When I was a little girl, my mother was rarely at home before dinner during the week; she worked in the office of a factory near our home, a small town called Kumamoto in the southern part of Japan. My grandparents took care of me, and my mother got up around 4:30 a.m. to prepare a lunchbox for me, but the weekends when she was available to cook made me happiest.
The kitchen had a magical power for my mother and me. I think it was because it was the place for the women in our family, for talking about any subject we wanted. She would tell stories about her own childhood, as the eldest of four sisters, largely responsible for their care. Once she told me, “I never thought it would be possible to leave my town or go to college. Maybe that’s why I want you to be free to do whatever you want in life." She’d talk about the start of her romance with my father. (According to her, it was love at first sight.) And the kitchen was a place to discuss anything that I didn't want my father to hear—like about my boyfriend, or about the dream I had for becoming a model in Tokyo (he was against it).
My mom is not a pushover—if I was being selfish or disrespectful, she scolded me—and a few times she didn’t even speak to me for days. We argued if she tried to push her idea of “the best way to live” rather than listen to my true desire. Once she tried to convince me to “just get married and have a normal, stable life.” But she listened when I said no, and didn’t try to put me into a box; she let me be me. The kitchen was always the place to start those intense conversations, to formulate the plan we needed to convince my father. I felt safe to share whatever secrets I had; she would always try to solve problems, provide counseling, and understand me.
Cooking provided another lesson: My mother was never a perfectionist. She strongly believes that the process is important, not the result. However it turns out, you are learning, even from failure. This is what I have learned from her. It’s a point of pride in our culture—certainly in our family and our hometown—to impart “secrets” to a daughter, whether about cooking or anything else. And it is impossible to talk about our family celebrations, for all holidays and birthdays, without mentioning “Osechi Ryori,” handmade by my mother. Osechi Ryori (御節料理) are traditional New Year’s foods, dating back to 8th century Japan, packed in special containers called jubako, which are similar to bento boxes. I always helped in the preparation, loving the time with my mother in the kitchen, feeling so mature when the job of creating Kuri Kinton (mashed sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts) was turned over to me. The gold color is meant to symbolize wealth, prosperity, and good luck.
Ten years ago, I left my hometown for New York, but when I return home for a visit, I will join my mother in the kitchen to prepare Osechi Ryori, and to hear her little new secret.
Sui Nakashima is a model in New York City; her website is www.suinakashima.com.
(Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Sweetened Chestnuts )
12 oz. sweet potatoes, peeled
1 cape jasmine seed (available at Asian markets)
3 oz. mirin
2 - 4 T. sugar
4 oz. sweetened chestnuts in syrup, chopped
4 oz. syrup from sweetened chestnuts
pinch of salt
Pierce potato skins and slice in rounds about 3/4 inch thick.
Crush the cape jasmine, and tie in cheesecloth.
Place potatoes in a pot with water to cover, along with the cheesecloth, and boil until softened.
Drain potatoes, and discard cheesecloth.
Mash the potatoes with mirin and sugar.
Push mixture through a fine sieve.
Return mixture to pot with syrup, and cook over low heat.
When the mixture has absorbed all the liquid so that you can draw a line in the bottom of the pot, add the chestnuts and salt.
Form small mounds for serving, decorated with chestnut.