BANGKOK – My grandmother in Tokyo kept a bucket under her sink. It was filled with something that resembled wet sand. But from its sharp depth came what I thought was the most wonderful treat – a pickled carrot, or a daikon, or, one of my favorites, a bud of a ginger-like plant called myoga.
The bucket contained rice bran, which provided a fermentation bed for a Japanese type of pickled vegetable known as nukazuke. Every day, even in the nineties, my grandmother put her arm in the bucket and aerated the bran.
The fermentation bed was my grandmother’s equivalent of a sourdough starter, a lesson in ingenuity from a war widow who turned humble ingredients into something tasty.
I don’t have to worry about preserving ingredients due to economic hardship. Even so, I took instructions from my grandmother in taste.
Recognition…about Hannah Beech
At home in Bangkok I often make cucumbers: Texan okra, Hunan beans, miso garlic, and kosher dills. But until the coronavirus pandemic, my job as an international correspondent for the New York Times took a long time not to be home. Nukazuke was taboo because it required the services of a housewife, turning the rice bran or nuka every day so it wouldn’t turn into a moldy mess.
When Thailand all but closed its borders last spring, it became clear that I would be an international correspondent with little international correspondence to do. And so one of the first things I did was get my hands on some Nuka. I added the salt, seaweed, and vegetable scraps needed to create the right environment for lacto fermentation and started pickling.
For me, the sour and salty punch from a good Nukazuke is a touch of home, even if I have never lived in Japan, except in the summer of my childhood in my grandmother’s cedar-scented house, where I hunt fireflies, watch fireworks and learn to cook from her . Her pantry was filled with umeboshi, wrinkled pickled plums; young ginger with vinegar; and a brandy with loquat I would steal a drink if she wasn’t looking.
Of all the senses, taste, which is inextricably linked to smell to evoke aromas, is perhaps the most impressive in its ability to conjure up memories of time and place. I am fortunate to have roamed the world for both work and leisure, and my kitchen holds the abundance of this hike and lets me relive a trot of the world that has come to a standstill with the pandemic.
My freezer is filled with sumac from Istanbul, sichuan peppercorn from Chengdu, and chai masala from Jodhpur. The cupboard has orange blossom water from Malta, sardines from Portugal, hot sauce from Belize and first flush tea from Sri Lanka.
And that doesn’t even take into account the abundance of Thailand, a country of 70 million people that can enjoy different types of eggplant and countless types of shrimp paste.
If we can’t physically travel, at least my family can do so at every meal, and we’re lucky enough to be able to explore continents around the table.
While we eat, experiences are conjured up: the oysters sipped with green tabasco in a port city in Namibia; the tiny squid skewer filled with quail eggs in a Kyoto market; the noodle hand drawn by Uighur Muslims who lived in exile in Kazakhstan after escaping repression in China; The reindeer and cheese soup on an island near Helsinki when the cold rain meant nothing but chopped reindeer and hot cheese would fill us up.
For work too, eating creates bonds that transcend language and custom. To be a journalist means to constantly intervene, step into someone’s life and request sensitive personal information. How did your wife die? When did you have an abortion? What is your religion? Why do you hate your neighbor so much?
During these meetings, the maintenance can serve as an offer of peace. In 2019, Catholic teachers on Basilan Island in the southern Philippines attended a seafood festival with a local Muslim leader who feared years of deadly insurgent activity. The salt rice stuffed in sea urchins exceeded questions of faith.
And many times I’ve found that people who have very little are willing to share with a stranger who asks the most invasive questions.
In eastern Indonesia, after an earthquake and tsunami, an elderly woman who was suddenly homeless offered a part of a city that was aromatically cooked over an open fire with turmeric and lemongrass.
In southwest China, at the urging of my hostess, in her house with a grass roof, I dug my chopsticks into a honeycomb with bee larvae, fat and juicy.
“Eat, eat,” said my host, a nourishing refrain that seems all the more real when there is not much to eat. I ate.
Once, in northern Afghanistan, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a plane flew low and dropped replacement fig newtons from the sky. Children ran forward and tore open the packages just to pucker their noses. I’m afraid the only people who ate the goodies from this American drop of air were journalists scouring the countryside for shiny packages of biscuits.
For the Americans covering the war, the fig treats might bring back a touch of childhood: a powdery pastry around a thick jam that lurked seeds in molars for days.
My mother remembers that a beefy American GI as a child who grew up in Japan during the occupation offered her a piece of chewing gum. It was so big, she said, and the gum was so sweet. Growing up in Asia and the United States, I had to drink a large glass of milk every day so that I could grow up like an American.
One day, in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, I ducked into an animal shelter where a group of women were waiting for me in the dark, away from the men and dust of refugee life. I reported on an article about girls and women who became pregnant as a result of rape by security forces in Myanmar. Group rape, along with village burnings and executions, had forced more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar in 2017.
While we were talking, a sister of one of the pregnant teenage girls kept her fingers busy, rolling balls of dough into pellets no bigger than grains of rice. She made a traditional Rohingya dessert that was often reserved for religious festivals. The tiny dumplings are sun-dried, toasted in butter, and then served in sweet milk with cardamom. Preparing the dessert is labor-intensive.
The sister said she was also raped. The girls cried when they remembered and wiped their tears on their veils. Someone’s baby was crawling across the floor. Then the girls’ hands picked up the dough again, rolling and pinching and shaping it, a taste of a home they will probably never see again.