Travels through Asia and the USA have played an important part in my culinary inspiration. Of greatest significance has been the age-old Eastern schools of thought including the traditional and macrobiotic cuisine of Japan, the ceremonial banquets of the Balinese and regional Indonesian food, the Chinese dietetics of the Yin and Yang, and the Ayurvedic wisdom of the Indian kitchen. I have embraced these principles and applied them in combination to my own passionate philosophy, cooking for optimal health and longevity.
As a young whippersnapper, I was introduced to the culture and cuisine of Japan. In the fourth grade at my primary school I began learning Japanese language in a charming schoolroom decorated with all things from the East. Our teacher Miss Machida, would help us to learn and draw the intricate characters of the two alphabets, hiragana and katakana. She would flash cards at us throughout the class and entice us to recite the various images depicted. Our homework was to learn both alphabets by heart and then move on to basic Kanji.
The highlight of this early language learning was when Machida-san took our class to dine at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Collins Street called Teppanyaki Inn, which still thrives today, now located across the street from its initial digs. It was a great surprise to me that we were presented with delicious seared beef and seafood dipped in shoyu and sesame sauces.
Rumours had been flying earlier that the menu would feature only raw fish, green tea and seaweed. However, much to our youthful delight, the Teppan grill was fired up and a Japanese chef resplendent in his formal duds began slicing and dicing his way through an assortment of meat and vegetables to be seared and sizzled on the traditional hot plate in front of us.
Once received, we fumbled with chopsticks – of course we’d been practicing in class for weeks – and cautiously dipped our mouthfuls into the accompanying sauces. Oishi-so! We declared, and from that day on a myriad of cuisine unfolded and I was immediately inspired by its simplistic versatility. The journey had begun.
What is so familiar and comfortable to me now was so foreign to a nine-year-old in 1976 when my Japanese language class travelled to Japan for a rather exotic field trip. On arrival in Tokyo, I was promptly separated from my best friend Helen and couriered to a traditional suburban Japanese house for a two-day homestay with a host family, being fed miso shiru, oshinko and ham salad for breakfast. Clearly, things were not good! Needless to say, one year of Japanese language was an insufficient tool for communication.
Our mission was to present the war memorial at Hiroshima with 10,000 origami (paper folded) cranes – the symbol of peace – which we had been painstakingly making for months. We travelled on the Shinkansen to Hiroshima eating Obento – a traditional lunchbox of delicacies and treats – as we railed passed the icon – Mount Fujiyama. Everything was so beautifully presented, orderly and compartmentalised – it remains etched in our minds to the point that it is simply part of our lives to this day. Ten years later I would find myself managing a Japanese restaurant in South Yarra called Minami, while I returned to study the language part-time at Melbourne University. My interest in Japanese culture had extended into the practices including Japanese wheel-thrown ceramics.
My year at Minami saw me costumed in traditional kimono – complete with under yukata and obe – much to the delight of visiting friends. The poise and grace of Japanese women dressed in their finest were unfortunately lost on me. Clearly, another instance where East should not meet West so it was not long before I retreated to my black suit. Still, the experience taught me important Japanese etiquette.
Every aspect of the Japanese restaurant is steeped in tradition: greeting guests, avoiding the displeasure of the ‘Salary Man’, pouring sake and cooking Sukiyaki, Shabu Shabu and Yosenabe. These shared dishes were all prepared at the table amid the ‘Oooohs and Aaaahhs” of the unaccustomed non-Japanese clientele. Imagine how intimidated this gaijin was shuffling in her pace restricting kimono towards a table surrounded by Aussie blokes. Rapidly imported banter became my salvation.