It all started with the miso soup.
It was spring break. I was bored of my mother’s latest Western-style vegan meals.
My mother is a complete nutrition geek, and every so often my father and I find a sudden, apparently random change in diet inflicted on us. This has, in the past, included macrobiotics, which didn’t last; juicing everything in sight, which lasted longer than any of us would care to admit; locally farmed grass-fed meat and dairy, which was delicious; no wheat products, which was torture; and many similar fads. Along with this comes endless pseudo-scientific chatter about food, food, and nothing but food. After a few months, invariably she finds that new research has emerged and pronounces us in mortal error, while my father and I think to ourselves “Who’s we, white man?”
I was not opposed to veganism as such, but it was a little disheartening that first Saturday to come home from an exhausting day of paintballing to see raw broccoli salad and beans on the table. Sunday and Monday brought forth equally disappointing cuisine, and by Tuesday I had a raging desire for Japanese food, no money (paintball had taken care of that), and a determination to do something about all this foolishness.
My mother was waving a cookbook filled with anemic mock-Indian recipes beneath my nose, imploring me to choose one and betake myself to the grocery store posthaste. I selected one at random, as an excuse to be dismissed, and bolted for the silver Honda mini-van that is my soccer-mom-ish chariot.
I didn’t go to the Giant.
About three miles from my house is El Grande Supermercado, which, despite its name, is the best Asian grocery store within a hungry-college-student-in-a-rush travel radius. If I had really been in quest of Indian food, I would have gone another couple of miles to the Middle Eastern neighbourhoods, where you can find Lebanese, Saudi, Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian stores all crammed in next to each other with no concern for Arab League politics or the nuclear question. I shall address all of these marvelous places in due time.
I wasn’t really in quest of Indian food. A brief foray into the hot sauce aisle and I found the sambal oelek my mother required. Then I was free.
I knew very little of Japanese cooking, but I was sure miso soup was well within my abilities, and, moreover, I knew what was in it. Miso and tofu were easily found; we already had spring onions and mushrooms at home.
I pulled up short at konbu and katsuobushi. I at least knew that konbu was some kind of kelp, and thus to be found in the sea vegetable aisle along with all the sushi nori and things like that. I had no idea what it looked like. Katsuobushi was nothing but a mysterious foreign word.
I don’t read Japanese.
A fellow customer, amused at the confused, struggling white girl staring helplessly at the seaweed, came to my rescue. Katsuobushi proved to come in a plastic bag and resemble nothing so much as wood shavings from a plane. Apparently it’s tuna, dried whole and then shaved off in flakes.
I grabbed a red bean mochi from the refrigerator section and resigned myself to being stared at by the checkout person. I have found since that if you’re a white person buying white person stuff, you attract no attention at all. A white person with a cart full of East Asian groceries is in for surprised faces and silent diagnoses of ‘hopeless otaku’ from every side. I don’t mind one bit.
When I got home my mother felt the need to inform me at length that a) tuna isn’t vegan and b) miso has a lot of sodium. I stuck out my tongue, because secretly I’m a twelve-year-old boy, and ten minutes later was cheerfully slurping down a vast bowl of miso soup.
There was no turning back.