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Nikkei Chronicles #2—Nikkei+: Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race

Cross-Culture A La Carte

Daddy, she said shyly, I don’t feel like cooking this Sunday….

Of course, I answered. Would you like to eat at the cafeteria at Fort Sam?

Oh, I crave for something reallydee-licious, her qualifier for something she would truly enjoy.

Ok, I’ll look for something…we can afford.

“Craving for something dee-licious” was a sophisticated Japanese way to express the need for a little medetai.1 Now, I had to find a place where the four of us, my wife and our two little girls, could have a little enjoyment on what my salary as Master Sergeant could afford. And it’d better be soon; since the gentleness of the language expressed the urgency of the need.

Vayan a “La Flor de Jalisco”; está tan cerquita (“Go to the ‘Flower of Jalisco’; it’s so close…”), Mrs. Gonzalez recommended.

Mrs. Gonzales was our Spanish-speaking neighbor across the street, an abuelita2 about 82 years. We hadn’t been even a full week at our place when she came, loaded with goodies, to welcome us. So, I asked her about a good eatery not too far.

And there it was, just a few short blocks away from home—a small, clean, welcoming and well decorated place where for $1.20 cents per person, 80 cents per child, you could eat an entire meal—soup, salad, one large entree, fried rice, refried beans, and tortillas—seconds allowed...even dessert.3

I was delighted seeing how my wife and our two girls enjoyed their first ever Mexican meal.

Did you like the food? I teased.

Dee-licious, was her answer.In Japan, our beans are always sweet, and fried rice is Chinese style, but I never thought I could enjoy Mexican fried rice and refried beans so much.

I can show you how it’s done, I volunteered.

C’mon, Daddy… left alone in the kitchen, you’ll burn even water.

After two horrible winters in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the most socially dysfunctional place4 in America, our antebellum home in San Antonio appeared as a palace in a gigantic, sunny metropolis. Moreover, here was this lovely grandma, Mrs. Gonzales, ready to become Reiko’s personal “Welcome Wagon.” Pretty soon she started introducing my wife, first to her own family, and then to the rest of the neighbors as mi muñequita—my little doll. Next, abuelita decided that she had to teach Reiko how to cook Mexican.

El camino al corazón del marido es por la barriga (“The way to a husband’s heart is through his tummy”), she constantly preached. Por la tarde, después del quehacer ven a tomar café y yo te enseño a cocinar. Y trae tus muchachitas. Ni tu ni éllas se van a sentir solitas. (“Come every afternoon, after you finish your homework; we’ll have coffee and I’ll show how to cook. And bring your little girls; I’ll never let you and they get lonely.”)

How that uneven pair managed to understand each other, and bond so closely, still eludes me.

Soon our meals featured Reiko’s experiments with chilaquiles, enchiladas, quesadillas, ensalada de nopales, ejotes con huevo,5 and hand-made tortillas. However, her fried rice always turned to be a little mushy, which irritated her.

Nos pasa a todas cuando jóvenes; tiempo al tiempo (“It happens to all of us when young. Take your time.”), Mrs. Gonzalez would soothingly counsel.

One day I raised enough courage to ask:

Mama-chan, may I tell you how my Mom used to make fried rice?

Without waiting for her to answer, I raced on…

First, you fry the rice until golden brown; then add your tomato, onion, and garlic; cut down a little the usual amount of water; and don’t check it often to see if it’s done. When it is, add a sprig of cilantro, cover the pot; and let it rest for a while before serving. Gambaré!

She did not answer, which made me understand that I had said enough. The next time she served fried rice it was soft, granular, sweet smelling, and oh, so tasty!

Reiko-chan, I raved, you make the best fried rice this side of Mexico. Really!

The girls chimed in. Perhaps Mrs. Gonzales’ encouragement and her tender loving guidance were more effective than my unsolicited lecture.

In 1959, I left the Army, and we moved to New York where cooking Mexican was almost out of the question.

Tortillas? In Queens? Are you kidding, Ma’am?

One day, at the vegetable market my wife met a rather plump lady, Lolly, and began chatting with her. Soon, they started calling each other about shopping together…and then:

—Oh, Reiko, you should come visit me; New York is horrible without any friends. I’ll teach you where the best places to shop are…And be sure to bring the girls. I make very good cookies.

Lolly knew both Queens and Manhattan perfectly. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she had learned early in life that “the kitchen is a woman’s kingdom.” (Her words, not mine.) There she could do everything she wanted, except keep the cutlery aligned in the exact ways her compulsive husband wanted. There too, she shared with Reiko all her knowledge about the complex dishes her own parents had taught her, especially her incredible pasta. The friendship lasted only two years; we had to move to Southern California.

You’ll be in heaven in Los Angeles, I told my wife. You can get there every possible Japanese product you can dream of; and there are so many Japanese festivals going the entire year; and if you crave Mexican food, you’ll find there everything women have ever invented.

We got our “starter” home at La Puente, and enrolled our two girls at a parochial school, where 80% or more of the children were of Mexican descent. As a condition for accepting students, the school required both parents to contribute a certain number of volunteer hours, per school year. Because of my work schedule, Reiko assumed my responsibility, and ended with a double load. She would divide her service between the office and the kitchen.

The nuns, principal, and teachers, “fell in love” with her attention and competence in the office; however, she was always itching to join the kitchen crew, particularly as she learnt that the team leader, Jennie M., was a superb cook.

Soon our menu began including again enchiladas, tostadas, arroz con pollo, chile con carne, calabacitas con elote, chiles rellenos, and many other Mexican delicacies.

One day I returned to a home full of a strong odor, which although familiar, I just couldn’t identify.

We’re having menudo for dinner; she announced. You better like it because I’ve been at it since you left for work—Yes, I learned it from Jennie; I tasted hers and liked it. But I can do better.

—Menudo? For heavens’ sakes; that’s slave work!

—Don’t worry; I am not too tired. It came out dee-licious.

Another time, she complained that the canned refried beans from the market were dry and insipid, so she determined to refry the refried beans in bacon’s rendering, and to add pieces of the meat for better flavor—until someone told her that was the best way to become a plump señora. She changed her recipe immediately. Now she began adding a bit of whole milk, generous slices of mozzarella cheese, and fresh garlic to increase flavor, texture, and nutrition.

—Daddy, she said one day. I’m going to make tamales for New Year’s at our family reunions.

—Chotto matte, I fidgeted. Did I hear…tamales?

—I’ll try.

—You know how hard it is to make them at home…from scratch?

—I’ll try.

And she did. But, always a perfectionist, she wasn’t satisfied with her first batch of five-dozen.

—Something is missing…they aren’t as delicious as Mrs. Morales’; they are too heavy.

—May I tell you a secret? I ventured.

—Sure… sure…Your Mom’s?

Oh, no, she never made tamales. But it’s so simple. I learnt many years ago by overhearing our house maids’ kitchen lore. You beat the masa by hand, over and over and over to help it get as much air as you can. And to make the masa even fluffier, you add a few ounces of rice flour and a pinch of baking powder. But I would also give the masa a few twirls in the mixer before adding the meat and spices.

No comment again. But soon everybody began raving about her tamales, and so the number of dozens to be prepared increased yearly. By 2010, she was spending at least 3 weeks to complete the TWENTY dozen with which she regaled friends and relatives.

Her tamales became the star dish at our extended family’s New Year’s osechi ryori.6

After our grandson Edward left our household to go live with his parents, Reiko-san devoted all her cooking experience to serve in the ESGVJC Center’s7 luncheons for the Leisure Club seniors, hence our home fare became more Japanese-oriented.

However, she still managed to include a few surprises for viarity, her word for variety.8 As we enjoyed them, we would reminisce about the good—and not so good times, people, and places.

Reiko-san tasting to see if one of the items in the luncheon’s viariry is dee-licious; with her is Mrs. Kawato, 2nd VP of the ESGVJCC’s Leisure Club. (February 2011).

Here are some examples of what came out of her incredible learning:

From San Francisco: duck; Chinese fried rice; egg-flower soup; orange chicken; bok choy; and, of course, a variety of chow-mein.

From Phoenixville: beans with smoked ham hocks; scones; German potato salad; corn fritters; shoo fly, pecan, and pumpkin pies; and strudel.

From San Antonio: Mexican fried rice; rice with chicken; taquitos; tostadas; cocido; lentils with pork shank; nopalitos; verdolagas; green and red mole; squash with fresh corn and pork; flan; rice pudding; peanut brittle.

From New York: at least ten kinds of pasta; roast veal; Italian sausage; several varieties of lasagna; deviled eggs; almond and other Italian style cookies.

From Los Angeles: paella; Peruvian beef hearts; chiles rellenos; stuffed green peppers; green and red enchiladas; carrots with cream; chilaquiles; tacos; menudo; roast pork; five varieties of tamales; Mexican-style fried pasta; chicken pot pie; chicharrones; chorizo; ceviche; chicken; bouillabaisse; olla podrida; guacamole; turkey crockets; lemon meringue pie; a dozen varieties of cookies; French pound, Angel food, carrot, and pumpkin cakes; at least a dozen types of tsukemono; hoshigaki; yokan; and, Oh gosh, so much more!

Every time she would eat something she liked at a restaurant, her memory picked up the recipe; and then she decided to improve it at home; like her broccoli salad inspired by Knott’s Berry Farm, and her palm & artichoke heart salad she found at an obscure restaurant in East Los Angeles. And, of course, every time she learned a new Japanese recipe at the Center, she would try it over and over at home until she mastered it.

—Oh, so that I just don’t forget it.

One day she surprised me with the most perfect example of intercultural creativity: chayote borracho—drunken chayote, which combined a Mexican squash, pickled in American beer, to be served with Japanese meals.

I don’t go to the Center as often as I did when she was around—because of my health problems and all that. But when I do manage to visit, after the customary bows and courtesies, the issue always comes up:

—Oh, Ed…we miss her so much. You know, the food is not as good anymore…She really knew how to spoil us.

When people asked her occupation, she always replied impishly:

—I’m a home engineer…

Indeed...the best engineer of roads to people’s hearts, if one is to believe Mrs. Gonzalez’s philosophy. Wouldn’t you agree?

Author and his wife Reiko, at the ESGVJCC.


1. From the verb mederu, akin to the feeling of being appreciated or enjoyed.
2. Abuelita: Little Grandmother.
3. 1957 prices.
4. The population, about 14,000 then, was composed of four distinct ethnic groups. The Italians; Polish; other Slavs disliked each other with passion; and all of them detested the few Blacks living there, too. There was no place in that society for a recently arrived Japanese “war-bride”.
5. Under the assumption that the first three dishes are sufficiently known, I’ll just translate nopalitos as cactus salad; and ejotes con huevo as fried green beans with egg.
6. Osechi ryori is the special—and generous—collection of dishes put together to celebrate New Years. Since each dish has its own symbolism, I don’t know where the tamales would fit in Japanese mythology.
7. East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center.
8. Mama-chan, it’s var-i-e-ty, I would gently say. Oh, daddy…Vaiarity, variety…you understood, nee, was her answer.

© 2013 Edward Moreno

25 Stars

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

chinese food cooking ESGVJCC food italian food japanese food Mexican food Nikkei Chronicles nikkei-plus war brides

About this series

Being Nikkei is inherently a state of mixed traditions and cultures. For many Nikkei communities and families around the world, it is common to use both chopsticks and forks; mix Japanese words with Spanish; or celebrate the New Year’s Eve countdown with champagne and Oshogatsu with ozoni and other Japanese traditions.

This series introduces stories explore how Nikkei around the world perceive and experience being multiracial, multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational.

Each piece submitted to the Nikkei+ anthology was eligible for selection as our readers’ favorites. 

Here are their favorite stories in each language.

To learn more about this writing project >>

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