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Nikkei Chronicles #11—Itadakimasu 3! Nikkei Food, Family, and Community


Nokorimono,” my mom said disdainfully. Leftovers. She was emphasizing the rule in our house as she often did, that yesterday’s food was perfectly fine for family, but not good enough to be served to guests. 

I was in middle school, and had just told her that a classmate would be coming over to work on a project. I had mistakenly asked if we could finish off the croquettes she’d made for dinner the night before. She bristled at the audacity of it, and set about frying up a couple of T-bones and sautéeing some potatoes. By her reaction you would have thought I had suggested we serve Spaghetti-O’s to the Emperor, and not leftovers to my 12-year-old classmate.

While recycling yesterday’s taco meat and the broccoli from the back of the fridge into okazu was acceptable for family, a meal for guests — especially if they were hakujin — required a whole new menu and a certain amount of fanfare. We would rarely serve Japanese food to non-Asian guests; It was always thick juicy steaks, my mom’s fried chicken, or spaghetti with homemade meatballs. 

And we would use the nice plates, not the mismatched dishes we usually ate off of. There would be three courses – salad, a main dish and dessert – unlike the array of Japanese food usually set on the table on big platters that we could dig into and enjoy like we were at one of our loud, crowded family get-togethers. 

I often felt that my parents’ need to appear as “American” as possible came from their experience during WWII, from having been yanked out of their homes and forcibly sent to the concentration camps simply for being Japanese. Punished for not being American enough – even though they owned property and paid taxes – they struggled after that to constantly “prove” that they deserved to be in this country and worthy of living life as American citizens, which they were and had been since birth.

Nokorimono meant that like those day-old croquettes, you weren’t worthy. That you weren’t good enough. Leftovers.

I think about my mom all the time, and it’s often about the tumultuous life she had and how much she had to endure. About how many times in her life she might have felt like what she had to offer wasn’t good enough.

I’ve been cooking a lot of Japanese food lately, and I hear my mom’s voice whenever I do. Telling me to add more shoyu into a dish, or that I need to put more genmaicha in the teapot. The reason I always fluff the rice with the shamoji before serving is because of that one time she saw me serve the rice straight out of the rice cooker and the look of disappointment on her face said, “Why don’t you just stab me through the heart?”

And for some reason, like my mom, I never serve leftovers to guests. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I find myself feeling the same way I imagine she did – am I going to seem less-than if I serve this quiche from two days ago? 

But in the spirit of change, and the shedding of some generational trauma  – and a desperate need to clean out my pantry – I’ve decided that the next time we have friends over, it’s going to be a meal of whatever’s sitting in my refrigerator. Okazu from rescued ground turkey and the remnants of the vegetable bin. Ramen toppings I’m trying to use up. A leftover bonanza, if you will. I guess I should warn future dinner guests that they might be eating a steak that’s been sitting in my freezer since the 90’s. 

Of course, I know I’ll see my mom’s worried face and hear her voice. “Nokorimono,” she’ll scold, as she watches me serve our lovely friends perfectly good, yet day-old food. 

And I’ll want to tell her that it’s okay, that the leftovers are good enough. 

That she is good enough.


© 2022 Marsha Takeda-Morrison

22 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!

family food leftovers

About this series

The theme of the 11th edition of Nikkei Chronicles—Itadakimasu 3! Nikkei Food, Family, and Community—takes a look at several questions, such as: How does the food you eat connect your Nikkei community? What kinds of Nikkei recipes have been passed down from generation to generation? What is your favorite Japanese and/or Nikkei dish? 

Discover Nikkei solicited stories related to Nikkei food from May to September 2022. Voting closed on October 31, 2022. We received 15 stories (8 English; 1 Japanese; 6 Spanish; and 1 Portuguese) from Brazil, Canada, Peru, and the United States, with one submitted in multiple languages.

An editorial committee chose a favorite story in each language. In addition, a Nima-kai favorite was determined by online community voting. Here are the selections!

Editorial Committee’s Favorites

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