Shie Kasai: Survival Japanese Cooking

, 2010/07/23

“When I moved to Montreal in 1998, I was surprised to see how many sushi takeouts there were around the Plateau area, most of them run by non-Japanese; it was a bit of culture-shock for me within the same city. Then in 2008 I documented twenty-seven sushi shops all within a thirty-minute walking distance from my apartment. This was sort of the core inspiration of this Montreal-specific project,” so tells us Shie Kasai as she takes a break to talk more about her Survival Cooking Project. “My background is in sculpture and I always like to deal with materials. I also like cooking and eating so with this project, instead of going to a hardware store or junk yard, I decided to go to the local supermarkets and to make food that was comforting to me. It’s important especially being in a foreign country where you could have an upset stomach. When I was offered a residency opportunity in Rotterdam from Canadian artist Yvette Porter, and thinking what to propose, I literally took the word “camping” and asked myself, what would I do at a campsite? I’d probably have to look and hunt for something locally available and prepare it myself with limited equipment. In deciding what’s local and not, Yvette and her Dutch partner gave me good ideas in determining ingredient choices for this week-long, first Survival Cooking Series. It was about documenting personal experiences going to groceries and attempting to cook simple Japanese-like meals, and recording recipes.”

After the Rotterdam residency, how did Montreal fit in as a site-specific territory?

“The project in Montreal was shaped differently because I was offered a huge space to create an installation based on a similar concept. Deciding how to use the given space also gave this project a framework and helped me develop ideas and productions, resulting in a multi-media installation which consisted of photos, videos, sculptures and a workshop area; a bit more than just a record of a personal cross-cultural cooking log. I mean, I like eating and cooking but I don’t consider myself an artist specialized in food art however using food as materials was one convenient choice, especially nowadays, having a studio could cost you a fortune.”

How did you go about getting started?

“To proceed with the project, first I had to define some ideas about Canadian and more specifically, Montreal food. I decided to have a survey in the hope of knowing everybody’s eating habits so that I could incorporate that into my cooking. The whole production is based on the survey results collected from 154 Montrealers, the results of which are attached into the resulting cookbook.

So what about your relationship with Japanese food, did you grow up learning to cook at home or after moving away?

I don’t remember when I cooked for the first time nor a special day when my mother taught me how to cook, I have no eventful memory of it but I helped around the kitchen from a young age. Simple things like serving or peeling apples for example, like everybody did I suppose. I remember having to prepare rice when coming home from school everyday. We didn’t have a rice cooker then so I had to do it with a gas stove; I think I was in the third grade. But I was quite proud of myself for experimenting with rice washing techniques and, to think of it now I don’t understand why I had to do that. She cooks well though. She is from Kyoto and is living in Sapporo since she got married so perhaps I grew up with Kyoto style cooking. My father was a bit lazy and didn’t like eating fish with bones, so my mom says. He’s from Nagano and they eat more meat (and bugs), I think. When I was in the fifth and sixth grade we had home-economics class and I remember making egg omelette, hamburger steak, curry and maybe miso soup. It’s funny that they don’t teach you how to cook traditional Japanese food. When I was a teenager, I baked almost every other day as I drooled looking at cakes and dessert recipe books.

The first year I moved to Montreal, I went to a Japanese restaurant, a reputable one in downtown. I didn’t order sushi but I saw the plate served to the next table. What caught my eyes was the crab, you know the fake red-painted one made of fish called Kanikama, the whole stick, like 3 inches long, was served as nigiri. The chefs were supposed to be Japanese there but I thought it wasn’t so Japanese. Since then, I hardly went out to eat Japanese as the experiences often ended somewhat disappointing. At home I don’t necessarily cook Japanese food but cooking Japanese cuisine outside of Japan is not very convenient, and I’m a lazy person to begin with so I don’t like going far to get my groceries, and even if I do go it doesn’t mean that I get to find all the ingredients I need. Besides, Japanese cooking tends to require several steps of preparation, uses a lot of water, many pots and serving plates. I cook Japanese rice only occasionally because it requires too much washing and soaking time. The everyday rice for me is Jasmin, and it’s probably very un-Japanese but this “Survival Japanese Cooking” project was sort of an effort for me to force myself to cook “Japanese” more often than usual.

So what elements of Japanese food, culture, cuisine helped or limited you in this project?

Well, it would be a spirit of eating locally and things that are in season. Another thing would be the preparation of ingredients and even the presentation. For example, cutting vegetables in certain ways to suit different methods of cooking. I think that often in Japanese cooking, the shape of each food is well kept to be distinguished. If you follow any Japanese cook book for example, cutting vegetables is written in precise detail and seems an important element. Maybe this is one of reasons we never invented mashed potatoes?

Through Survival Cooking, did you find Japanese ingredients to be versatile? The Natto Spaghetti comes to mind…

The Natto Spaghetti is an old recipe, not sure how old but it’s been around for a while, probably from late 80′s or early 90′s. As Pasta became popular there appeared more specialty restaurants with creative menus other than just meat sauce. Prior to that, what I remember of Spaghetti was that it was always served with canned meat sauce for Sunday lunch, or leftover noodles fried with some ketchup, which you probably still see in cheap bento boxes at convenience stores. The rice bun burger from Mos burger for an example is another example of the Japanese being infamous for transforming foreign/imported food to suit to our taste. I guess when we are in Japan, we don’t see the reverse cases that often? When I was still in Sapporo, I was once invited to a home dinner party hosted by a Canadian couple. This was about fifteen years ago. There was a dish, sort of a macaroni and cheese, but the macaroni was replaced with Udon noodles, the ones which are sold pre-cooked. For a noodle nerd like me it was a shock. It seemed disgustingly overcooked and soggy and I couldn’t eat it. I just wonder why she used Udon instead of Macaroni? I doubt that she couldn’t find Macaroni. It could’ve been sort of her way of doing Survival Canadian Cooking?

Interesting, what are some other examples?

I have this vegetarian, vegan cookbook written by an American chef and got it because I just wanted to learn about vegetarian cooking but found out that some Japanese-specific ingredients, like Hijiki and Umeboshi, were used for the more health-conscious recipes. It’s nice to learn how these ingredients are prepared in contrast to Japanese cuisine. At a market here in Montreal, you can find Shiso and Mizuna these days. My friend made me a dinner the other day, a grilled salmon on a bed of rice topped with green vegetable salad including Shiso leaves in large chunks. On the other hand, at most Sushi restaurants here (and they are run by non-Japanese) they have miso soup on their menu, there is even a “spicy” miso soup, and people order them with sushi. (Well, precisely, they have the soup first then sushi) And I have to ask myself, why? For me, I never have miso soup with sushi because that’s how I grew up. Speaking of sushi, they are not bad here in general, except some occasional surprises, like a pineapple maki I got the other day. But because of that, I won’t be shocked if I get a banana maki someday I got used to these creative North American rich maki rolls that when I last went back to Japan in 2004 I was somewhat unsatisfied by the real thing. They seemed too plain!  When I went to Sao Paulo and visited Liberdade, I was excited to see some Dango (sweet rice cake with red bean paste) but the color was far from being subtle, they were bright, pink and green. I couldn’t eat them, but I’m pretty sure I’d be eating them if I stayed there long enough. It’s just a matter of time but overall it’s interesting to see the transformation of a Japanese food when brought into and adapted to another culture.

Thanks Shie.

Shie Kasai is originally from Sapporo, Hokkaido.



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