An Artist’s Palate: From Pizza and Pancakes to Okonomiyaki

Nagisa with a pizza she served when we visited in 2018.

Almost exactly a year ago I was sitting at a table set for three in a tiny studio apartment near Kobe, Japan. It’s home to my son Sam and his wife Nagisa, a talented artist who loves to apply her creative imagination to the meals she prepares for Sam and-if I’m lucky enough to be visiting-me.

(You can see a full array of Nagisa’s dishes on Instagram at Nagisa’s Kitchen. You can also view her paintings on Instagram under her name Nagisa Kamae.)

Over the past almost 3 1/2 years that the two have lived in Japan, my husband Jeff and I have visited four times and were planning to return for a fifth this fall-until the pandemic put the kibosh in our plans. We’re hoping the travel picture will be rosier in 2021.

Sam and Nagisa delight in taking us to nearby restaurants for Yakitori, sushi, Yakiniku (the Japanese version of barbecue), or for oft-superior Japanese renditions of western-style foods, including hamburgers (our favorite place is Sunchago Burgers in Kobe).

You need rather large jaws to take a bite of a Sunchago burger.

I usually stay on after my husband Jeff returns to the U.S., and that’s when I get to sample Nagisa’s home cooking. When we first started visiting I fantasized about being her sous-chef and learning some Japanese cooking techniques and dishes, but no dice. There’s hardly room for my petite daughter-in-law at her single-burner electric stove, never mind not-so-petite me. The best I can do is stand goggling as she juggles prepping main dishes, salads and sometimes a soup, using only that lone burner, a rice cooker, and, when needed, a toaster oven. There’s no regular oven in her kitchen.

Nagisa in her small, well-organized kitchen.

Nagisa grew up nearby, and her and Sam’s apartment is located not far from her parents and numerous members of her extended family, including her two grandmothers. One, Yoshiko, her father’s mother, is Nagisa’s inspiration in the kitchen. “She can cook anything,” Nagisa says. “She learned from her mother.”

On a visit to Yoshiko’s apartment, which is filled with family memorabilia, including dolls representing her grandchildren, all wearing traditional outfits that Yoshiko sewed herself, she served a meal of cabbage rolls, soup, and a savory eel (anago) pudding. The cabbage rolls, stuffed with rice and beef, in a tomato sauce, reminded me of a dish my mother used to make. Nagisa says her grandma’s cooking techniques and ideas are mostly in the Kyoto tradition, making use of textured tofu and fermented foods but with some western-style items as well. She is eager to share her skills, including soap-making, with her granddaughter.

Nagisa with her grandma Yoshiko, 92, who has inspired her in the kitchen and in other ways.

Nagisa spent more than 10 years studying and working in the U.S., meeting Sam, an animation artist and photographer (check out his channel, Hey Sam Graham Cartoons) at a college art show about nine years ago.

Since returning to Japan, Nagisa has devoted herself to her meticulously rendered paintings of small animals, almost always pictured with food-candy bars, cookies, pancakes, etc.-placed on some part of their body. The choice of which food to pair with a particular animal is a product of Nagisa’s artistic whimsy and culinary taste rather than a favored food of the creature. For example, our late cat Jinxy (see below) much preferred chicken to Nestle Crunch bars.

One of Nagisa’s recent paintings (slight nod to Warhol). It will be featured soon in a new show at Gabba Gallery, Los Angeles, which sells Nagisa’s work in the U.S.

Nagisa spends most Fridays with her grandma, usually cooking with her and bringing some of the dishes home to share with Sam.

Although her grandma makes everything from scratch, “most of the time I cheat,” Nagisa says. What she means is she takes shortcuts (don’t we all?), buying a gluten-free pizza crust at the local market, making her delicious curries with a flavor cube, and spicing her tacos with Trader Joe’s Taco Seasoning Mix. (In case you’re wondering, there aren’t any Trader Joe’s stores in Japan- there’s only Trader Mom, who forwards the occasional care package, as TJ’s products are among the things “the kids” miss most.)

Nagisa’s go-to specialties are sometimes inspired by dishes she enjoyed in the U.S.

“I don’t cook Japanese food that often. I cook more Italian dishes, like pasta and pizza, and Mexican food,” she says.

Pancakes are also a favorite, both in her paintings and on the table.

Nagisa’s healthy pancake birthday cake for Sam included bran and cashew butter.

Her years in America made her more aware of vegan food as well. “We’re not vegan or vegetarian, but we like to experiment,” she said.

Nagisa’s ideas usually come from her head, not from a recipe-and the presentation is as pretty as one of her paintings.

Instagram post from Nagisa’s Kitchen. Ingredients: beef and soy meats, chickpeas, egg, TJ’s taco and chile-lime seasonings, tomato sauce, onion, garlic, lettuce, pea sprouts, green onion, avocado, tomato, lemon, rice, Doritos and habanero sauce.

Sam tends a small but thriving collection of herbs and vegetables on the balcony of their fifth-floor apartment. Many turn up on the menu.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the two dined out regularly, but now eat mostly at home and have become more cost- and health conscious. While most stores and restaurants remain open for indoor dining, mask-wearing is pretty universal in Japan, and the numbers of infections and deaths is far lower than in the U.S.

Sam, fairly spoiled by Nagisa’s culinary prowess, now takes a somewhat dim view of my cooking, which he recalls as being a bit repetitive. Because his father is so fussy, my menu when he was growing up was too limited, he says. “You made a lot of tortilla soup.”

“The cool thing about Nagisa is she’s always trying new things,” he said. “She doesn’t like to do the same thing. It keeps it interesting.”

One of Sam’s favorites in his wife’s repertoire is a popular local dish called okonomiyaki. It has quite a long and interesting history (you can read about it here) and many regional variations, but it’s most closely associated with Osaka. A cross between a pancake and an omelet, it comes in many variations, but almost all include chopped cabbage in an egg and flour batter. Nagisa’s version incorporates pork, shrimp and cheese, with multiple savory, sweet and salty toppings. Before she and Sam left for Japan, she made it for me as a kind of parting gift.

Nagisa’s okonomiyaki in the pan, with sliced pork, cheese and tempura crumbs (tenkasu). Nagisa’s okonomiyaki, finished, topped with Japanese mayonnaise, kelp powder, dried bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and a savory-sweet okonomiyaki sauce.

I asked Nagisa for a recipe without seafood and pork. She suggested using thinly sliced beef. I bought this and the other ingredients at the local Japanese market, Nijiya, where Nagisa used to work. Here’s the list:

Rice and wheat flour (or a special okonomiyaki flour mix), cabbage, tempura crumbs (tenkasu), chives (Nira in Japanese) or green onions, dashi powder (1 packet), mountain yam ( Yamaimo), Japanese mayonnaise (a special, creamy, very tasty mayo), kelp powder, dried bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and okonomiyaki sauce (or you can make it from scratch or purchase a prepared version). Optional items include beef, cheese, pork, shrimp or any other ingredients you fancy. The name of the dish says it all: “okonomi,” meaning “as you like,” and “yaki,” meaning “grilled.”

I suggest that you check out the okonomiyaki recipe from Nami, a San Francisco-based Japanese home cook, blogger and author of an e-cookbook called Just One Cookbook. Here’s a picture of how my okonomiyaki turned out. I’ll definitely make it again, perhaps with a little less mayo!

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