Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Okazu Nimura-Style)


When Josh and I were in college and just learning how to live together, we also had to figure out to cook together. It didn’t take long to find our go-to multicultural meal plan: chicken, vegetables, rice (Asian nights!). Or, chicken, vegetables, pasta (Italian nights!). We had lots of variations: stir-fry chicken teriyaki chicken, BBQ chicken, chicken cacciatore. For vegetables: salad, steamed broccoli. For carbohydrates: rice or pasta.

Every once in a while, we’d break out of the routine and splurge on some ground beef, and we’d make okazu.

In Japan, okazu is just a name for “side dishes to accompany rice.” The rice is meant to be the star of a meal. I’m guessing that this is because the Japanese value rice so highly, and because their “food pyramid” looks different than the American version. In my family, it means something different. Until about 10 years ago, I thought that “okazu” meant just one specific dish. If you said “okazu” to me, I’d tell you without hesitating: it’s eggplant and zucchini, stewed with some garlic and ground beef, all in a light sweet-soy sauce broth. Never mind that I’d never seen our version of okazu anywhere else, including Japanese American potlucks and restaurants.

Okazu Nimura-style is meant to be a main dish, a one-pot dish that you ladle over rice into a dinner bowl. As I heard my aunties tell it at one New Year’s gathering, okazu’s a dish that grew out of necessity. My grandmother had to stretch a pound of hamburger into a meal that would feed six kids and two adults. What did they have in abundance, maybe from their vegetable garden or from the farms where they worked? A lot of eggplant, a lot of zucchini. Brown a pound of ground beef. Maybe add some garlic cloves or garlic powder. Add a couple of flavorings that taste vaguely like teriyaki (soy sauce, sugar), and let the whole thing stew, and there you have it. Okazu.

Some of my Internet research tells me that versions of the dish grew out of the Sacramento valley, where I grew up. There are a couple of recipes floating around with green beans or cabbage instead of eggplant and zucchini. You could try those; they’re not so different than the recipe I’m going to give you. But if you like ratatouille, what happens to eggplant and zucchini in that dish, you might try this okazu instead. The vegetables turn silky, if you let them stew long enough. Mixed all together with a bowl of rice, it’s simple and comforting.  I grew up with so many meals ladled over rice. I still miss those brown Noritake stoneware bowls, large enough for a meal but small enough to fit on the wide arm of a comfortable couch.

Okazu is simple farm fare. it’s hearty, it’s Japanese American soul food. It takes minutes to put together, and it stews obligingly while you take care of other matters: giving the kids a bath, watering the plants, sweeping the kitchen floor. Just don’t forget to turn on the rice cooker.

I don’t have a finished picture for this dish. Okazu’s not very photogenic; it doesn’t look very appetizing unless you’ve tried it. I’ll just have to trust your palate—does the combination of flavors sound appealing to you?—and maybe your sense of adventure, if you’ve never tried it before.

If adobo is my Filipino home, okazu might just be my Japanese one.

Eggplant Zucchini Okazu (Nimura-style)

  • 1 lb (more or less) of ground beef. Ground turkey works in a pinch, too, but dark meat is better. (A lot of the flavor comes from the meat.)
  • 1 globe eggplant or 2-3 Japanese eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2-3 medium zucchini, cut into chunks
  • About 1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce, to taste
  • About 1/3 cup white sugar, to taste (note: while trying to cut back on white sugar, I  used maple syrup a couple of nights ago, which worked out nicely)
  • 2-3 minced garlic cloves, or about 1 tsp garlic powder if you don’t have fresh garlic
  • Water, barely enough to cover the ingredients above when in the pot (See notes below)
  • Cooked rice for serving (I like to mix white and brown together)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a medium-sized pot until it is cooked through. If there is a great deal of grease, drain the grease from the pot and continue browning the beef.
  2. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and minced garlic to the beef and mix well.
  3. Add the eggplant and zucchini to the sauce and meat. Then add a little bit of water, about half a cup. Note: The vegetables will release a lot of water, and you don’t want the sauce to be too watery, so don’t add too much at first until the vegetables have cooked.
  4. Let the dish stew, let the vegetables cook, and then add a bit more water if the eggplant is still tough and leathery and the zucchini isn’t sinking into a nice velvety oblivion. This step should take about 25 minutes over medium heat, although you might begin checking after 20 minutes to see if the vegetables are cooked the way you like them.
  5. Check the broth and see if it has enough flavor (too salty, too sweet? Need more water, soy sauce, sugar?), and adjust to taste. Check to see if the vegetables are cooked enough; the eggplant and zucchini should be fork-tender, if not melting (the way I like them). Serve over hot rice.

Love letter to a small Japanese grocery store

Breaking news (and my, the online news world moves fast!) I’ve written my first article for Seattlest, a Seattle news/events/restaurants website. I’m going to be writing for the Food section of Seattlest, and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to be a food writer. Here are some behind-the-scenes notes about the story.

This story is a love letter of sorts to Maruta Shoten, a small Japanese grocery store south of downtown Seattle. Maruta made me so homesick when I walked in, that I almost cried. Maruta carried umani in its deli section, a dish which I’d never seen outside my family’s kitchens. When I saw the umani I missed my California family intensely. I miss them still, living in Washington after all these years.

I grew up going to Sakai’s, in downtown Sacramento, which closed down eventually.  I have so many childhood memories of exploring the crowded and dark aisles of Sakai’s, and eventually leaving with some Botan rice candy and some Kern’s guava nectar. I remember my mom buying fresh tofu from the 5-gallon tubs of water, and watching the butcher cut up char shiu for us to take home. I remember the clear crackling cellophane bags of curry powder and other spices, and the porcelain buy ventolin 4mg teakettles crowded in the storefront window. These are the kinds of sensory memories that I want to pass on to my daughters; it’s a form of infusing cultural heritage like no other.

During the editing process I had to delete the personal “I” and exchange it for the royal “we”, deferring to the website’s overall voice: a useful lesson for an I-centric blogger (like me) to learn.

This post also marks my first foray into something like food photography–I have a nice point-and-shoot digital camera, though, nothing very fancy.  That’s our red couch, and my smoky lavender sweater serving as color backdrops for the food shots. Time to take some photography lessons!

A good number of folks in Seattle know all about the largest ethnic supermarkets in the ID (International District), Uwajimaya and Viet Wah–but I wonder what is going to happen to the much smaller markets like Maruta. It seems to be doing fairly well, but I wonder what will happen to it if it ever closes down. That’s why I wrote this article. I hope we can continue to support small mom-and-pop markets like this one. They often yield something that the larger supermarkets usually cannot: a sense of intimate community and history.

A new conversation: Behind the Menu Status Updates

Dear Colleen,
I’ve been thinking a lot about your latest post, “Friend to Foodies.” I like to think that you wrote much of it with a gently mocking affection for your foodie friends, me included.

I am guilty of much of what you describe: homemade jam (check) and cakes (check); farmer’s markets (check); reusable shopping bag, (check, but recycled plastic); Facebook status updates advertising what we are eating for dinner (check). Here’s the passage that I thought about the most:

“But alas, foodies are indeed everywhere. And now, thanks to social media, I get to hear what all of you food enthusiasts are up to, which is like 90% cool, and 10% annoying because you make it sound so effortless, like you are lazily sipping on chardonnay, throwing together ingredients from your garden for your adoring friends and loved ones…who will clap as you plate the food.”

I wanted to talk about the 10% annoying part a bit, because I recognize that feeling. I think this part says a lot about how we think about ourselves as working parents, as working mothers, and a lot about what’s not said. There are so many ways to judge ourselves and each other.

See, what struck me about these two identities, working parent and eater/foodie, is that both involve an endless daily supply of incredibly personal decisions. Most of us try the best we can. We try to make our lifestyle reflect our values and priorities, but we can’t be successful in every single decision that we make. The academic in me, heck, even the writer in me, says that there are larger conversations to be had. So, let’s talk about the menu status updates first.

Confession #1: In my household we make time to cook, and grocery shop, but far less time to clean.

I know my menu updates on Facebook might sound, as menus do, like lovely descriptions. But, like menus and status updates, they are just the tip of the iceberg lettuce of life. Some of our meals do take a fair amount of work, and preparation, and hours of grocery shopping, all of which I enjoy most days of the week. I’m lucky that I love cooking and grocery shopping; I can’t imagine how difficult home cooking would feel if I didn’t.

Sometimes the menu status updates are elaborate because the meals do take a great deal of time and preparation. Arroz con pollo is one of our favorite meals, but it takes at least a couple of hours and several stages, involving chopping, marinating, simmering, and baking. On some days I wonder why I succumb to my craving for elaborate or time-intensive dishes, if I have to cook them.

But more often than not, the menu status updates are my ways to focus and meditate: a space to find calm and quiet amidst the whirl of activity that is our house between 4 and 7 PM most days. On good days, this might involve gleeful screams, an ABBA dance party, and several thundering laps around our dining room, kitchen, living room, and hallway. On not-so-good days, this might involve several tearful pleas for “chocky milk,” or just one more Bugs Bunny cartoon, or the clattering of fifty plastic blocks from the Duplo table. Most days are a healthy mix of both. Writing a menu status update can be my therapeutic reminder that I’m looking forward to a good meal, and that makes me happy.

So these status updates help me to relax. But they also mean that the more time I am cooking and baking, the less time I am cleaning. I know people don’t usually status-update a beautifully clean living room, but when I see those living rooms in houses I visit, especially those houses where people have small children, I think about how effortless they seem.

And that’s when I understand the “90% cool, 10% annoying” ratio. These living rooms look amazing. I envy their peace. But how do these families time find to keep it clean? Like you, I envy, but my envy involves that mythical clean and organized family who never has to clear off the table before they eat; who stores every toy in its original box in its proper basket on its designated shelf; who never finds pretzel crumbs and dried cranberries in their sofa cushions. My house is, let’s just say, far from immaculate. We make lots of time to cook, with family expeditions to various grocery stores, but far less time to clean.

I have similar feelings about the craftymom blogs that I read. I love seeing what these women create, and yet I wonder how they have enough time and energy, much less a clear-enough workspace.  Doesn’t it make you feel better when, occasionally, the cracks show through the seemingly perfect narrative? When they admit that they too, need time to breathe?

I have more confessions to make “behind the status updates” (I’m a picky eater! My kids are kind of picky, too! I use convenience foods along with from-scratch foods!). For now, though, I wanted to know what you thought about this column, “Busy Signal: The Very Busy Home Cook.” I loved so much of what Pete Wells had to say: what time constraints and energy levels look like in households with several small children and two working parents, what houses look like where the breadwinners’ work does not get “left at the office.” I loved the idea of not shaming “those who do not have the time to cook,” and I even loved the idea of better processed food.

I know that there are privileges in our two-income lifestyle. (Kudos to the single parents out there. A fist-bump to all those folks looking for a job. Gratitude to those who volunteer and work at places like food banks.) And yet with all due respect, I wondered if folks would have responded differently had Wells been a working mother writing this line: “I have definitely learned something about cooking for a family at the end of a day spent in an office: It’s very, very hard to do.” Would it have had the same impact?

I look forward to hearing more about what you have to say about this combination of issues, about working and parenting and home cooking. I don’t hold myself up as a model worker or parent or home cook, but maybe there are a few anecdotes or strategies I can offer, or things that our commenters can offer. And maybe that conversation can help everybody. And I hope you’ll do the same.


Where I start

I know I’m in trouble mentioning the word “miracle” during the holidays. I’m beyond saving if I add the word “family” to the same sentence. But I want to tell you about my family miracle.

Around 10AM on every New Year’s Day of my life, I have had breakfast with my extended family: all five of my dad’s siblings, plus my cousins and their families.  We all eat. Then we go home and cook. We return for dinner: more eating. Unlike other family reunions I’ve heard about, we don’t have T-shirts, we don’t travel anywhere exotic, and we don’t rent out a restaurant.

Longevity is part of the miracle. As far as I know, New Year’s has never been cancelled in over five decades; one year, my grandfather sold his wedding ring to make New Year’s happen. Maybe it’s because my father died over twenty-five years ago, and in some families that would mean that my link to his family died, too. Maybe I’m more aware of longevity now that I have two daughters to bring to the table.

Part of the miracle is also what I get to eat. At breakfast we’ll sip ozoni and eat its mochi, along with its shiitake mushroom, nori and shungiku. We’ll eat my uncle’s sabazushi with pickled mackerel. I can’t wait for my cousins’ carefully timed barbequed teriyaki ventolin inhaler albuterol chicken. At dinnertime we always start by lining up for Auntie Nesan’s chow mein. Another auntie brings arroz con gandules from her husband’s Puerto Rico. My Filipina mom will make lumpia; I’ll make sukiyaki using my dad’s recipe. My cousins and aunties will stuff the inari zushi and roll the maki zushi. There will be teriyaki Spam musubi, oden, crab legs, hijiki, tai, char siu, and umani. Dessert has its own table: fruit salad, pies, finger jello, multiple flavors of leche flans.

As well as we eat, I don’t want this piece to be a “savor the ethnic traditions” one. I’m also resisting the predictable family potluck cliché, about every contribution being valuable.

Yet New Year’s is miraculous: an annual family table. It is my touchstone, and what I think of first when I think of family. The meals are a staggering amount of work, the day has evolved over decades, and it will not always stay the same. Nevertheless, I’m a fairly sane and grounded person…and if anyone asks, New Year’s is where I start to tell the story of my sanity.

(I submitted this piece to a publication–they asked for a 400-word piece about “family” or “holidays.” It wasn’t published, so I get to publish it here! Happy holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading. Back in the New Year, if not before.)

Opening the envelope

I could tell you that it smelled yellow. Not in a diseased, Charlotte-Perkins-Gilman way. Not in an inscrutable, exotic, “Oriental” way.  It smelled like Northern California summer sunlight coming through shoji screen paper.

I could tell you that it smelled, predictably, like aging paper. But that might only tell you so much. If you haunt used bookstores like I do, you’d probably recognize the smell. You’d also know it if you’ve done a lot of research in the archives, or shelving in the library stacks. This week we took a family walk down the spiral stacks at the Seattle Central Public Library, and as we rounded a corner, something like that smell greeted me.

The envelope smelled, as my husband Josh pointed out to me, like my childhood house. When I was growing up, we had touches of Japanese décor around the house: a few kokeshi dolls, a noren that fluttered in the main entrance to the hallway, even a tokonoma with a bright red painting. But for me it’s the shoji screens over our windows and glass doors that quietly say home. That’s the smell: the yellow, the paper, the light.

Since I love paper with a cocooning fervor that would make a silkworm blush (another post, another time), you’d think that the feel of the paper would be my first sensory hit. I’ve had this envelope for years now, and it’s been at my mom’s house for a couple of decades before that, probably unopened.

But at first, I was too tentative to rub the paper between my fingers. I even did some writing before I opened the envelope; I wrote down the questions that I wanted to ask. During internment, how did you and our family deal with loss? How did you deal with the loss of your possessions, of your house, of your family papers and baby pictures? And the difficult, near-impossible questions: How have I dealt, or not dealt, with your loss? How do we endure?

It took me a week to think about those questions. I haven’t read the manuscript since I was eight or nine years buy ventolin without prescription old: almost twenty-five years ago. Then a week later, I wrote down why I was so afraid of opening the envelope. I’m scared that it’s going to make me cry and realize his loss all over again. I hate crying. I hate having lost him.

On my computer desktop, I opened up and looked at an old photo of my father. I wanted to say something like a prayer, but I didn’t know what to ask for. I don’t really pray, if we’re being very honest here.

I couldn’t think, didn’t say, probably felt: please.

Then I opened the envelope. Lately I’ve been worried that the manuscript inside the envelope has been deteriorating. But I noticed that though the first and last pages are a bit tattered, the bond paper’s doing its very best to stand up to the manual typewriter. In an age of slick laser printouts, there’s something engraved, almost letterpressed, about these typewritten pages.

And at the bottom of the very first page, he left me an unexpected gift.

Taku Frank Nimura

December, 1973

Out of the two-hundred plus manuscript pages, it’s this one that I just might cherish the most. He wrote this book—or at least this page—during the month and year that I was born. He died eleven years later.

In the wake of a recent loss, private for now, I am beginning to write my own book. It’s a book that speaks to my father, that will interweave his voice with the voice and artwork of my sister. I don’t know where this project will take us, but I know it’s about memory, family, technology, loss, and home. And it’s about the precariously shifting aftermath of history, or what I’ve come to think of as the wake.

The wake? Stand near the back of a ferry boat, and watch the waters below. As the boat engine starts, the waters will seem to hum. All that unseen energy will churn itself into a thick, gorgeous procession of rippling upheaval. We know the procession will eventually disappear. And so we treasure the wake because we are always leaving it behind.