Ascendance of a Bookworm – 023
Here are some things that happened while I was still waiting for my soot pencils to dry out .
Now that Tory’s started going to work, cooking has been added to my list of duties . However, I can’t hold a kitchen knife very well and I don’t really know how to make or properly use fire, so right now there’s very little that I can do from start to finish entirely on my own . Right now, I work with my mother, helping out as much as I possibly can .
I’ve been struggling with this for a while, but I really want to do a few experiments to see if I can finally start eating Japanese food again . Originally, I was ready to blast this kitchen apart with all my modern knowledge, but when I let it loose, the result was less of a blast and more of a fizzle .
After all, it’s fundamentally hopeless, right from the beginning . I really crave Japanese food, but there’s no rice . No miso . No soy sauce . You can’t buy mirin or other kinds of sake anywhere, of course . If I don’t have the right seasonings, I don’t think I’ve got any options . I can’t think of anything I can actually make .
Well, you know, I actually do know how to make miso and soy sauce, right? If I’ve got the ingredients, I’ve got the knowhow . It’s just soybeans and koji1 . I learned it in elementary school! We went on a field trip to a miso factory, and I actually paid a lot of attention to how they made it in the olden days .
But, where do I find soybeans or koji in this world? It’s possible that I could substitute some other kind of bean for soybeans, but where can I actually buy koji? Of course, you can make koji from things that you can find in nature, but that’s a really scary proposition . After all, koji is mold, right? If I mess up even a little bit, I’m going to drag every single member of my family into a nightmare of food poisoning . Even if I were to just happen across koji, then there’s still the terrifying thought of trying to ferment something in this bacteria-infested place, plus it will put off enough of a stench that it’ll get thrown out long before it’s complete .
So, I gave up on making my own seasonings and started thinking long and hard about what kinds of Japanese food I could possibly make without any Japanese seasonings at all .
How about sashimi? We don’t have any soy sauce, but if you eat it with citrus fruit juice mixed with salt, that would still be tasty, right?
Although, this place doesn’t seem to be close to the ocean . Even when I search through the town market, I can’t find anyone selling fresh saltwater fish . There’s no wakame or other kinds of seaweed for sale, either . Forget sashimi, I can’t even make a seaweed salad .
So, if there’s no seafood, there’s obviously no kombu . No bonito flakes, either . I want to make Japanese food, but I can’t even make dashi2 . This is a fatal blow .
Man, I’m not even going to ask for instant dashi… just, give me some kombu and bonito flakes, please?
There’s these cucumber-like things that could be pickled, but I don’t have soy sauce, my mother won’t let me use any sugar, and I don’t have any kind of vinegar to use except wine vinegar, so the taste is so wildly different that I can’t be satisfied with it at all . I tried making it once, but it was so harshly sour that it was nothing at all like the pickles I was thinking of .
Vexed over my inability to do anything at all, I tried something very simple that even a child like me could do: I rubbed salt into slices of a pseudo-cucumber and ate it . The salt drew out a little bit of the moisture and made it just a little bit more tender, and it had the perfect amount of saltiness to remind me just a little of tsukemono3 . I thought that I’d finally be satisfied once I’d tasted something remotely Japanese-y, but, on the contrary, it only made me cry for the white rice I so dearly miss . Incidentally, I tried putting the salted cucumber on the multi-grain bread we have in the house, but that didn’t work at all; they don’t have particularly good affinity .
Rice! Rice! Japanese food! Someone, please! Give me some Japanese food!!
Thanks to those cucumbers, my cravings for Japanese food became so great that I thought I might try going to the river, catching some fish, and making something even vaguely Japanese . I can’t use fire, so I don’t have any alternatives but drying, so I decided to try drying out whatever fish I could catch . If I brought along some salt, then I could salt the fish and let it dry, and that might even work . …I really hoped it would work .
“Hey, Lutz,” I said . “I want to catch some fish . Can I do that in this river?”
“I don’t think you’d be able to . ”
Just like he said, I was completely defeated . Fishing is, by itself, its own challenge .
As I sat there, dejected, Lutz caught some fish and brought them over to me .
“Look, I caught some, but what are you thinking of doing?”
“Can I have these?”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t really need them . ”
“Lutz… are you able to make a fire? I want to try making ‘shioyaki’ . ”4
I can’t wait at all, so I try cooking the fish he brought me shioyaki-style, like I would sweetfish . Then, I took a bite .
My face immediately scrunched up after just one bite . Strange, it was far less refined of a taste than I was expecting . What on earth could make it smell so awful? I didn’t think my grilling methods were wrong, so I tilted my head to the side, searching my memories to figure out what could have possibly happened . Lutz looked on with a frown .
“If you don’t cook it right,” he says, “it must really stink when you eat it like that, right?”
“……Yeah, it stinks . ”
This is a stinky fish . It would have been great if he told me that earlier .
Next, I pulled out my knife . It’s different both in form and function than a modern kitchen knife, and it’s a little bit worn, but that’s not going to have any effect on the flavor . I sharpened a stick and then speared the fish through, thinking I could actually make dried food like this . I left it alone for a while as I gathered firewood so the sun could dry it out . While I wasn’t paying attention, though, it suddenly became rock-hard and inedible . It seems like, somehow, too much moisture evaporated .
“Maine… what is this?”
“…Fish that dried too much . Dried fish is supposed to be food, but you can’t eat this at all . ”
“Yeah, I’ll say . No matter how I look at it, that doesn’t look like food at all . ”
“I might be able to make ‘dashi’ with this, though . I’m going to bring these home and try that out . ”
This might have been inedible as dried food, but there was a chance I might be able to use it as a base for dashi . When I got home, carrying the withered husks of the fish, I tried my hand at making dashi .
“Maine, what are you doing?!” yelled my mother as soon as she saw what I was doing . “That’s disgusting! Don’t you dare put that thing in my pot!”
“Umm, Mommy, I want to try making ‘dashi’, though…”
“Absolutely not! The only thing that goes in that pot is food . ”
…It probably would have become food, though .
Thanks to the fact that my mother finds dried fish disgusting, my plans to make dashi have been strongly prohibited . Maybe it’s because of the fact that she doesn’t often see fish in her daily life that she seems to think that dried-out fish are disgusting . Even though she did look at a pig whose skull was split half open and say that it looked delicious…
I’m sorry, Mister Fish .
In conclusion: making Japanese food is impossible, at least for me . Without dashi and without seasonings, there isn’t a single thing left for me to try . Once I give up on finding miso, soy sauce, or sake, there’s basically no Japanese-style cooking left for me to try . I’m keenly aware of how fundamentally important these seasonings are .
For now, at least, I need to be thinking about what kind of foods I can make that, even if they’re only tangentially Japanese, still have the kinds of flavors that you might find in Japan . Even that would be worthwhile . Yeah .
Then, somehow, a bird was delivered to my house . It seems like one of our neighbors managed to bring down five birds while in the forest . In this season, it would be almost impossible for them to eat all of that before it spoiled, so they gave it to my father, repaying him for when he did that same for them a while ago .
The one to handle preparing this bird, whose name I don’t even know, was my mother . The knife used to prepare the meat is very large, so not only I but even Tory can’t handle it .
“Maine . Come here and pluck the feathers for me,” she says .
I grabbed hold of the bird as it lay limply on the table, then started pulling out its feathers . The disturbing sensation of the feathers pulling free sent shivers through me, giving me goosebumps . I told myself that I had no choice, and it’s all for the sake of eating it, so I plucked the feathers, struggling not to cry . It looks like it’ll be a long while before doing this sort of work becomes simple for me . However, when it came time to clean out the internal organs, I’m proud to say that I didn’t faint, didn’t run away, and was able to stay standing . I think I’ve grown a little, if I may say so myself .
“Now, Maine, we’re ready to start cooking . ”
After a lot of thought, I realized that I might be able to make a stock out of the leftover chicken carcass . If I have chicken carcass soup as a base, the number of things I can cook dramatically increases . I have neither kombu nor bonito flakes, but I wondered if I could make a usable stock if I substituted some other dried mushrooms for shiitake .
However, just making the soup was difficult . My mother had no idea what I wanted to do, and didn’t help at all . It seemed she wanted to eat it grilled . I firmly insisted that it was my day to be the cook, however, and got her to give me the carcass and a few other large cuts of meat . After that, I was left to do everything myself .
I filled our biggest pot with water, then added the carcass, some breast meat, and some herbs one-by-one . Next, I started going through our vegetables, looking for things that have the right taste, smell, and texture even if they didn’t have the right taste . I found that smelled like an onion, something that tasted a little like ginger, something that smelled a bit like garlic, and some leaves that were kind of like bay leaves, and so on . In order to get rid of any foul smells the bird might give off, I started adding these things to the pot one by one .
“Maine, wait!!” cries my mother, suddenly .
I freeze, knife in hand, holding the garlic-smelling plant on the cutting board by the leaves . “Huh?”
“That’s too much for you to handle . It’s brutal!”
I stared blankly down at the vegetable, which looked like an ordinary radish, but white . She rushed over to confiscate both the knife and the radish . Grasping it tightly by the leaves, she holds it firmly down on the cutting board, giving it a look like she’s daring it to run away . With a scowl, she chopped straight down, slicing the top cleanly off . At the same instant, I heard a sharp scream . From the radish .
I blinked disbelievingly, convinced that I had to have misheard . My mother let go of the leaves, flipped the knife sideways, and smashed down on the radish with a loud bang, just like how you crush garlic . Crushing it like that took way less time than the fine-grained chopping I was planning on doing, so I thought she had saved me a lot of effort . When she lifted the knife, though, the white flesh of the radish had somehow turned red, almost like blood had spread over its surface . Scary .
“All set,” she says . “You can use this once you make sure to wash it properly . ”
“…Okay . ”
My mother’s expression seemed far more brutal than the radish was . I was just seeing things, right? Yeah . just seeing things . A trick of the eyes .
In this world, I occasionally see vegetables that resemble ones that I know from Earth, but there are lots of incomprehensibly strange foods here too . Whenever I run across a weird ingredient like this one, it only just reawakens the feelings that I’m no longer in the world I know .
Despite that little incident, I carefully skimmed the denatured fats off the top of the broth, taking with it the leaves that I used to soak up the bad flavors . I remember hearing that you’re supposed to bring everything to a boil, drain off all the water, and then re-fill the pot clean water, but I’ve never had a soup that tasted bad because I didn’t do that . I ignored that particularly bothersome step and just let it simmer over a low heat .
After I let it simmer for a while, I pulled out just the breast meat from the stock . I quickly quenched it in water, then pulled the tender meat apart into shreds . This will be delicious as a garnish on top of a salad .
As the soup simmered atop the stove, I worked on preparing the rest of the meat . I took the heart, the gizzard, and the other parts that go bad super easily and chopped them into chunks small enough to easily eat, then sprinkled salt and liquor on them . It’s a simple way of baking these so you can more easily eat them . This is probably the kind of cooking that my family will be most easily able to understand . For an instant, the words “charcoal grill” flashed across my mind, but I had other ways to cook it so I gave up on the idea .
Our dinner was going to be organs and thigh meat . My mother slaved away over the thighs, cooking them like roast chicken, and prohibited me from interfering with that at all . I sprinkled salt and liquor on the breast meat, then put it aside in the winter preparation room so that I could use it in the next day’s cooking . If I had a refrigerator or airtight plastic bags, I could make chicken ham, but, alas, I don’t .
“…That smells pretty good!” says my mother .
“The taste isn’t quite there yet . ”
My mother had been avoiding the stock pot as if it she thought it contained something unpleasant, but the scent of soup that started wafting through the air made her come a little closer to investigate . There was nothing left to do on the soup but let it simmer and carefully skim off the fat, so I started finely chopping some of the vegetables . Thanks to this body, everything I want to do takes a tremendous amount of time, so it’s best if I start on my next steps early .
My first experiment in my plan to eat Japanese-y food was nabe . 5 After all, I thought, if you have dashi, you can make nabe, right? I don’t have access the dashi that I’m familiar with, but I had chicken soup . I have neither ponzu6 nor sesame sauce, so I decided to cook pomay (the fruit that looks like a yellow pepper but tastes like a tomato) and some herbs into the broth make it into something like a tomato nabe .
I took the wingtips, which my mother says are hard to actually use because they’re so bony, and added them to the pot . While they cooked, I chopped up some various seasonable vegetables, none of which I know the name for, into the right size for serving . When these are all cooked together in the broth, they’ll be quite delicious . That’s nabe’s true charm, I think .
“Ah,” I said, “That looks about ready . ” I set a strainer on top of our second-biggest pot . “Mommy, could you help me, please?”
“What do you need me to do?”
“I want to pour all of the soup in here to strain it, so that I can get out the parts I don’t want in it . ”
“…Right,” she said, looking a little bit relieved, “there’s no way we were going to eat that, after all . ”
She poured out the chicken carcass soup into the strainer . I washed out the first pot, then had her pour the filtered soup back in there . Our second-biggest pot is the most-used pot in the house, so using that to keep soup stock would be a huge hindrance . Even my next few steps in making pomay nabe needed that pot .
I added some chopped, dried mushrooms to the finished soup stock, then got to work on making the pomay nabe . I carefully pulled the edible meat off of the boiled carcass and wingtips that we strained out of the soup, taking care to avoid stabbing myself on all of the tiny bones in the meat .
Based on the delicious scent of my mother’s roast chicken that drifted through the room, and the amount of time I think it’s been since we started, I thought it was just about time for me to put the finishing touches on the nabe .
“Maine! What are you doing?!”
“Putting… the vegetables in?”
“You have to boil those first!”
Generally speaking, when my mother cooks vegetables she boils them until they’re limp to make them less bitter, then drains the water and uses just the boiled vegetables in the dish . This, however, gets rid of half the flavor and quite a bit of the nutritional value . I can’t really complain about my mother’s cooking, but when it comes to my own recipes, being forced to do things my mother’s way would be a problem .
“For this kind of cooking it’s okay,” I explain .
“Aren’t you going to ruin that tasty-looking soup that you’ve worked so hard to make?”
“It’ll be fine!”
I boiled everything together while skimming off the fat, until finally the pomay nabe was complete . I gave it a little taste, and it was great . Even without boiling the vegetables first, everything turned out fine . Yep!
“I’m home!” said Tory as she walked through the door . “A~ah! It was coming from here!”
“Hi, Tory! What was coming from where?”
“I could smell this amazing smell from all the way down the main street! I got really hungry just smelling it as I walked . All the people I was passing were trying to find where it was coming from . I didn’t think it was coming from here!”
Is it like how you suddenly get hungry when you pass by a Chinese restaurant or a ramen shop? This chicken carcass soup has a really powerful aroma .
“I’m home,” said my father, returning home from the day shift . “Oh! That was my house I was smelling!”
It seemed like the scent of my chicken soup reached far and wide . My family gathered at the table, faces gleaming with anticipation . They all came together just in time for their dinner .
“This is made from a bird that Al dropped by to give us earlier today,” explains my mother . “He’s returning the favor from when you shared some of your hunting earlier . Maine and I cooked it up . ”
“So, this unusual recipe is Maine’s, then?”
“That’s right . ”
In the center of the table, my mother placed her roast chicken legs . Next to that is a salad, garnished with pulled chicken breast meat . Near my father, I put the salted, baked organ meats out as snacks, and I lined up bowls of pomay nabe for everyone . When it’s all split out like this, though, it’s not really nabe . It’s more like an ordinary pomay soup .
“What’s this?” asks Tory . “It smells really good . Can I eat it?”
“It’s pomay soup,” I reply . “I did my best making soup from the bird, so I think it’s going to be delicious . Try it!”
As I talked, Tory brought her face really close to her bowl of soup, eyes glittering, then grabbed her spoon and had a taste .
“Whoa, delicious! How?! This is really delicious . ”
My mother tried a mouthful . “Oh my, it is!” she said, sincerely . “I’m really surprised . You were stewing bird bones and you didn’t cook the vegetables first, but it still turned out this well . ”
It looked like she’d had a knot of anxiety within her about whether it was going to be delicious, since she knew what went into making it .
“Amazing, Maine!” said my father, attacking his food with zeal . “You’ve got a real talent for cooking . ”
I tried a spoonful myself . The chicken stock had a very good flavor, splendidly bringing out the umami of the vegetables . Delicious .
Delicious, but not Japanese food .
The next day, I finished gathering firewood in the forest quickly and headed home . The younger kids have to come and go at specific times, but Tory, who’s already been baptized, seems to be able to come and go freely without having to ask permission . I went back early with her .
Since I wanted to use the leftover chicken meat, Tory wasn’t the only cook for the day . For round two of my plan to try to eat Japanese food, I wanted to make poultry sakamushi . 7 I thought that even though I don’t have sake, it might have a similar feel to it if I use another type of alcohol .
“You said you want to use the leftover chicken, do you know what you want to make already?”
“Yeah, I want to make ‘sakamushi’ out of bird meat, ‘gnocchi’, and a salad . How does that sound?”
“Umm… I don’t really understand, but I’ll leave it to you . ”
First up was the gnocchi . I boiled some tubers, mashed them, and mixed them with multigrain flour and a little bit of salt . Commoners don’t have the budgetary freedom to use wheat flour as much as they want, so we use mixed-grain flour instead . It’s a combination of rye, barley, and oats . I mixed it into a dough that’s about as firm as my earlobe, rolled it out into a long tube, and started cutting it into one-centimeter pieces .
“If you don’t mind,” I asked, “could you take these things that I’m cutting out and flatten them out like this?” With a bit of difficulty, I use the back of a fork to spread out and flatten a chunk of dough .
“Got it,” she said, with a big nod .
Spreading out the dough with a fork leaves ridges, so when it’s rolled into a finger shape, it holds sauce very easily . One by one, Tory stretched out each piece of dough that I cut off . Since she has more strength than I do, every piece I cut off is stretched into the right shape in no time .
“Tory, you’re way better at this than me . ”
“Really? …Maine, don’t look at me, you just keep cutting . I’ll run out if you don’t, you know?”
I have Tory fill up a pot with water, put everything in, and bring it to a roiling boil . When they started floating to the top of the pot, they were finished . I took the leftover pomay soup from last night, add more pomay to it, and stew it until it’s reduced to a thick sauce . Right before it’s time to eat, I’ll mix the gnocchi with this sauce, but that’s about all I can do on this for now .
“That’s all for now, right? The salad comes together really quickly, too…”
“Mom will be home soon, so it’s okay if we start the salad now, right?”
As Tory and I made the salad, our mother came home . As soon as I saw her come in, I went to the winter preparation room to fetch the breast meat I set aside yesterday so that I could start on the sakamushi . I’d left the meat in a room that’s always cool, on a rock that was cool to the touch, but in this warm season, I was scared of it spoiling . Cautiously, I sniffed the meat .
…Alright, it didn’t spoil . This is fine .
“Maine, will this pot do?”
“Yeah! Thanks, Tory . Since I seasoned this with salt and alcohol yesterday, we can get started immediately . ”
Since we don’t have any pepper to use as a seasoning, I had no choice but to give up on making it spicy . The actual recipe is very simple . You season the breast meat with salt and alcohol, lightly grill just the surface, then put it in a pot with more alcohol and cover the lid to let it steam .
I thought that I should add the mushrooms I worked hard to gather up in the forest, to help bring out the flavor . I washed them clean, then lined them up on the cutting board . As I lifted my knife, Tory’s eyes snapped up .
“Maine, stop! If you don’t put those in the fire first, they’ll dance!”
No sooner than she had said that, she’d already started skewering the mushrooms from their base through the cap . Then, she sprinkled them lightly with salt and stuck them in the fire .
Dance? The mushrooms would? Like… how bonito flakes flutter in drifting steam? I did not understand what she said at all .
I doubtfully tilted my head to one side, trying to figure out what she meant . Tory pulled the lightly-toasted mushrooms from the fire, turned, and handed them back to me .
“Now they’re okay,” she says . “Th… thanks…?”
I decided that it was a strange turn of phrase, but if Tory said it was okay to use them now, then it must be okay . It’s just one more strange foodstuff on the pile: a mushroom that requires extra care in preparation . I cut them up, taking care not to burn myself on the hot mushrooms .
“Mommy, can I use this alcohol for cooking? It won’t taste good if I don’t use enough of it, so I need about half a cupful . ”
“Alright, here you go,” she says filling it halfway full .
I took the cup from her, then climbed up on a stool, stretching up on tiptoes to pour it into the iron pot . It hissed as it hit the hot metal, and I quickly covered the pot with a lid . When I heard it start to bubble, I removed it from the fire, cooking the chicken with just the heat still trapped in the metal of the pot .
“You’re taking it off already?”
“Yeah . I’m going to cook the meat for another ten minutes just using the heat in the pot . If I cook breast meat over a fire for too long, it’ll get all dry and hard to eat . ”
I heated the pomay sauce I made from the leftover soup and the fresh gnocchi, then mix them together . Tory’s salad was finished as well . Just like the previous day’s dinner, we used shredded breast meat as a topping . I’m very pleased with how that meat turned out .
“Today’s dinner looks great too!”
“We’ll have to be sure to thank Al . ”
Given the state of our budget, seeing so much food lined up on the table like that is a rare sight indeed . It’s a big deal to give someone a bird like that .
“I’m home,” said my father, walking through the door with a big smile on his face and high expectations for dinner . “Another delicious looking meal today!”
He told us about how much he was bragging about last night’s meal to his coworkers at the gate . I hoped that his overly-doting-father filter was making him massively exaggerate . I’d be much happier if it was all in his head . If it wasn’t, it’s going to make it a bit harder for me to go to the gates .
“Let’s dig in!”
“Whoa, amazing! This is delicious, Maine!”
Tory’s eyes went wide as she took a bite of sliced-up poultry sakamushi . As soon as my mother had one mouthful, she smiled brilliantly .
“It’s so simple to make, but this breast meat is so wonderfully tender . The flavor of the mushrooms has baked into it as well, it’s really delicious . Is it because we used good liquor, I wonder?”
“I think so . The whole dish brings out the depth of flavor of the honey wine . ”
As soon as I said that, my father’s face went pale, and he dropped his fork with a clunk . He stood up and woodenly walked to the shelves, picking up the earthenware pot in which we store the alcohol . When he saw how much was missing from the small pot, his head suddenly dropped, and he looked like he was moments away from bursting into tears .
“…M, my precious alcohol got…”
Sorry, sorry . I mean, when I asked my mother for some alcohol, she said that it was something that he’d gone off and bought in secret, and that it would be such a shame if all of us couldn’t enjoy how delicious it was . She had a bit of a wicked smile on her face when she said that, and I thought it would be best to just follow along through that unusual occurrence .
Since it was honey wine that I used, it had a different sort of sweetness than it would have if I’d used real sake, so once again it wasn’t really much like Japanese food . It was another completely different thing .
Aaah, I really want Japanese food…
Although words like “dance”, “struggle”, and “danger” come up when talking about some of the ingredients here, it looks like I’m able to adapt the kinds of cooking that I’m familiar to this new world without any problems . On other days, I made a tuber-based gratin, a pseudo-risotto out of a grain kind of like buckwheat, and a quiche made on top of the stiff dough of the multigrain bread, all of which were well-received .
My family may like everything I make, but as for me, I can’t stand this at all . Even if I’m making Western-style food, we don’t have any spices or seasonings, and I’m starting to get very tired of the same sorts of flavors over and over again .
At the very least, give me pepper! I’d be overjoyed with curry powder!
There are still many tribulations ahead in my quest to better my culinary life .
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
For the most part, I’ve left food and ingredient names untranslated unless there’s a well-established English equivalent, as is usually done when talking about Japanese cooking . I’ve tried to phrase things so that things are as obvious as possible in context, but there are a few things that require basically immediate explanation .
1 . Koji is a fermentation starter made of various molds, yeasts, and bacteria .
2 . Dashi is a cooking stock made of kombu and bonito flakes .
3 . Tsukemono are pickled vegetables, usually served as a side dish .
4 . Shioyaki is a grilling method, particularly for fish, involving large quantities of salt and a very hot fire .
5 . Nabe refers to several kinds of Japanese hot pots . The name is short for “nabemono”, which is literally just “things in a pot” .
6 . Ponzu is a citrusy sauce used in a lot of Japanese cuisine .
7 . Sakamushi is food (usually seafood) that’s been steamed in sake .