‘Gravy on rice’: Denver reporter shares joy of fusing Japanese and American cuisine

Ryan Warner: Your mother was a major influence on your palate, and she cooked both Japanese and American dishes, but I think we should start with her teriyaki sauce that you invoke in the opening pages. What stands out to you?

Gil Asakawa: My mother, like many ethnic mothers, didn’t really measure things. She simply poured sake into a bowl, then poured shoyu, or soy sauce, into a bowl, then scooped out sugar. Then when I went to college, I asked her for recipes and, of course, she didn’t write anything down, so she just said, “Well, I just use sake, soy sauce and sugar, and that’s it.” When I got to college, it’s college, so I won’t go buy sake. I went to buy beer, so I used the beer the longest in my homemade teriyaki sauce.

Warner: How did that go?

Asakawa: It was pretty good. I think it’s probably a thing about all foods, but certainly Japanese food, that they’re very adaptable. All dishes are. You don’t have to be exact. You can be like my mom and go with your instincts.

Warner: Your wife Erin also helped shape your palace. Can you tell us about a dish prepared by his family, kakimochi?

Asakawa: It’s actually like a teriyaki chip. I have the recipe in my first book, “Being Japanese American”. It’s a sweet and salty fry, and it contains soy sauce and butter, but its main ingredient is Tostitos corn chips. Not the ordinary corn chips, the round ones. There is a mini size, and that’s what I use for kakimochi.

Warner: This idea of ​​merging ingredients – real Japanese-American food – is also illustrated in a type of salsa. Would you describe Karami for us?

Asakawa: Karami is something that was introduced to me about ten years ago. A friend of mine who lives in Boulder had started a business to mass-produce Karami, which is an American-Japanese variant from Pueblo, Colorado. The family of a former Pueblo mayor used to make this. It’s a side dish in Japan to have pickled vegetables and various things, and you serve it with rice or alongside your protein. It was usually made with seaweed. Japanese Americans who were farmers or railroad workers in Pueblo found, uh, there’s no seaweed, but they found something that had a very similar mouthfeel in terms of viscous consistency and texture , and it was Pueblo peppers, green peppers. So they started using it. It’s really good. This is delicious. It tastes like a Japanese condiment with soy sauce and sugar, but it has a little kick due to the green chilies.

Warner: I was surprised to read in the book that in Japan, it’s not fashionable to pour soy sauce over your plain rice.

Asakawa: Yeah. My mom used to yell at me when I did that. That would be rude. It would be like saying, “This rice is horrible. I have to add something to it,” but when you were a kid, I used to put all kinds of things on all kinds of foods. I put MSG, Ajinomoto, on Cheerios once. I never made that mistake again.

Warner: You also recently posted on social media that you put gravy on rice, invoking the upcoming holidays, and then I just had a craving for gravy on rice. I thought, ‘What a great idea.’

Asakawa: There are actually several ways to get into culinary vocabulary. There’s a Hawaiian dish called Loco Moco, which is rice topped with a hamburger patty or two, then topped with gravy and then a fried egg. I also had it with the white sauce that comes with the chicken fried steak. The chicken fried steak is excellent over rice. But for Thanksgiving, we used to have rice. We would also have mashed potatoes, and you use your little spoon to make this little volcano crater in your mashed potatoes. Then we put sauce on the rice and mashed potatoes. But I really like the sauce on the rice. When I posted this photo the other day, I was shocked at how much interaction there had been, and a lot of Japanese Americans said, “Yeah, that’s what that I love the most about Thanksgiving.” It’s true, I’m not a big fan of turkey or dressing but, man, gravy over rice!

Warner: I think the rise of seaweed as a food in the United States must follow a similar trajectory as sushi. (Of course, sushi is often wrapped in seaweed.) I remember when it became more fashionable to have dried seaweed – a little strip of dried seaweed.

Asakawa: Yeah, as a snack.

Warner: Yeah! And some kids in my school, I remember growing up, their parents put them in their lunches.

Asakawa: Seaweed is everywhere in Japan, in all sorts of different ways, regional seaweed. Seaweed was part of the health food movement that started in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

Warner: When you say regional algae, in other words, is there a terroir for the algae?

Asakawa: In Okinawa, there is a form of seaweed called mozuku. Looks like hairy little balls of porridge, but it’s really good. My mother is from the far eastern northern island of Hokkaido, and she has always sworn that the seaweed from her hometown of Minato is the best in Japan.

Warner: I would like to talk about how the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II shaped eating habits. Colorado, of course, was the site of Camp Amache. Perhaps, Gil, we can focus on the soy sauce made in the camps.

Asakawa: Some camps had the means and materials to make soy sauce. But instead of real soy sauce, which would age for a long time, years, in those huge coffins, they were made quickly. So that helped to take over the camp food and make it more authentic. Camp food was important. It helped change the things that Japanese Americans ate – and were sick of eating – some things they were fed all the time, like cottage cheese.

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