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She Cooks Meatballs in Japan


Evelyn Hannon

While I was in Kobe, Japan, sailing around the world with Semester At Sea, I took part in a homestay program. It was a wonderful experience -- bonding with a Japanese woman who invited me into her home for a two day stay. I think this adventure will make you smile.

Overnight with a Japanese family...

When I was in Kobe, Japan with Semester At Sea I had the wonderful opportunity to take part in a Japanese Homestay Program. All the 75 students involved met for a last minute briefing on what to expect and then we left the ship together and went into the Kobe 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?

My host was lovely...

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.

Pot Luck dinner...

After 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.

They liked our meatballs...

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!

My bath was really hot...

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; 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.

Sansin in the park...

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.

It was sad to say good-bye...

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 ended 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 said, good-bye.

That evening Megumi' wrote in an email, 'I feel very happy to spent time (with you)!!'

The next day this email arrived from my host:

'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'.

WRITER'S NOTE: When I'm ninety and sitting in my rocking chair I know I'll remember Japanese meatballs in blueberry sauce and Megumi. If you'd like to see some photos of my adventures with Megumi, click here.

If you'd like information about the Hippo Family Club, their URL in the USA is: In Japan:





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