12-13, 2008 -- Meatballs in Japan
Today I was up bright and early preparing for
my overnight Japanese homestay. All the 75 students involved
met in the Union for a last minute briefing on what to expect
and then we left the ship together and went into the port
terminal building. Waiting for us (in a huge circle) were
75 Japanese families with dozens of little Japanese kiddies.
Each of the families had been briefed about 'their 'particular
student and each was holding a beautifully decorated sign
welcoming us. Everybody was smiling, everybody was excited.
The little kids were the best -- they knew 'something fun'
was happening but they were a little uncertain as to what
to expect from these foreigners. We (students) were asked
to walk the inside circumference of the circle, reading the
signs until we met our family. Who would it be?
I spotted my host immediately. Megumi was tall, slim, young
(33) and beautiful. She was holding a sign that had two flags
on it -- one Canadian and one Japanese. I liked her immediately.
From her I learned that all these host families were part
of the Hippo Family Club, a group devoted to learning languages
and extending hospitality to foreigners (they excelled at
both). From what I could understand the big group was made
up of local chapters. Our chapter was quickly convened for
a group photo and then we broke up into smaller groups for
a lunch outing at a sushi restaurant. I should have written
'SUSHI' restaurant because this place was huge. Compare it
to a large dim sum restaurant except that the food you ordered
came by your booth on a conveyor belt. Each booth had a 'drive
thru' type communication box in order to make contact with
the kitchen. Once you placed the order you began watching
the conveyor belt for your items to appear. It all works on
an orderly, honor system which the Japanese do so well. If
you want more food you don't pick up anything from the belt
until you've ordered it. I imagined this system trying to
operate in North America. There would be absolute chaos.
lunch we all went back to our respective family homes and
agreed to meet again that evening for a Japanese Potluck dinner.
Megumi lives in a small apartment in Mino, a rural suburb
of Osaka. On the drive home my host asked me if I would like
to cook something Canadian for that evening. At the best of
times I am not an inventive cook so my mind raced to my old
party standby -- Swedish meatballs -- something that could
be made easily. The secret ingredients in this recipe are
chili sauce and grape jelly (for the sauce). We visited three
different supermarkets and there was no grape jelly to be
found. What to do? We finally opted for a jar of blueberry
jam with whole blueberries in it. Oh well, as they say, 'when
in Japan.....use blueberry jam instead of grape jelly'. To
give myself courage I convinced myself I was involved in a
Japanese-Swedish-Canadian fusion cooking experience. I told
Megumi that our meatballs with whole blueberries floating
in the sauce would be 'something different' from the sushi,
edamame and dumplings everybody else would bring. The best
part of all this activity was that Megumi and I dropped all
pretenses; we were just two women trying to get ready for
a party. We shopped together, chopped onions together and
patted meatballs together. We laughed, we joked and I had
the best Japanese treat -- actually being invited into someone's
home and preparing food in their kitchen. For me that was
better than visiting twenty shrines.
That evening the party (complete with loads of little kiddies)
was wonderful. The friendliness and hospitality extended to
us by the members of the Hippo Family Club was overwhelming.
Everybody chatted, practiced their English, asked questions
about Canada and answered queries about Japan. We played games,
told stories and ate all kinds of interesting food (including
pizza with sweet corn on it). Either our meatballs were a
real success or our hosts were incredibly polite but the pot
we brought was very quickly emptied. Meatballs were paired
with udon noodles, fried noodles, rice balls, and, yes, even
with edemame. Megumi told me that everybody was asking for
the recipe and she would put it on the club's listserve. How's
that for a cultural exchange? Right now in Mino, Japanese
women are shopping for chili sauce and blueberry jam (the
new secret ingredient). You see? That's how trends begin!
That night I slept on a futon on tatami mats. My gracious
host thought I might be cold during the night and really piled
the blankets on. I slept so well and so long that, (in her
own words), Megumi said, 'To tell the truth, my husband and
I worried about you seriously'. Poor woman. She thought that
something had happened to me during the night and now what
would she tell the Hippo Family Club? The lovely pampering
continued. A hot bath was drawn for me (42F), I learned that
the Japanese lather up and then shower off the dirt before
getting into their bath to soak. That way their bath can be
used for soaking sessions for the whole family but it always
remains perfectly clean. I loved my soak but I didn't stay
in the tub too long. I didn't want Megumi to worry about me
again. I left the tub water perfectly clean and Megumi transferred
that water to the washing machine to launder her clothes.
How's that for conserving water and energy? Breakfast consisted
of a cup of homemade chicken soup, a piece of cheese bread
topped with hickory smoked cheese and a cup of tea all sprinkled
with lovely discussions on life, families and the universe.
Still our cultural exchange was far from over; the best
was still to come. By eleven o'clock we were packed and ready
to go to our Japanese cherry blossom sansin party in the park.
What? OK. Let me start at the beginning. Japan's Cherry Blossom
Festival was drawing to a close. This Bar BQ picnic was an
'adieu' to this year's blossoms.
Next, a 'sansin' is a Japanese instrument that looks like
a little banjo with a very long neck. Those attending this
party were almost all people who were taking sansin lessons
from a woman whom everybody referred to as Mama. Mama was
quite the character; she ran the show. My afternoon in the
park was all about eating, drinking and hanging out. Communication
was solely by sign language plus offerings of food and music.
Megumi drove me back to the ship. We took the small roads
because we both don't like expressways. That gave us more
time to finish our discussion. We finished our homestay with
a stop for coffee and French pastries. I sent a box of chocolates
home for Hiro, Megumi's very cute husband. I told her she
was very lucky I didn't speak Japanese because I would have
stolen her husband from her. We hugged, shed a few tears and
That evening Megumi' wrote in an email, 'I feel very happy
to spent time (with you)!!'
When I'm ninety and sitting in my rocking chair I know I'll
remember Japanese meatballs in blueberry sauce and Megumi.
P.S. I think the chocolates were a hit. The next day this
email arrived from my hosts:
Monday night Hiro had some chocolate that your gift.
He said very tasty chocolate!! he love them.
He enjoyed to eat two pieces of chocolate tonight too.
When he ate them I also had them!!
I love them. Thank you very much, ARIGATOU Evelyn.
I find my host in the
A sweet little welcome...
A huge sushi restaurant
Visiting the supermarket
Evelyn in Japanese
Cherry Blossom Bar
Dancing in the park
Meeting mama's husband
Trying the hat on for