Common Grains’ Story
By Sonoko Sakai
Originally posted Jan 3 at http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2013/1/3/common-grains/
Common Grains is a Japanese food and culture project that started in my home kitchen a couple of years ago, and until this year, it didn’t have a name. It was just myself, writing Japanese food memoirs and recipes, and giving cooking lessons.
The eldest daughter of five children, I have lived in Los Angeles for most of my adult life. I was born in New York and raised in Kamakura, San Francisco, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Pasadena. My father, an executive for Japan Airlines, was one of the first people to be assigned overseas after World War II. Every three to five years, my family got transferred back and forth between Japan and the US, as if we were a flock of migrating birds.
I was a deeply curious and restless child, who found moving and adjusting to new places an adventure. I was not squeamish about eating strange foods or learning a new language. I loved looking at JAL’s “A World of Beauty” calendar and wonder where my father might transfer next or what I would look like when I grew up. My mother told us to make the best out of our sojourn life abroad. Mother cooked a large pot of rice every day, and made it the centerpiece of our meals. There was always something fermenting in the garage that had a pungent smell but tasted good—miso, nuka-zuke, umeboshi, kombucha, and natto.
At 9, my family returned to Japan and lived in the ancient capital of Kamakura, next to my grandmother’s house. This is where I had an epiphany about food. My grandmother was a wonderful cook and a very good teacher. We would walk to the beach to buy fish directly from the fishermen, as they were pulling in their fish nets at dawn; when we got home, grandmother would often make sushi. I don’t recall ever going to a sushi restaurant when I was a child.
My father was transferred to Los Angeles when I was a junior in high school. I graduated from UC Davis with a major in international relations and entered the Ph.D. program in Education at UCLA but I didn’t see myself as an academic type so I quit. I worked as a dark room asssistant for Lou Stoumen, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. He liked my cooking and encouraged me to write. I wrote my first cookbook about growing up in my grandmother and mother’s kitchens in Japan and the US on an Olivetti typewriter that was missing several keys. The Poetical Pursuit of Food: Japanese Recipes for American Cooks was published by Clarkson Potter in the early ‘80s.
While food was always on the horizon, I didn’t become a chef. Instead, I got a job as a film buyer for more than 15 years, and later produced a couple of films. I traveled around the world looking for good stories and watching movies. I ate well and was able to cultivate my palate, but I always preferred home cooking over restaurant food. During my career as a film buyer, I freelanced as a food writer for the Los Angeles Times Food Section. I found myself writing about food with one goal in mind: to make Japanese food and culture approachable and fun to American cooks and eaters. I wanted to erase the perception that Japanese food is pretty to look at and healthy to eat but something you ate at a restaurant.
Three years ago, I took a break from the film world and attended a soba school in Tokyo to learn how to make noodles by hand. I grew up in the Kanto region of Japan where soba noodles is the preferred native noodle. I became obsessed with artisanal soba. When I came back to Los Angeles, I realized that I might have trouble finding buckwheat flour for making soba noodles. The buckwheat in the US was milled for pancake quality. It was too dry. Whenever I was in Japan, I would stuff my suitcases with flour. With so much of it at hand, I began offering soba workshops at home. Noritoshi Kanai, Chariman of Mutual Trading Company, who loves soba and understood my passion, helped me bring some soba equipment from Japan.
Since 2012, I began collaborating with Shinmei, a Japanese rice distributor and JRE (Japan Rice and Rice Export Promotion Association) to promote Japanese food and culture with the support of the Japanese government. I had to come up with a name for my project—something that would easily find its way into the community. That’s how Common Grains was born.
This summer, I received a grant from North Carolina based artisan grain grower and miller, Anson Mills to grow grains and buckwheat in southern California.
Since Common Grains was born, my classes, which started out in my home kitchen, have moved elsewhere. I have taught soba making at USC, I did soba events for the faculty at UCLA, pop up soba and rice restaurant events at JANM, Breadbar, Cooks County, Cookbook, and Sojibo in Los Angeles and I also began doing workshops in Seattle, Hawaii, and Paris. On January 6, Common Grains will be presenting a rice tasting and onigiri design contest at JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival. After the JANM event, I will go to San Francisco to do rice and soba events. The journey is about to begin.
For upcoming Common Grains events, visit commongrains.com.
@ 2013 Sonoko Sakai