Learning to Cook in Japan

My first Japanese cooking knowledge was gleaned from the public bath. Like many other gaijin, or foreigners, in Japan in the 1970’s, I did not have a bath in my small lodgings and I visited the sento (public bath) daily. It was always full of people, but the crowd changed depending on the time of day. They usually opened around 4:00 PM and closed around 11:00 PM. If you went early, you caught the grannies, and mothers with children. At that stage of the game I didn’t speak Japanese very well, but I was able to catch much of what I heard. So one day I asked a group of grannies how to make miso soup.

That brought about a flood of instructions and advice and they voiced opinions enthusiastically. In the public bath people talk freely and openly. There’s a word for that—”hadaka no tsukiai” which literally means hanging out together naked. It implies an open and down to the bone kind of communication as opposed to the more formal communication that you normally have in Japan, and especially in Kyoto. All inhibitions stripped away, perhaps. They told me both how to cook it and which kind their families preferred. Unfortunately I don’t remember any of the details. My main takeaway was that miso soup was different for everyone depending both on the ingredients and the type of miso paste(s) used.

Today’s miso soup: What a relief it was to wake up to cooler weather and lower humidity. I immediately thought of an autumnal miso soup. But that’s rushing it, right? So I leaned just a bit into autumn with a simple soup of carrots, shiitake and green onion as a garnish. The orange and brown does beckon to autumn, doesn’t it!

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