Denise Sakaki with another trip down culinary memory lane in her newest Sense Memory column.
By Denise Sakaki
A heady scent of ginger combined with the savory aroma of garlic. The refreshing bitter crunch of scallions being freshly sliced. An unmistakable crackle of hot oil as ingredients sizzle in the pan, releasing an intense perfume into the air as the fading light of the day falls into dusk. This isn’t the start of the dinner rush at a restaurant, it’s the nightly ritual at the most exclusive place in town – the kitchen at my parents’ house, and it’s time to eat. My workday stresses and concerns are gone, because right now, this is all that matters.
The saying goes that you can never go home again, but there are flavors of food that exist beyond typical description that instantly take us to places in our past. It can be as personal and obscure as a bowl of cold cereal eaten at midnight, or familiar as the smell of cookies as they’re taken from the oven to cool on the counter. When I go to visit my mother and father, it’s like I’ve stepped into a time machine. Lazy mornings with the daily paper. No endless stream of constant information to interrupt, because my parents find no need for the internet. I feel like I’m a kid all over again. There’s always time for an afternoon snack, like when I’d come home from school, and there would always be something delicious waiting on the kitchen counter. The constant clatter of busywork throughout the household, with dishes getting washed and ingredients starting to be prepped, the smells of a well-intended meal about to happen. It’s not an unfamiliar pace, but maybe it’s because when I’m in my house, I’m the one doing these things, and it just feels like items on an endless list of everyday to-do’s. I forget to listen to the heartbeat of my own home. My parents spoil me during my visit, insisting I lounge like a lazy teenager, and that’s when I recognize the familiar tune of a household with all its turning cogs and wheels. It becomes more apparent how the role of food and family becomes woven into a life.
My mother continues to cook the dishes she’s been making since I was a child. Sweet and sour pork. Portuguese bean soup. Chili and rice. Familiar to some, obscure to others, they’re the everyday foods that my parents were raised on when they grew up in Hawaii. They are heritage meals, persisting through several generations, in times both lean and prosperous, these dishes never change. My father’s a creature of habit when it comes to eating, never straying from his favorites, so it’s ensured this time capsule-like existence at their household. While my mother insists she’s not a fancy cook, her modesty belies the fact that she absolutely knows what she’s doing. She’s been running the hardest-working restaurant in the world, nearly forty years and counting, a kitchen that serves meals 24/7, including holidays and weekends. I accompany her on her multiple trips to the local grocery stores and farmers market visits, watching her map out the week’s meals, knowing how to stretch ingredients, take shortcuts where she can, and always have a home-cooked dinner on the table by six. I realize how many of her habits I’ve involuntarily adopted for myself, as I attempt to balance efficiency with a busy workday. It’s not an easy task, as the need to feed a household is constant, and I think of her often when I’m checking things off a grocery list or trying to think of what I can make during a busy week. In a quiet moment of honesty one afternoon, she says that she never really taught me how to cook, that most of the things I make at my house are things I learned on my own. But then I correct her, saying even though the food that comes out of our kitchens are different, she taught the most important lesson of all: the value and benefit of cooking for oneself, and the desire to keep learning and trying new things. Anyone can follow a recipe, it’s something else entirely to instill a sense of value in the pursuit of a home-cooked meal.
The visits are always too short, but I always leave with a startling sense of clarity. It’s not about the cachet of some obscure, rare ingredient or the celebrity glam of a new restaurant that makes food so relevant to our lives. A genuine appreciation of food started for most people with the simplest of things, a basic meal prepared with love during a time in our lives when that love was needed most. Comfort foods are an extension of our innermost selves, revealing where we came from, and what inevitably transports us back home when we feel lost in the world. And somewhere in between the past and the present, the home-cooked meals always manage to taste better, as a reminder to never stray too far from who we truly are.