They say the Japanese don't like spicy food. Perhaps. Come to think of it, I have had a difficult time finding any salsa with a bite here. That said, Japan may not have spicy food but they sure do have some spicy women.
Recently I took two cooking classes: one Thai from an Indian women, the other Japanese, from a Japanese woman. The two classes could not have been more different, and yet, the same. A contradiction to be sure.
The same because both classes taught me the basics of the genre of the food they were teaching. The same because both classes resulted in a greater understanding of the technique and spices required to achieve each cuisine's unique taste. The same because both classes were spicy.
In the Thai class we created dish after dish of sinus clearing, sweat inducing, deliciously piquant dishes.
In the Japanese class, the teacher was downright spicy, and that's a nice way of putting it.
While the teacher who taught us Thai was warm and relaxed, nurturing and patient, our Japanese sensei was exactly the opposite. She was exacting and rigid, impatient and frankly, kinda mean. She practically beat us. Well, that is to say, she reprimanded us, a lot. So much so, the students, myself included, didn't want to volunteer to help prepare any of the dishes for fear of admonishment. She reminded me of a ruler wielding nun at Catholic school. I never went to Catholic school but this is my impression of them from the movies. All I can say is thank goodness the sensei didn't carry a spatula.
It began with dashi. Apparently dashi is one of the primary base ingredients in Japanese cooking. Who knew?! When it became obvious none of the students had ever heard of it, our sensei, who is supposed to be teaching us, that's why we're taking the class, hello, burst out in appalled disbelief, "Ladies! Ladies! You don't know dashi! Really?! How can you NOT know dashi?!! Are you stupid or something? She didn't say that last bit, it was merely implied in her tone and body language.
We were all taken aback, and looked at each other with the same thought bubble floating over our head, "Um, that's why we're taking your class." I tried to be generous and recognize we would be surprised if someone taking an American cooking class (is there such a thing?) didn't know what chicken broth is, or worse, cheese. But we wouldn't have berated someone for being ignorant. Would we?
But that was just the beginning. The first task was to peel taro root. Most of us had never seen taro root, much less tried to peel it. It's like a potato but slimy and hard to hold onto. She showed us how it's done. According to her the technique was exact. No deviation was remotely possible. The taro must be peeled completely, then cut in half, then the edges must be beveled, that is cut at angles. We were like, why? We don't bevel potatoes. But there was no diverting from this technique. She didn't ask for volunteers. We weren't sure if we were supposed to help or just observe until she said, rather impatiently, "Ladies! Ladies! Peel the taro!" Um, OK, we didn't know we were supposed to.
Another classmate and myself jumped up to help. We realized it was harder than it looked. The damn things kept slipping through our fingers. The peeler was foreign and I cut half my fingernail off trying to peel the damn thing. We were supposed to put the peeled, perfectly beveled, (beveled damn it), pieces in water when they were done.
Afterwards she picked a piece out of the water and audibly sucked in her breath, disgusted, holding up the retched piece for all to see. "Ladies! Ladies! Not good. Not good." It had a brown mark on it, some miserably stupid student hadn't cut out, probably me. Geez. Well maybe if you weren't yelling at us.
This was just the beginning. The rest of the class followed in a tense mellow drama of error or was it terror? There was the incident with the mandoline. Until then I thought a mandoline was an Italian musical instrument. Apparently it's an elaborate wood box used for shaving giant pieces of smoked bonito fish. Can't we just use the prepackaged shaved bonito? I have a box in my cupboard. The teacher was aghast. Absolutely not! Thankfully I was not personally involved in the mandoline incident but apparently the naive student didn't use the implement correctly and was shaving the fish's butt or something equally dreadful. The outburst of shame from the teacher was enough to drive us to drink. And we would have, but she only offered tea.
At the end of the session we sat down to eat the meal we had attempted to make. The teacher didn't eat with us but did make sure we placed the chopsticks in the proper position and chastised us for putting the napkin on the wrong side. "Ladies! Ladies! Not that way! The chopsticks face right to left, right to left!"
After we ate, the sensei presented us with a mini tea ceremony, which would have been a really lovely idea, if we weren't afraid to drink it. I wondered how many of us would return for the second session.
Conversely my experience in the Thai cooking class was completely different. It was like being at a friends house, that is, a friend with a tiny kitchen that you like well enough to rub elbows with, and I mean that literally. There were supposed to be three students, myself, my friend Nancy, and some other woman. But the other woman forgot and didn't show up. That's OK, we had the teacher all to ourselves and she was great.
She had already precut all the ingredients so the majority of the class was actually spent cooking and not preparing. She was easy-going and answered questions patiently and thoughtfully. She was a vegetarian and well, Nancy and I are not. She didn't get offended when we asked her about converting the dishes to meat. She even offered suggestions. She discussed alternative spices and techniques if we couldn't find the ingredients or have the right equipment. She didn't lash out when we didn't know what galangal was. It's a root that has a name fun to say.
We spent the majority of the class laughing in a warm cocoon of learning and camaraderie. We made six dishes that day and sat down to an amazing meal we were proud to call our own and even comfortable enough to attempt at home. And the best part was, she sat down and ate with us too.
It was just like galangal. I just like saying that word.