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Mayonnaise To Taste

I found a copy of Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, the other day. First published in 1980, the book is widely perceived as having introduced Japanese food to the rest of the world. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art is an inspiring and beautiful book, and I can see how it would have demystified what the rest of the world then viewed as, in the words of the blurb, “an obscure ethnic cuisine.” It does a very good job of making a person want to eat Japanese food. As far as I am concerned, however, it does less well in terms of making a person know how to make that Japanese food for themselves. There are lots of fine line drawings showing how to peel the skin off an irregularly shaped fish in one fluid motion or how to cut a daikon into the shape of something more complexly beautiful than a snowflake. There are drawings of the correct way to sharpen traditional Japanese knives on a whetstone, and drawings of the wrong way to do that, and the difference between the two is not immediately visible to me. Tsuji’s writing is illuminating and warmly reassuring: you can do it! You can participate in the many beautiful situations that will naturally materialise in the life of someone who has mastered Japanese cooking, the simple art. He is trying his best, but the exquisite drawings of how to decapitate an octopus or how to cut up noodles with your evisceratingly sharp knife and hang them off a thin stick undermine his good intentions. For those of us who are easily frightened or discouraged, the message is clear: you, an idiot, cannot do this. You with your giant thick fingers and loud personality, breathing over the fish, in your beige kitchen, with your loser knife that you bought from the supermarket, listening to a podcast about how to improve your CV. What even are you doing over there.

It’s fine. Put your shame and Japanese Cooking: The Simple Art to one side, for now, and come look at a recipe book published by the Lutheran church in Eshowe. Page through another one of my faves, which I found at my grandmother’s house, published in 1980 by the Catholic Church in Underberg. The messages contained within the pages of these books is quite different: you, an idiot, an oaf who I hate, can absolutely do this. It is as simple as opening up a can of mushroom soup and pouring it over some chicken pieces, cooking it for a suspiciously long time, and presenting it to your large, resigned family. The heart of the Japanese kitchen is an incredibly sharp knife and an aversion to cumbersome adornment. The heart of the church recipe book kitchen is Stork margarine and a feeling that this dish would profit from the addition of chutney. Church recipe books are compilation albums, made up of recipes titled things like Spaghetti Bolognaise to Feed a Crowd and Quiche Summer Elegante, written by women called Linda and Mrs Bill Richardson whose idea of “obscure ethnic cuisine” starts and ends with olive oil. There is mayonnaise in everything. There are notes at the end of the recipe telling the reader to “add some cheddar cheese – the children love it!” and “Parsley can be used as a garnish if the kiddies aren’t eating.” Everything in the ingredients list can be bought at a small Spar. Everything can be chopped up with a knife that has no idea what a whetstone is. There is no difference between baking chocolate and any other kind of chocolate. No difference between lemon juice and “dry red wine.” There is no limit to the amount of white sauce a recipe can handle.

There can be a table of contents where one of the chapters is titled “Recipes for ‘Bachelors’”, with no explanation provided for the sinister quotation marks. There can be a recipe called “MOCK CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS OR CITY CHICKEN” and you just never find out what city chicken is, or why anyone alive would want to make a fake chicken drumstick out of “veal and pork cubes.” There is no reason why you can’t put some canned asparagus on the top of that salad if you feel like it. No reason to eat any vegetables that aren’t creamed sweetcorn. Would you like a lot of tomato sauce with that? Yes, so much. Would you like to be able to do this with your eyes closed while listening to a podcast about the fanciest resort in Mauritius? Would you like to not have any real feelings about how the dish looks at the end? Yes, so much. Would you like to know the ingredients of something called “Nut Sauce”? Here, for you:

  • 4oz nuts
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 and a half cups of mayonnaise

You just mix it all up together in a “coffee grinder, mixer, or liquidizer” and pour it over whatever you feel like. Macaroni? Carrots cut in an ugly and wrong way? Whatever you feel like is fine.

Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town.

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