Discover Nikkei

Family Meals That Integrate Rather Than Segregate

While growing up within two different cultures left my siblings and me with bittersweet challenges, we have always had the sweet comforts of the family meal and a “welcoming” table that satisfied both our appetites and spirits.

Feasting on distinctive recipes passed down from my father’s Russian-Jewish family, and my mother’s exotic blend of Japanese-Hawaiian heritage, serves as a reminder that we are a family nourished by honoring our ethnicity and the diverse ingredients that make us whole.

My family, blessed with the piquancy of two cultures, serves meals that are both savory and resplendent. While we often felt excluded as an interracial family, we openly welcomed both cultures to the table and we relished each recipe.

As we look back we at our memories of exclusion, we recognize that through those difficult times we found an opportunity to grow. For instance, it always took a great deal of patience and time to feel accepted by our peers.

In Hawaii, they called us Haole, a derogatory word meaning “white” or “foreigner.” I can still hear the teasing words because I did not fit in with either the Caucasian or the Japanese kids.

In addition, in Los Angeles, I was the only child at my school with a Japanese mother and white father. Someone once told me that it was an impossibility to be both Japanese and Jewish. This was a revelation because I have since felt it my calling to prove I am the proud offspring of both cultures, and will continue to do so with integrity and honor.

Although there have been challenges, the result can be inspiring when ravishing meals and company have spiced the soul and quelled our hunger for acceptance. Dinners prepared by my elegant mother from the Kona Coast of Hawaii would please any guest, as she serves each entree and Pupu, Hawaiian for appetizer, in the traditional style.

This style calls for a relaxed atmosphere; “talking story” which means casual conversations, fresh flowers, and more “Ono” Hawaiian for “delicious” food than anyone can possibly eat. Festive dishes from both cultures fused together like a perfectly orchestrated sonata or tranquil island song with just the perfect pitch and mellifluous harmony.

A typical meal offers fresh Mahi Mahi, an overabundance of rice and vegetables, macaroni salad, homemade spaghetti, pork roast, moist teriyaki chicken, and apple pies with freshly picked ripened fruit.

Remembering the meals of my grandparents sparks vivid memories of cooking over large pots and iron skillets, with each culture adding spice to a life already peppered with richness and acceptance. The blending of recipes from each family, creatively seduced our taste buds with both flavor and warmth.

My mother has also passed on recipes of my Jewish grandfather whose captivating “Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew” is my father’s favorite and mine. In this way, we witness her acceptance of my father’s heritage to the table as well.

Today I am married into a Jewish family, bringing my father’s culture that much closer to home, and my table welcomes more delectable dishes as new relatives thoughtfully prepare meals I never had the chance to learn from my grandfather.

Passover brought a hearty chicken soup that ignited my spirit; Charoset, a dish of walnuts, cooked apples, cinnamon and wine; braised lamb with potatoes; Kugel, a blend of carrots, onions and noodles; marinated beef brisket peppered with parsley and lemon juice; and chocolate macaroons to satiate the sweet.

Conversations further bring diversity to a new level, with discussion that is inclusive rather than exclusive, reflective rather than reactive, and palatable for all.

Since we now have children of our own to nurture, we remember the significance of acceptance for not only their own diversity, but for all people whose color, religion, and ethnicity are different from their own.

However, my family’s welcoming spirit is only one story, with countless inspirational tales shared across many tables, bringing communities closer in a way that celebrates, rather than denigrates their uniqueness.

Through sharing meals that have celebrated rather than berated our differences, this made being an interracial family an experience that is triumphant rather than tragic. An invaluable lesson we learned through preparing food from both families was that it made us feel more welcome in a world that we often felt rejected us.

In turn, we will hopefully, pass the same valuable lessons on to our own children and theirs by encouraging the welcoming of all cultures to the table, no matter how diverse or foreign they seem at first.

After all, it is always a special treat to try new dishes.

* * *

Grandfather Booby’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew


1-quart water
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
I teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar

Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.

Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for 2 and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.

Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste.
The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.

Easy and Delicious Japanese Stew in the Crock Pot (Niku Jaga)


I cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
¼-cup sugar
1-teaspoon salt
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped

Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are yummy too!

Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot and cook on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 10-12.
Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.

* This article was originally posted at USA on May 19, 2010

© 2012 Francesca Biller

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About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

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About the Author

Francesca Biller is an award winning investigative journalist, political satirist, author, and social commentator for print, radio, and television. With a background of Japanese and Jewish, she writes about her interesting background in both an introspective and humorous way and her work has been been published for The Huffington Post, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and many other publications. Awards include The Edward R. Murrow award, two Golden Mike awards, and four Society of Professional Journalists awards for Excellence in Journalism. Biller is currently writing three books, the first a novel about the 442nd Infantry set in Hawaii, the second a compilation of humorous essays about growing up as a Japanese Jew in Los Angeles during the 1970s, and the third a Lifestyle book about how a diet of Hawaiian, Japanese, and Jewish food keeps her family healthy and happy. She is also currently on a national radio tour discussing her humorous take on politics, pop culture, and families.

Updated June 2012

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