Cooking With a Vengeance

2 Mar

june-cleaver

The email for my assignment requests that I bring two things on my next mission. One of them is a set of knives. And the other? An apron.

Jenny G.: International Woman of Mystery, is about to finish what she started. I am headed for my very first cooking class.

A few weeks ago after some misadventures in my own kitchen, I decided it was time to get proactive and improve upon my somewhat non-existent cooking skills. As it turns out, cooking classes are becoming more popular in Denver, so I was able to locate a plethora of options pretty quickly. There was some heavy debate around pasta and pastry lessons , but I ultimately deemed those options more harmful than helpful. I stumbled across a Healthy Japanese Cooking workshop and registered before I could talk myself out of it.

I arrive at the class a few minutes early and am greeted warmly by our instructor, Meiko. Meiko, as it turns out, hails from Kyoto, where she was raised by Buddhist monks. I feel instantly at ease, knowing I’ll be in good hands. A white board in the kitchen classroom lists a number of dishes we will make today in small neat handwriting. I have no idea what any of these dishes are, but I’m excited to learn. I introduce myself and Meiko dubs me Jenny-san. A whole new alias. We are off to a good start.

The other students start to trickle in, but in their presence I start to feel intimidated. Many of them have been to Meiko’s classes before. They instantly begin swapping stories of their travels, and various dining conquests. They compare international markets with a familiarity that makes me wonder if I am out of my league. I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. I pretend to be absorbed in my recipe handouts, instead.

Luckily, there isn’t much time for chatting. Meiko gets right down to business pulling supplies out of a cooler and firing up oven burners. Her cooking style is a bit sporadic. One moment she’s explaining the difference between various sakes, and vinegars for sushi rice and the next she has us making mochi balls and tossing them in a pot of boiling water. We chop asparagus and lotus root, while she presses tofu and roasts sesame seeds.

I’m immediately lost, but it’s just the right kind of lost. I’m lost among the aromas of a dozen different exotic ingredients. I become aware early on that I may never be able to replicate any of these recipes, but the experience of watching someone cook like Meiko is enrapturing. An experience, in and of itself.

After whipping up our various side dishes, it’s time for the main event. We get to make our own sushi. Meiko gives us a quick demonstration and it looks easy enough. Place some fish on a flat piece of cling wrap and some rice on top of that. The cling wrap then gets folded around the pile of rice and molded into a little ball. Once I’ve compacted everything together, my concoction vaguely resembles the nigiri rolls I’ve always admired in sushi restaurants. I make a couple of different pieces, which we then get to garnish with various toppings – lemon zest, capers, ginger. I have no idea how my sushi will taste, but it least now it looks pretty.

What follow is a flurry of plating the various dishes we’ve made. (Technically Meiko has made most of the food, but we’ve helped by chopping and stirring where applicable.) When I first saw our itinerary for the day, I’d had my doubts it could all be done in time for lunch, but before the clock strikes noon, I’ve got a spread of delicious looking Japanese food before me.  From Temari Sushi, to Agadeshi Tofu, Deep Fried Lotus and Shrimp Sandwiches, Asparagus Goma-Ae and Kinako Shiratama dessert.

The International Woman of Mystery is mystified. And starving.

Meiko explains the importance of presentation in Japanese culture. Everything looks positively elegant, but the beauty is short-lived. The lot of us digs in, while Meiko pours us freshly brewed green tea. My palate quickly become overwhelmed by all the new flavors. I’ve eaten at my share of Japanese restaurants, but most of these tastes are unfamiliar to me. More authentic. Somehow more real and raw, than anything you’d find dining out.

I leave class, with a full belly and no real new cooking skills. But I also leave feeling inspired and invigorated by this infusion of new culture into my life. By showing up for a class well outside my comfort zone, I’ve experienced a whole new world, right here in my own city. Jenny-san declares this mission a success.

Ciao,
Jenny G.

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