News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today
TUESDAY, JULY 31, 2007

Home-cooked meals, manners and a bowl of slimy, stringy goo

Editor’s note: Hartselle High School student Amanda Elliott, 17, is spending seven weeks in Akita, Japan, this summer on a scholarship through Youth for Understanding, a nonprofit educational organization. This is part of an occasional series Amanda is writing for The Daily.

On weekdays, I wake up at six, and stumble downstairs to the kitchen, where Okasan, my host mother, has breakfast set on the table. A normal breakfast consists of a portion of meat, a small circular omelet made of eggs and sugar, some salad (much different from American salad) and rice. Some days it is much less, a bowl of cereal maybe, but it is always there.

The average Japanese person never skips breakfast, while in America, I skipped breakfast almost every morning. My diet and eating patterns have changed dramatically since I’ve been in Japan. It was hard to get used to eating three, full home-cooked meals every day.

Japanese culture is strongly defined and influenced by the things found on the dining room table or in an obento lunch box. The Japanese rarely eat out, and when they do, it’s usually for special occasions. One or two fast food restaurants are close by, but not in my town. I did get to dine at a sushi bar for the first time though.

Certain rules of etiquette must be followed, such as saying “Itadekimasu” before eating, and “Gotchsosamadeshita” when you are finished. It is not rude to slurp your soup, but it is considered impolite if you point your chopsticks at a person, take food from a center dish with the eating end of your chopsticks, refuse food, not eating everything on your plate, lean over your plate to eat rather than raising the dish to your mouth, etc. I'm still learning all the rules.

I take an obento lunch to school. My "lunch box" is actually a small cloth purse that contains a stackable set of Tupperware-like containers. In the bottom container, a large portion of rice is stored. There's usually a packet of seasoning to go with it. The second largest container holds the main lunch items. In a typical obento, about five or six bite-sized portions of different foods are arranged neatly into the container, separated into little cupcake-like wrappings. Some days, the meals are almost too beautiful to eat, because so much care and detail goes into them. The last, optional container can be used to store chopsticks or a small snack.

'Challenge item'

The dinners have consisted of several courses. There is always a type of soup, a few different vegetables, a portion of fish, and possibly another meat, a type of stringy salad and dessert — usually a slice of melon. Dinners, for me, also include one item the family names my "challenge item."

I knew from cultural orientation that one of the quickest ways to offend a Japanese woman is to turn away her cooking. So with that in mind, I made a commitment to try everything placed in front of me. I don't regret that commitment. Almost everything I've eaten (even the stranger items, such as grilled octopus) was delicious. Almost. No. 1 on the desteable list is Nato. I think my host family was having fun with me when they set a bowl of slimy, stringy goo of Nato in front of me.

Battle with food

My most recent battle with food came a few nights ago. It was technically the Fourth of July. Instead of shooting off fireworks and gobbling down barbecued hot dogs, I found myself in an epic struggle with a bowl of cuttlefish. I actually ate half the bowl before I realized what I was eating (I had learned quickly that it was not wise to ask).

The meat resembled purple, rubbery, onion rings — in texture, not in taste. I assumed I was eating octopus until I remove a particular little ring to reveal a whole creature staring up at me. It was about six inches long and resembled a squid, except for its slightly shorter tentacles. I surpressed a look of horror long enough to take in the expecting stares of my family. They expected me to eat it!

Remembering my pledge, I clumsily gathered the little creature in my chopsticks. It never got closer than six inches to my mouth. I sat there for what must have been 10 minutes, trying to work up the courage to pop it into my mouth, but it was eventually in vain. I consoled myself quickly learning that the little purple rings were actually sliced pieces of the outer body of another cuttlefish. Yum.

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