Picking Up On Japanese Culture (With Chopsticks)

“So.” Ben, sushi master of the Japanese fine-dining restaurant where I work, leaned over the cold line. “What was it we just made?”

I felt like a kid in school under the strict gaze of a respected teacher.

“Battleship style,” I said, grasping at the little knowledge I’d retained. Japanese names eluded me. “Gun… gunk… uh…”

“Gunkan,” he corrected. “But I’ll accept Battleship Style. How about those hand rolls?”

“Party rolls!” I exclaimed. “Temaki?”

He nodded. I felt a rush of accomplishment. “And what do we put on octopus nigiri? Or more slippery nigiri toppings?”

I grinned. “Seatbelts!” I exclaimed, referring to the thin strip of nori wrapped around certain nigiri rolls. He laughed and conceded–acceptable enough for today.


A few months ago, I accepted a job cooking with several incredibly talented guys in a small, independent fine-dining Japanese restaurant. All of them had years of experience and clever tattoos. At first, they regarded me the way most restaurants have when I walk in the kitchen. Are you lost, little girl?

Fortunately, I get along well with them. They’ve nicknamed me ‘E’ and have been teaching me the art of plating, quality preparation and food puns.


“Get rich, E,” said our ramen master as I dunked tempura shrimp in hot oil, “Or die frying.”

Working the station alongside me is an experienced line cook and chef who plates dishes as though he’s curating artwork. His octopus dish is flawless and ethereal. On the days he doesn’t work, he is replaced by another experienced cook who, using the same technique and cooking style, plates his dishes the way a Disney villain would–dark colors, a streak of ichimi across the plate to contrast the purple tentacles on a bed of kimchi.


This is my first experience working with Asian food, which is a considerable accomplishment having been taught strictly French techniques.

Sauces don’t require reducing and hours of time. They’re easy, thrown in a bowl and mixed, or steeped with kombu, cooled and stored.

Walking into the back and studying the shelves for the first time, I felt as though I’d somehow ended up in another country. I didn’t understand a word. Brightly colored boxes with unusual characters were stacked to the ceiling.

It was initially overwhelming a bit. What on earth was ponzu? Which box with a tap would expel mirin, and where would I find kombu? Most importantly… which of the many seaweeds needed boiling to remove toxins? Could I kill someone with my ignorance?


Now, having been there long enough to avoid death by wakame, Asian foods are starting to make sense, especially in relation and comparison to the European techniques I’d been taught. Despite the differences, food culture across the globe is all related, some way, some how. In fact, I found a lot of useful information on the topic in a few books, including On The Noodle Road, by Jen Lin-Liu (book review blog post coming soon!)

As the only girl in a kitchen of all pretty badass men, I’d say things aren’t looking too shabby. In fact, I’ve never consumed information (or ramen!) so fast, and my chopstick skills are improving vastly.


There’s a whole world of food culture out there to taste and I’ve barely scratched the surface!

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