imagine the beautiful beaches, the volcanos, the plantations of sugar and pineapple, the abundance of sea life. Enter spam musubi, a bastardization of sushi using canned meat. It combines two non-native, and yet pervasive aspects of Hawaiian culture: the large Japanese population, and the presence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The first Japanese to arrive in the late 1800s were survivors of a shipwreck, and subsequent Japanese arrived as laborers on sugar cane and pineapple plantations.  Then in 1940, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego, CA, to Pearl Harbor, where they had an unfortunate run-in with the daring and desperate Imperial Japanese Navy. Though the day continues to “live in infamy,” the U.S. fleet remains garrisoned in Pearl Harbor.

Spam was created in 1937 and fed troops and civilians in the US and in war-ravaged Europe. And despite the war and internment and all the general animosity between Japan and US, Spam then caught on with Asian cultures, becoming popular in China, Japan, and South Korea as a cheap accompaniment to rice. And somewhere along the way, some insane, brilliant person decided to take one of the fanciest forms of Japanese cuisine and combine it with a food created expressly for people with tight budgets.

And so this unassuming, budget-friendly, exotic yet familiar snack actually represents a kind of beautiful conclusion to a story of mistrust and mistreatment, of war and reconciliation, and as an understated yet well-loved representation the alliance of security and friendship that has somehow arisen between two former adversaries. And to top it all off, it’s pretty darn tasty.

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Oyakodon

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When we were younger, my sister and I often had to, as my dad described it, “fend for ourselves” while my parents were at work. Back in those days, no one trusted me with anything stove-related, so my sister used to make us simple dinners. I affectionately remember these dishes as “spoon food,” saucy curries or simple scrambled eggs and tomatoes atop a bed of rice, perfect for eating with a spoon. Rather than mac n’cheese or pizza, spoon food was our family’s comfort food.

Oyakodon is the epitome of spoon food. I first experienced oyakodon at Porter Exchange, an enclave of Japanese restaurants underneath Lesley University. It was love at first sight, or rather, first bite. The meat was tender, the eggs half-cooked and runny, and there was an undertone of sweetness in the sauce, perfectly balancing the otherwise salty dish. It quickly became one of my favorite Japanese-style comfort foods.

In Japanese, oyakodon means “mother and child.” If you think about it literally, you’re eating the mother and her child, but the more socially acceptable spin is that the dish is a harmony between the chicken and the egg, an ode to the eternal question of which came first.

I also like to think that “mother and child” refers the tradition of a mother passing her culinary secrets onto her child. Some of my favorite dishes are the simple ones, like the roast chicken my mom used to make every year for my birthday, the sausage pasta sauce that my dad whips together on a busy weeknight, or the green curry my sister used to make. In my childhood, these dishes seemed like magic to me, and my parents the wizards who could control fire. Even now, these childhood comfort foods are special.

So as I head off into my last year of college, I (and basically every other young adult) am trying to figure out what I want to do, and who I want to be. It can be pretty scary stuff, but at least after all the jobhunting, the interviews, and hopefully settling into a new place in a new city, my oyakodon and all my other spoon foods will be there to warmly encourage me to face the next chapter of my life.

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Katsudon

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A year ago, I studied abroad in China, one of the best experiences of my life. While I was at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, I discovered the beauty of simple Japanese fare. (Which is a euphemism for ‘I became slightly obsessed with it.’) Before going to China, I had associated Japanese food with sushi and teriyaki. Then I discovered Japanese curries. I still remember my order, tudou gali (土豆咖喱), a rich potato curry atop a fried potato cake with a bed of rice, served with miso soup. My friends and I went so often, I’m pretty sure we singlehandedly gave them enough revenue to get new fancy menus.

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Love this woman, love this place.

Oh ribenfanguan’r (日本饭馆儿), how I miss you. You carried me through many a torrential rainstorm, through midterms and finals and all the tests in between. I have never attempted the tudou gali because I prefer to just remember how wonderful it was. I still hold out hope that one day I will return and enjoy my potato curry again.

However, all the other curry dishes are fair game. Up today: katsudon. I absolutely loved zhupai jing (豬排丼) in China. Fried pork with a sweet yet savory sauce on a bed of rice…mmmmm. They also served it with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie) that is infinitely better than American mayonnaise.

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So crispy, so juicy, so delicious.

I also came to love how the Japanese cook their eggs, half-cooked and runny so that it sinks into the rice, flavoring the dish all the way to the bottom of the bowl.

I owe it to the ribenfanguan’r for showing me that Japanese food is so much more than just fancy arrangements of sushi rolls. Here’s my rendition of katsudon, combining some of my favorite aspects of Japanese comfort food: the sweet-salty sauce, the crunchy yet juicy pork, the half-cooked eggs. This recipe absolutely nails it.

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