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I depressed myself (and probably you) yesterday, writing some heavy, heavy stuff, so I’m going to lighten the mood by retelling a couple of Japanese stories that my parents used to tell me.
Every family has little tales and proverbs that are told and retold around the dinner table, and we were no exception. I’ll sift through them and discard the unrepeatable ones (my Dad’s) and the surreal ones (strange Japanese proverbs that made me scratch my head – like “Dumplings over flowers.” Which translated, apparently means, “Flowers may look pretty, as an offering, but dumplings are edible and filling, and therefore more useful.” OK? Hope that's clear.)
One Japanese fable I found particularly delightful as a child made me desperate to try eel, because it sounded so delicious. Here it is:
‘Once there was a poor woodcutter who lived in a tiny house next to an ‘Unagi’ (freshwater eel) shop. Every day, the woodcutter delighted in the delicious aroma of broiling eel that wafted on the breeze from the shop next door.
He could not afford to buy eel himself – he was too poor. But when he sat down with his supper – a small bowl of rice – and breathed in great gusts of savoury, smoky eel essence, he felt as if he were really feasting on the rich, oily fish, and was satisfied.
One day, the eel shopkeeper heard about his neighbour’s habit of eating his meagre dinner accompanied by the smell of eel, and he accosted him as he passed the shop.
“Oy! Woodcutter! I hear you eat your dinner whilst smelling my eels!” he challenged.
“Yes,” the woodcutter replied. “The smell of the eel as it cooks is truly delightful.”
“Hmph. Well, that’s not on!” grumbled the shopkeeper. “If you are benefitting from the cooking aromas, then you should pay for the privilege!”
The woodcutter looked surprised for a moment, but then a grin slowly spread over his face. He took a purse from his waist and emptied all the coins into his palm, while the shopkeeper looked on greedily.
“That’s more like it,” he said. “Hand it over then.”
“Oh no,” the woodcutter said gently, trickling the coins from hand to hand, making a musical tinkling sound. “If I may only benefit from the smell of your eels, then I will pay you with the sound of my money.”’
When I heard this story for the first time, it made my stomach rumble, and I was convinced that I would love eel. True enough - grilled freshwater eel, basted with a sweet soy sauce glaze, and served on steaming white rice is one of the most mouth-watering Japanese delicacies.
Another amusing tale is one about the peasants visiting their feudal lord. (I know. Sounds hilarious)
‘There once was a village, ruled by a strict but fair lord. The peasants who grew rice and cultivated the land worked very hard, and they were a close knit community.
One day, the workers received an invitation to dine with their lord, as a reward for their labours.
Although the peasants were honoured, they were most apprehensive about the visit. They had no idea how to behave, what to wear or how to talk to such an exalted man. In the days preceding the event, they talked about nothing else – bemoaning their nerves, fussing about their ragged clothes and wondering what they would be served at dinner.
One of the older members of the community took matters in hand and calmed the villagers down.
“Do not fuss so!” he said. “Observing the correct etiquette is not so hard. All you need to do is copy whatever the lord does. Bow when he bows. Drink when he drinks. Eat when he eats. If you follow that one rule, you will be fine.”
The villagers were grateful to receive his advice, and finally it was the night of the big event.
They entered the lord’s house, bowing humbly, utterly overawed by the splendid grandeur of his home. No one spoke much, preferring to sit politely and keep out of trouble.
When the meal was served, the villagers looked anxiously at each other.
“Remember to do as our lord does,” whispered one of the men.
When the lord picked up his sake cup, all the villagers dived to pick up their cups and drink, mirroring his every move. The lord looked quizzically at them.
When the lord picked up his chopsticks, the villagers also picked up theirs, all the while watching him carefully – eyes round with concentration.
“Oden!” exclaimed the lord, looking into his bowl. (Oden is a simmered stew of fishcakes and vegetables). “My favourite!”
“Oden!” chorused the villagers. “Our favourite!”
The lord went to pick up a round satoimo (potato-like root, called taro or eddoes), but – alas – it was slippery; it fell from his chopsticks and dropped to the floor.
Immediately the villagers picked up their eddoes, and threw them on the floor, until the room was awash with bouncing potatoes.’
My dad had a comical streak, and was pretty good at telling stories. I always laughed when he told that one.
To be fair, eddoes are INCREDIBLY hard to pick up with chopsticks – even for a chopstick ninja. When they are simmered for a long time, they become quite slimy. I know that sounds unappetising, but I find them very tasty. They have a dense, sticky texture that is filling and satisfying to eat. Japanese people love slimy, slippery textures – like natto, yam, okra, jelly and raw egg. I have found eddoes in Morrisons, and they often have them in Chinese supermarkets. I know they look like elderly horse droppings, but they are surprisingly good. You eat them like potatoes – peel off the hairy skin, and boil, roast or mash. Why not try them?
I dare you.