Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Japanese salad... and the ability to see beauty


I always knew it would be a priority to initiate my son to the pleasures of the palate, that his “education of taste”, as we call it in French (éducation du goût), was something dear to my heart. For many reasons. Because we just love good food so much. Because it’s the way I was raised. Because it’s good for his health. Because it’s a big part of his French culture.

 As I started on this journey and writing this blog, I realized that it went beyond that. Food and everything about it (cooking it, growing it, shopping for it, eating it, learning from it, approaching it from the five senses, among many other things) have become a golden learning opportunity. For me and for him. I have talked about how food can be a bias to practice patience and anticipation. And learning to be in the moment. And appreciating the process. And experiencing human connection, friendship.
It’s also a way to experience beauty.
Our society tends to have a very limited, narrow-minded vision of what beauty is nowadays. Yet, here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:
beauty - the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit
Beauty is in the soul and mind, the wide-open mind, of the beholder.
In this sense, young children know how to see beauty, almost everywhere. Their mind is completely open to things of amazement and interest, unspoiled by expectations, preconceived notions, prejudice, judgment.  To Pablo, a garbage truck is a thing of beauty. Or a worker painting a window. Or ducks and squirrels. Or the ocean. The snow. A guitar. A voice.
Or an artichoke, a carrot, a gratin hot out of the oven. A colorful salad.

Knowing how to see beauty around us, sometimes having to pry our grown-up minds open to do so, our senses on alert, fully connected to our world body and mind: now there’s something worth living for.
And very dear to me is the desire to preserve and nurture my son’s open mind, share with him how rich life is when we can see beauty. When we see it a lot, every day, particularly in the little things. That’s where it’s the juiciest and most delicate. In the little things.

We expect children to get excited about garbage trucks and ducks on a pond. Grown-ups, myself included, tend to pump them up about such things, anticipating their thrill.
And perhaps the best tip to parents out there wanting their children to enjoy eating well, the best “education of taste” tip I have, is to apply that same excitement to food. I get excited about food because it is a thing of beauty.  And that excitement is contagious. And I am happy to report that after 21 months of lots of food-related excitement, Pablo gets it.
The definition above could very well be the definition of good cuisine. Eating and sharing a delicious food is experiencing beauty with body and mind.
Food is a rich way to experience beauty from a very young age. With all five senses.
See the beauty of an endive, for example. Oblong and smooth, pale nuances of green and yellow. Its smell fresh, almost like rain. When you squeeze it, you hear it crack a little. After you feel it crunchy on your teeth, you taste its light bitterness.
Yes, an endive is a thing of beauty.
(This, by the way, is an “exercise” of sorts I like to do with Pablo and will be doing a lot more.)
Now. Let's travel together.
I have been in love with Japanese cuisine and culture for many years. I was lucky enough to visit Japan a few years ago, and realized how kindred in spirit the French and Japanese are, particularly in regards to food. Great care is devoted not only to the flavors of the foods (and how to combine them artfully and deliciously), but also presentation, color and texture.
Subtlety – or the ability to see the value in the little things – is embraced. The sushi chef, like a painter adding touches of paint and brushstrokes of color to his work, adds a pinch of special sea salt on a scallop, a leaf of shiso, a dash of pickled plum, a few seeds of sesame over rice that is in itself a work of art, just the right texture, just the right temperature. Those things make a difference. Their sum is the experience of beauty at every bite.
I am no expert at Japanese cuisine. I know I love it. (I have learned so much about it thanks to the wonderful Nami at Just One Cookbook, I highly recommend her easy and delightful recipes.)
So I just improvised this ridiculously simple Japanese salad just combining different ingredients I like. It’s a nice little “visit to Japan” the time of a meal, so if you get a chance to stop by a Japanese grocery store in your area and pick up some of these ingredients, give it a try (if you are unfamiliar with raw seafood, this is definitely a salad for the fearless and open-minded!)
A lot of Occidentals have issues with the textures of raw fish and seafood, but toddlers can be very open-minded on this front as well. Pablo adores raw oysters, fish, clam, urchin and salmon roe. Perhaps your child, or yourself, will see the beauty of it too?


Japanese tofu seaweed salad

Makes 2 servings

Age for babies: I started giving raw seafood (once in a while) to Pablo past 12 months. Check with your pediatrican. You can of course make a vegetarian version of this salad, skipping the seafood.
Prep time: 15 mn
Note: All quantities are really up to you and can be adjusted to your taste.
Half a package of soft tofu
1 cup seaweed salad
4 tbsp salmon roe (ikura)
Sea urchin
Yamaimo root (optional)
2 shiso leaves
Sesame seeds
1/4 cup soy sauce (or Ajipon sauce if you can find it)
Juice of one lemon (omit the lemon if you have Ajipon)

Assorted pickled vegetables - eggplant, daikon radish, plum.

Cut up the tofu in bite-size pieces. Dispose in each plate or bowl. Drizzle half the Ajipon over it (or the soy sauce and lemon whisked together).

If you are using yamaimo: cut a thick slice. Peel it quickly and run it under cold water, chop finely and as quickly as possible so it doesn't get too slimy. (Yes, I know, it sounds gross, but it adds a nice crunch to this salad. For more information on yamaimo, go here. Some people with sensitive skin get itchy after manipulating yamaimo, so if you are, you might want to wear gloves to cut it up, or wash your hands well right after.)

Add the chopped yamaimo over the tofu  (if you were hardcore enough to give it a try!), and the seaweed salad on top.

Chop the shiso leaves and sprinkle over the salad.

Spoon the salmon roe over the top of the seaweed salad, and finally a couple of pieces of sea urchin.

Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Drizzle the rest of the Ajipon and serve with some pickled vegetables on the side.


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  1. that japanese salad looks stunning! I love all those colours together. that, is beauty to me. I don't know what it is about seeing colourful food together on a plate, but it makes me smile.

    1. Aw thanks Shu Han! Presentation is a huge part of the enjoyment of food for sure. The Japanese are so good at that, I think.

  2. Oh yum, you just made my mouth water!

  3. OMG!! LOL!! SEA URCHIN?!? Did you let Pablo taste some of that(did you have to serve that part cooked for him, if you did?)? Awesome!

    My hubby & I loooove sea urchin by the way, but that is definitely an acquired taste!!

    Quickie Question: how often do you have to reintroduce foods to your child? Example: I intro celery root puree to my clan(15 month old & 6 year old twin boys) this past week with mixed reactions...when does a veggie like that make a reappearance into their meal?

    Going strong for a month's been great for me as well as the kids!


    1. Hi Ericka, yes, we gave raw sea urchin to Pablo who kept asking for more. He loves it, as well as oysters and salmon eggs. I did wait until after 12-14 months, but being a big fan of raw seafood myself, I am very excited he enjoys it so far!
      To answer your question, fairly often. If Pablo seems to reject a food, I usually keep a little to get him to taste it again the next day or soon after, because a lot of the time, it's not so much that he doesn't like the taste, but that he's not in the mood, or not that hungry at that moment. Otherwise, I try reintroducing the food maybe the following week in a different setting. Celery root can be awesome in soups to try. I recently did a celery root, apple, sunchokes soup, or celery root/fennel/apple, or maybe just celery root, yukon potato and apple (or pear would be worth a try). I can provide simple recipes if you'd like. With your older boys, might be fun to include them in a search for a cool recipe with celery root (or other new food) + i think celery roots look kind of cool, all gnarly, this might spark their interest as well in the preparing process. Just a thought.
      Anyway, congrats on your happy eating month :-)


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