COURTESY KEIKO OHNUMA
A wide variety of chili peppers is sold at farm stands in Albuquerque, N.M.
Tastes like home, wherever that is at the moment
When I moved to Honolulu 12 years ago, I had no experience of the islands and knew not a soul -- yet the place was instantly familiar because of the food.
"I can't believe it, Mom," I phoned. "They actually sell furikake at Longs."
Food had always been the great dividing line between me and everyone else growing up in the Midwest in the 1970s. The pungent smell of soy sauce would assault my friends as soon as they entered our house, even before I had to ask them to take off their shoes.
By the 1980s, Japanese food had become less bizarre. Sushi swept into major metropolitan areas like the one where I went to college, and my dorm friends were well-acquainted with tofu and instant ramen. There was nothing so mysterious, either, about miso, nori or somen noodles in San Francisco, where I spent 13 years after graduation.
Still, nothing quite matched the sight of dashi, wakame and ume -- old friends from childhood -- posing as perfectly normal staples alongside the notebooks, freezer bags and Doritos in Longs Manoa. I sensed immediately that Hawaii was home, and this warmth only grew at every potluck and deli counter where I would encounter such long-forgotten delights as gomoku-zushi, nishime and kimpira-gobo -- along with the kindly Japanese aunties who knew how to make them.
It was food that won over my parents to the idea of retiring in Hawaii seven years ago, and it's food that made them stay even after my husband and I made the decision to leave.
"Food is one of the few pleasures you have left when you get old," my mother said determinedly. "At least in Hawaii the retirement homes will serve rice." So she refused to come back to the mainland with us, in favor of her Marukai club card and good Japanese rice, every day of her life.
Now, for my part, I have always loved all kinds of food, especially spicy fare like the regional cooking of New Mexico, where we live now. I could never get enough of that chili pepper warmth in Honolulu, where I would blanch to overhear Thai, Indian or Mexican dishes being ordered "not spicy."
Still, it has come as a late surprise to discover that supermarkets in Albuquerque carry no 20-pound sacks of rice, much less "Japanese" eggplants or cucumbers. Ordinary mung bean sprouts are so seldom purchased as to sit wilting in a neglected corner, like collard greens in Honolulu. Asians in Albuquerque number only 1 in 53 people.
The reality of the statistical tables hits home at dinner, where food has a way of short-circuiting the mind to grab hold of the heart and gut. Witness the plantation era, when ethnic groups overcame rivalries largely around the shared lunch box. Nothing warms a relationship so quickly as appreciating someone's regional cooking, and many a closed mind has been unwittingly cracked open by sampling an ethnic cuisine. Food, like love, evokes irrational passion for those particular kinds of sensations that first announced the happy conjunction of pleasure, nourishment and comfort.
Such sensations transport me, unexpectedly, back home to the mainland. Corn is reaching high across the Farm Belt in late summer, and my husband and I bite eagerly into the hefty ears -- four for a dollar -- that we barely remember how to cook right. Lavishly buttered and salted, their plump resistance to the teeth sends us back to the cornfields of childhood -- he to Pennsylvania, me to Illinois -- as we give in to that bland sweetness as irresistible as freshly baked bread.
Fruit sends us into similar rapture at every farm stand in town. Strawberries, at 99 cents a carton, yield a deliciously sweet pulp just tinged with tartness, followed by that faint floral aroma. Tomatoes fresh from the field burst with the juicy-bright flavor of summer, woken up with just a sprinkle of salt.
Melons are piled high everywhere, dirt cheap and wildly irregular. We cut into a large watermelon, which my husband trots outside to eat, "like a good boy," even though this variety has no seeds. We slurp melon silently on the front porch, listening to the cicadas under a wide, darkening sky, privately revisiting times and places we had thought long lost. While we haven't met many people yet and don't really know this town, the Earth keeps sending up reminders that this planet still tastes like home.
Keiko Ohnuma is a former Star-Bulletin copy editor.