Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

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by Jennifer DeBoer

His eyes were dark and penetrating. He handed me an English menu without hesitation and did not bother trying to speak Japanese to me, the one with the tourist’s backpack. I was grinning, shivering from the soft evening rain outside and the excitement of my first authentic Japanese sushi meal. The only other patrons, a pair of well-shod businessmen in a booth, did not interrupt their conversation to look up as I ordered in English inside the hushed little sushi bar, pointing to the colorful pictures of raw fish lying in repose on beds of fluffy rice.

I ordered. Wordlessly, the chef moved from my lonely end of the bar to the slabs of fish meat. He may have been very old—the slow of his movements and his shoulders would say so—but his face was young and keen. Perhaps he was ageless. He moved through the poised calm of the restaurant with an utterly sharp knife, broad as his palm. He was a movie still, verging on action and frozen alive. He did not speak except to ask the businessmen if their drinks needed refilling, but he appeared to have very much to say. I saw movement in the dark waters of his eyes, but he turned back to the counter and I looked down at my hands. No words for me—me, with my freshly airported look and my blonde hair.

He sliced the yellowtail tenderly and laid the fish on their plate. He handed the first plate across the counter delicately, deliberately. His soft smile did not break his smooth countenance. I ate. The sashimi tasted like heady layers of folded satin, not at all like a dirty wriggling saltwater fish. Sublime wasabi, crisp ginger, and a hovering, silent chef. After the last bite of that first plate was gone, I tried to put the inexplicable taste into worldly terms. I complimented him in English words and the hand-sign language of tourists. His face did not react to the superlatives I used about his food, but he must have understood my satisfaction. The fish had disappeared instantly from my plate.

He gave me a plate of eel in exchange for my emptied yellowtail plate. The eel fell apart like cotton candy, spun in threads that melt to sugar on the tongue. I could hear the quiet chef in the warm fish, singing to beauty and refinement and culinary art and welcoming me in the language of food that he knew better than his mother tongue.

Unexpectedly, an outstretched hand approached me with another plate, framed by a confident gaze and simply upturned corners of a mouth. On the plate, a small heap of sea life had been lightly torched. It was blackish-brown, like dirty boots. The chef’s eyes watched silently, expectantly, watching me and that dish I had not ordered. I picked up the runt of the squid-like litter and swam it in soy sauce before daintily, even quizzically, eating it. The crust was coy and brittle, soured with the soy sauce. The inside hinted at calamari, if calamari could taste like a sophisticated mystery with a hint of sea rubber. With a crunch, the free anonymous sushi dish said hello and convinced me to eat more of this gift. I ate it all.

As I prepared to make my way back to the hotel, again, the chef placed a dish unsolicited on the glass of the bar counter in front of me. What were these unnamed concoctions? The ceramic plate clanged in the stillness of the restaurant, ringing with friendliness to a strange traveler. Exquisite and tiny, seared tuna steaks smiled wider than their cook. He waited for me to try them. I did, and they were perfect.

Outside the rain was streaming stoically down over the window panes, into neat cobblestone gutters below clean sidewalks, running down the hill towards the quiet temple. Narita was silent, the sushi bar was silent, and I heard the voice of the chef in his food loudly and clearly. His unfaltering eyes were speechless, but the language of his elegant cuisine was musical, haughty and graceful, like an empress or a ghost.

I came to the restaurant with my backpack for company. I was alone in Japan with no Japanese, but the food passed across the counter drew me into a deeper conversation than most.

* * * * *

Invisible in the adjacent kitchen, flavored steam invaded the main room of the house where we sat with some of our students. The heat of the day, the warmth of the stove, and the zest of the Sichuan chilies were fighting for our attention. We sat patiently around a large table sipping tea and sweating, Chinese on one side, English-speakers on the other.

The children, our summer camp students, chatted with us between bites in accented but precise English. The parents, though, who spoke only a subset of the Sichuan dialect, ventured out of the kitchen rarely. The mother emerged only to pile more food onto the table, and the father could only be glimpsed through the murky haze in the kitchen. When the food was served though, the lingual divisions around the table and, more noticeably, with the aloof cooks in the kitchen, vanished with the smoke rising off of the sizzling meat.

One by one in a never-ending parade, dishes emerged from the kitchen’s cave of aromas. They were simple dishes—thick fatty bacon and string beans, tofu and peppers, eggs—each infused with potent magic. Thin films of sauce from the wok covered our chopsticks. Even the rice was exotic. Dishes of food crowded each other on the round table, jostling for places between our glasses of tea and water and individual rice bowls. The plates were emptied quickly; ladles cleared big gulps of food from the serving plates, and a horde of chopsticks descended on the feast.

But with our chopsticks in mid-air, another plate would fly in from the kitchen. We ate and ate, showing our gratefulness for their hospitality with our excusable gluttony. The chopsticks chattered against the sides of our bowls to announce our appreciation. Mumbles and giggles between mouthfuls voiced our pleasure in sounds that everyone understood. Incomprehensible sounds—none of them words—rose from our throats. Meat with shards of pepper seeds cackled on the table. All around was smell and noise.

We held up our hands in protest as our bowls were continuously refilled. To no avail. The family’s propriety would not permit them be effusive in their verbal or physical welcomes, so they poured all their hospitable sentiments into tender chicken and overflowing tea cups. We tried to mime fullness, but the mother refused to skip over our bowls for fourth helpings. She was happy we were visiting; the delicious meal and its infinite bowls of rice were saying all the greetings she could not. She wanted to give us the best of her pantry and her home. She wanted to surpass every expectation or experience we had of Chinese entertaining. Our overstuffed mouths, still eating, told her we were happy, too.

Words were useless anyways, since our mouths were crammed with burning mushrooms and thick rice. Words could not be heard in the din of that room, with dishes banging, mouths chewing, laughing, pungent odors shouting to the guests, and meticulous work in the kitchen hailing the visiting royalty.

* * * * *

The family—two brothers, two wives, the mother, and a young grandchild—sat on the floor across the room, watching my every bite. The eldest brother, patriarch designate, sat closer and guided me through my meal, eating after every one of my mouthfuls. I was reluctant to eat before the rest of the family, who began their meal only after I was almost finished, but the eldest brother urged me to try the food while it was still steaming.

Like open arms, the plate on the floor in front of my crossed legs extended the family’s greeting to me—into their home, into their family life, and onto the pillow seat of honored guests. The thali plate, as round as a car tire and covered with small bowls of every dish, was a pinwheel of color and fragrance. Tiny bowls filled with eggplant, lentils, potatoes, savory meats, yogurt raita dip, and green and yellow chutneys were lined up around the edge of the large thali. In the center, a pile of rice and a stack of tortilla-like chapatis invited me to dig in and make a mess of the masterpiece. Curried heat made my eyes water before I had even lifted the goat meat to my mouth. Sweet, succulent, spicy flavors danced in my mouth like the eye-catching wave of the cook’s sari as she threw it over her shoulder. She sat with the rest of the family, watching me from the corner

I ate and ate, wiping away tears in between spicy handfuls of aloo. Refills appeared before I finished devouring the first dish. Firm refusals of third helpings were useless, as the wife who was serving the food pretended not to understand, or hear, or care that I was beginning to fill up. The rest of the family sat silently, watching me spoon up dinner while they waited to eat.

I finished. The helpings finally stopped arriving from the kitchen, and I thought I had passed the test. I assumed I was done until one wife came back from the kitchen carrying a bag filled with thick juice and tannish globs of something. “Gulab jamun,” she said, and even the words sounded sickly sweet. I was ready to explode, but the outstretched hand spooning the milk dough onto my empty plate was irresistible. I could only convey my thanks for the wordless action by wordlessly eating. One bite of the exotic dessert erased the memory of every sweet I had ever eaten.

I stepped out into the streets to walk back to my hotel. Evening had fallen while I was busy eating. The sidewalks burned with bright colors for the Holi Festival. Pinks, oranges, neon powders and liquids turned the aged, dusty streets of the walled Rajasthani city into a raucous Mardi Gras Jackson Pollock painting. But the streets were drab next to the colors still dancing on my tongue and in my stomach. The welcome served to me, the table laid in the grand ancient tradition of hospitality to travelers, this was a gesture easily understood. There are languages more powerful than those spoken—languages that cross barriers that mere words dare not breach. When words fail to express the greetings between happily-met strangers, food can interpret.

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