April Day. A day when it is allowed to surprise others and even a bit cheat, but most of all have fun. It is a day when jokes are taken with generosity. April Day is not particularly celebrated in Japan, it may not be celebrated at all, but I still relied on the April leniency. I wanted to see how the Japanese would react when confronted with a boiled pig’s head as a nice April dish. With eyes, ears and even bristles. I could imagine that it would scare and amuse them. April Day. Maybe it was a bit of a bad joke from me, but you know, when you live in a foreign country and you constantly endure the pressure of things which are different from what you are used to, sometimes you desire to do something bad. Just a little. Well, you may judge whether it was malice or playfulness that tempted me to offer guests the pig’s head in all its beauty forty years ago. Here is my story. Real story.
BOILED PIG‘S HAEAD OR DIVORCE!
The Japanese enjoy fish, skillfully arranged into a graceful arc, fish still a bit flapping on the plate in front of your eyes as if alive, and at the same time they say they can’t withstand when someone eats rabbit. I wondered what they would say to a pig’s head, boiled, nicely located on a tray with lettuce leaves.
I shared this idea with my Japanese husband. We were just preparing one of our regular home parties, and I thought this could be a nice dish to serve. But he found no humor in it. The image of such a meal was so disgusting to him that he strictly forbade such a diet. For the avoidance of doubt, he added that if I dare to do it, he will not give me money to buy a house in Prague and, moreover, he will surely divorce me. He considered it a sufficient warning, so he wiped the proposal out of his mind.
But I already had the head ordered at the Meiji supermarket. The Meiji Revolution marked the end of the isolation of the Japanese islands from the outside world, and so the Meiji supermarket revolutionally had on sale goods from abroad. Nevertheless, my order caused them a stir. The salesman behind the counter with the neatly cut meat amusedly asked if I wanted a head with or without eyes, with a brain or without a brain, and he emphasized that I had to order the head at least three weeks in advance. I also overcame another problem, the pot, because such large pieces of meat are not cooked in ordinary Japanese households. My friend was from the mayor’s family, and they had large pots to accommodate the crowds of voters during ellections. They lent one big pot to me.
The day before the party, I brought the head home, put it in the pot and placed it in the storage space under the kitchen floor. I looked forward to surprise the guests and my husband. I pictured myself bringing the tray with a rosy pig girl with a ribbon in the middle of the decent company of ceremonially attuned Japanese guests.
Well, I didn’t watch over a little thing and my intentions were revealed to my husband before it happend. In that party morning my husband helped with preparations and his task was to buy beer. OK. But, we storaged the enpty bottles in our cellar under the floor of our kitchen and when he opened the floor panel, an unusually large pot caught his eyes. Before I could stop him, he lifted the lid. He shouted terribly and backed out of the narrow kitchen with the lid in his hand. He shivered in shock and lamented that he had warned me and would divorce me. Guests would be terrified he said. The Japanese are sensitivee. Gentle. Such barbaric things are disgusting to them he screamed.
It was too late to call off our party. I stubbornly continued my cooking work. So you Japanese are sensitive? What about fish? Poor dumb fish! You cut them alive and they stare at you in shock.
The party took place on Sunday from two o’clock in the afternoon. Shortly before 2pm, three of my husband’s colleagues came with their families. They talked as is usual in Japan about weather and my husband joked about how hard it is to live with a foreigner. With me it meant of course. Everyone felt sympathetically with his daily returns when he himself unlocked the quiet and dark house at midnight and was not greeted. Well I and children slept at that late time.
The topic of the difficulties of international marriage was then interrupted by other visitors. They were my guests. Mr. Azuma, my Tea ceremony teacher wore a special festive kimono with a striped hakama for the occasion. But the venerability of the embodied tradition was interrupted in a funny way by a blindfold over his eye – he had stye that day. His wife Michiko, until recently Sabena’s flight attendant, took off her haori kimono coat with exaggerated softness and asked for an ashtray. She was a heavy smoker. The owner of the pot, Kazumi, brought two friends, girls, and he looked forward to their frightened faces. He knew what was being cooked. Kazumi Suzuki was of the sixteenth generation of the old settlers of our town of Koganei and shocked the family by wanting to marry a foreigner – a blonde Belgian woman. Other interesting guests came too – Mrs. Riyu, who uncritically admired everything Czech, so she wanted to exchange her Japanese husband for any Czech, a young playwriter Yukio, who collaborated in Japan on drama The Good Soldier Schweik during World War II, in which the best actor according to me was a live dog. Yukio brought his colleague from the theater with the surname Kanze, who betrayed the Noh family tradition. She was the daughter of the Kanze school head.
Such a company was a sufficient attraction for the professionally and socially adequately stunned, solid co-workers of my husband, so I thought that perhaps I would save them from the pig’s head dish. Moreover, the head was still hard.
The fun and flow of the party intensified. Our shy friend, pianist, played her variations on African rhythms and her own compositions using her elbows and whole arms. Mr. Tassai from the Japanese-Czech Society brought sheets of music to the song Tancuj, tancuj, vykrucaj and we all started to sing. Then my husband’s guests slowly prepared to leave, and it seemed that a potentially conflicting confrontation between the conservative guests of our party and the pig would not take place.
But it turned not to be so. The pig’s head was requested. My husband turned to me and silently asked what has happened to that head. Everyone waited a long time to see it and now they may leave without that unusual experience? He wanted to spare them the shock, so he informed them of my craziness in advance and they succumbed to curiosity. It just doesn’t happen to them easily, to see a boiled pig’s head!
And so I carried the head to the table. She – the pig girl – was cute and smiling. The pink ribbon softened her face features even more. The digger tempted to be kissed. Women and girls in the room screamed in high voices and covered their faces, men were wondering what is the best to do to maintain their seriousness. Only the teacher of the Tea ceremony bravely took over the representation and cut the pig’s ear. As an expert, he recommended cheeks, supposedly the greatest delicacy. But the other Japanese did not eat. They preferred to take a photo with the pig. They reconciled a smile and said chiizu – cheese. The Tea teacher divided the portions into plates, and in a minute from the cute head only a gnawed and angry skull remained. No more it was a kind-looking pig’s head. It was terribly depressing picture to me. But the gentle and sensitive Japanese tolerated to my surpirse the entertainment very well, with no oppression and harsh feelings. The evening turned out to be really successful party full of fun. The walls and barriers between people collapsed, and we enjoyed each other’s company relaxed and happy. All this happened in spite of the social strata and perhaps even the continents and oceans. And also time. After all, the Japanese did not eat four-legged animals till the end of the last century.
The pianist played Dvořák’s Humoresque, and I felt as if a bit of merriment and feast of the Czech village slaughter party „zabiyacka“may have entered the feelings of my Japanese friends.
Just so that you know: the house in Czech we bought and as partners me and my husband kept talking about divorce so long that we finally did it. We have remained friends.
Pork in Japanese Way…
Did I lure you to boiled pork dish? If Miyabi is open and I could offer you the boiled pig’s head, hot, just taken out of the pot, I would serve it to you with our homemade karashi su miso sauce. I think you’d like it. As I cannot do so, instead I will choose another dish from pig, which is very tasty even at room temperature, moreover this one is purely Japanese. It is, of course, a popular butakakuni. It’s made of pork belly. I haven’t eaten belly since childhood. Until I came to Japan. It didn’t seem edible to me, but in butakakuni… it got me. With mirin, sake, dashi and soy sauce, the meat fat makes a wonderful taste which is hard to resist. It’s all so soft. Caramel. I find it excelent that in the Japanese concept of gastronomy people never eat a large portion of one ingredient. It is good to have a little bit of many things. The small dishes that you combine with meat will not only create a rich feast and bring a lot of excitement, but will help your body to cope easily with meat. I can’t imagine 250 grams of butakakuni on a plate for one diner. Such a quantity is in Japan for a whole family. I remember going to the butcher in my home town Zlonice to buy meat for my Japanese cooking. I was visiting my parents with my kids during summer vacation. I asked for 300 grams of meat. It didn’t take two days, and the whole town already knew it. My mother was ashamed of me and asked me that the next time I went to the butcher, I should buy at least a kilo or two, and that she would use the rest. Remember, she said, that in the Czech Republic, meat is never bought in gram measurement.
Nevertheless when you cook butakakuni, it is better to have a larger piece of belly. The food can be kept for several days. Sugar preserves the meat. And if you just want one portion, it’s better to come to Miyabi. Plus, the Miyabi butakakuni tastes very good. But this was not always the case. At one time in our history the manager persuaded me that the guests did not want to eat oily meat and that we should make butakakuni from lean pork. He argued that several guests complained. They had come to Miyabi because they were expecting a healthy diet, and we wanted to dazzle them with a fatty belly. It was in the 1990‘s and Miyabi tried to honor the wishes of the guests. So it happened that I succumbed. We tried lean meat, but butakakuni was not good. We made nice cubes as they are to be in the name of the dish because “kakuni” is a cube, but the cube was something completely different. Hard cube. Pork is not like pork. Buta is not like buta. Each piece of the pig gives different gifts. What is good for one dish may not be good for another. For instatnce for tonkatsu the best is a chop. Which one is better material? None is better, it’s just different.
Without vegetables it would not be right
As the honest host who cares about guests’ health, I must offer you vegetable dishes in addition to pork dishes. This time it will be moyashi salad with shiso and cucumber and also roasted shiitake. In the beginning of Miyabi we had a hard time getting moyashi soybeans, and we were all the happier when we succeeded. We are now buying moyashi regularly in the Vietnamese SAPA market per kilograms. It’s an amazing cooking freedom when ingredients are available for Japanese cuisine. They are becoming more and more accessible and we are very pleased. But there is still a lot which we cannot easily buy yet. I always have to wait for a desired ingredient to become popular enough to make it worthwhile for importers or growers to offer it.
But sometimes brave entrepreneurs appear who come ahead of time with their products. Pioneers. Such a master was a Czech shiitake manufacturer in the 1990‘s. He was an avid shiitake fan and was glad to have me as a similarly avid customer. We were both full of ikigai. We believed that people should start eating shiitake. Every week, the gentleman weighed a long way from Brno to Prague to bring us several pounds of shiitake. Today, there are already many producers and you can even buy shiitake in the Makro wholesale store, but I will probably always remember the enthusiastic gentleman and our common admiration for shiitake. You may have noticed that we laboriously carve an asterisk into the shiitake headers. It’s an old way of working with shiitake, not much is done today, but we respect this habit honoring shiitake and Miyabi on the restaurant market.
Mibi Miku Mochi
And what will be the sweet dot of Retro Week Number Four? Yes, we will finally offer the authentic wagashi! Japanese cakes with a story of harmony. They have been announced last week. As we in Miyabi well know, the most popular wagashi in the Czech Republic are mochi. They were also famous for Japanese cartoons. We will introduce you to our original Mibimochi. They are mochi cakes that are cute like Japanese bijin beauties. “Bi” is a character for beauty and “jin” is a character for man. 美人. By now you probably know how I came up with the name of these wagashi. The moments of having others guess – that’s what is beloved in the Japanese conversation. Miyabi Bijin Mochi. These sweets welcome spring. They are white and pink color is slightly translucent. Like plum and sakura blossoms. Inside is a yellowish mass of shiroan flavored with miso. We’ll add another mochi very similar to Mibimochi to the wagashi set made just for the weekend, they’ll be green like spring grass, and they’ll have a brown azuki bean paste inside that will resemble soil expecting us to plant seeds in it. I want to surprise you which a herb I intend to use. You may guess. I called this mochi Mikumochi. Miyabi Kusa Mochi. Japanese wagashi are esteemed pieces which are often given poetic names. Mibi Miku Mochi. It is nice to have them as a couple.
Retro 4 is a reminder that food and how we handle it and look at it can overcome the barriers of established habits and bring us new experiences and new joy. My story „Boiled Pig’s Head or Divorce“ tells much about this. So let’s put aside prejudices and stereotypes and dare to start something completely new. Ikigai testifies to man! It is good to man! So let’s live driven by the feelings that we enjoy what we do and that it is useful to others. Nichi Nichi Kore Kou Nichi!