Caroline Ishii puts love and care into all the food she makes. Photo credit: Caroline Ishii.
I always put love and care into the food I create for others. Like with the weeks spent preparing to make a five-course dinner for 100 participants as part of the Virtual Communal Table event celebrating World Food Day on Oct.16.
A chef friend told me he could not put all the care and detail into his food that I do with mine. I replied I don’t know any other way than to give it my best and make people happy. Living in Japan, I realized this approach is not just me, but part of Japanese philosophy.
In Japan, food is important to people’s lives and closely aligned with their love of nature, seasons, regions, and celebrations. The Japanese collective spirit is about doing your best in whatever you do, whether saying good morning to someone or serving them food.
A food for every season
I love how the seasons change everything around you in the stores, and this change is evident with food. Every season comes with its own colours and tastes, and many cultural celebrations and events. There is my favourite, sakura mochi, only made during the sakura season in the springtime. In the summer, kakigori (ice shavings) makes its appearance. The front of a house on the main street in my town transformed almost overnight into a kakigori stand. My favourite flavour was matcha and adzuki.
In the fall, the autumn leaves set the tone. Vibrant orange persimmons hang from house exteriors like Christmas ornaments, and sweetened chestnuts sometimes replace the beloved adzuki bean. In the winter, the focus becomes hot pot meals called nabemono.
While Christmas is not an official holiday in Japan, store vendors love the themes. They are quick to fill their stores with festive foods, from frosty, white cream cakes to sweets in gift packages for children. Christmas Eve is a romantic date night for couples like Valentine’s Day is for us. However, the main holiday event of the year in Japan is New Year’s. A time for reflection, spending time with family and friends, and going to the temple to pray for the new year. There are special lucky foods eaten on New Year’s Day, with households spending weeks preparing for it or ordering their special new years box from their local vendor.
Each region is known for its food specialty, called kyodo ryori, using local ingredients and traditional recipes. For example, Osaka is known for okonomiyaki and Kyoto for matcha. On Shikoku Island, Kagawa is known for its udon and Kochi prefecture for its butan and yuzu citrus fruits and ginger.
I heard that it is important for Japanese salarymen to know what specialties come from each region so that they can be part of the common “conversation.” Coming home with omiyage or souvenir gifts, usually food, for sharing with your colleagues, family and friends is expected when you travel out of the home base.
Eating with your eyes
Food is always beautifully presented in Japan. Whether you are buying a 100-yen mochi (about $1.25), a 500-yen lunch box at the local take out store ($6.30), or an elaborate 10,000-yen ($125) kaiseki, multi-course meal, thought and care that goes into the preparation and presentation.
Growing up in Toronto, I would help my mom serve dinner. Food could not simply be placed in a bowl or on a plate. It would have to be presented, made more beautiful, and carefully plated, often with garnish like green onion slivers or ground sesame seeds. As a young girl, I thought this was annoying when I was hungry and just wanted to eat. Later in life, I enjoyed plating dishes mindfully. Becoming a chef, it’s one of the things that I enjoy most. I often spend much thought on how to present a dish to wow the diner, so they appreciate its beauty and aesthetics before digging in, like an ikebana flower arrangement.
Food is me
I realize over time that the food I make is an extension of me. What do I mean by this? I mean that I put my heart and spirit into it. When I make food, I think about the people I am making the food for and add good wishes like an extra ingredient. It’s often for people’s health and happiness and protection from harm’s way, especially during the pandemic.
Does it work? I will never know. People often say that my food is delicious, and they cannot wait to eat it again. I believe what they are craving is more than the food itself. It is the feeling they get when they eat my food. It’s fresh, pure, and diners often say to me they can see and feel the love and care I put into it.
How else can you explain that satisfying warm feeling you get when you taste your mother’s or your grandmother’s cooking? When they are gone, you crave their food. More than the food, it was the energy in the food. The love and care they put into it to make you happy. Can you put words to this expression?
Kokoro my life
I found that the Japanese have a term for this love, kokoro. It means putting your body, mind, and spirit into what you do. It explains how I approach food and cooking. It’s about wanting to please the customers, but also more than this. It’s about sharing my love for customers, my best offering, all my creativity, passion, and talents, and to show I care.
I am continuing what my mother loved to do at home and when she volunteered at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, feeding others and presenting food with love and care. It’s what mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers around the world continue to do always. More than ever now, we need food that nourishes and comforts us. Adding love to what we make and serve is like a secret love letter tucked into a lunch bag for a loved one. They will notice. It is kokoro and love in action.