I’ll Teach You Everything I Know: A Recipe for Ninjin-gohan
What a gift it is to be asked to feed a person, but what a further gift for that person to ask if they might be taught to make what you make.
6. J is perhaps my first friend who went out of her way to tell me that the food I made was delicious. She is certainly the first friend who has made food for herself based on what I’ve made for her, and she is also the first friend to text me requests for certain menu items—panko-breaded fish, or an array of crisp, seasonal salads. It’s a simple, maybe trivial thing, but when J shares her enthusiasm for my cooking, I feel like I can see a little bit of myself in the affectionate, loving way she sees me. What a gift it is to be asked to feed a person, but what a further gift for that person to ask if they might be taught to make what you make.
7. Pour soy sauce, sake, and mirin into the rice pot, directly into the water. Place the minced carrots and ginger evenly across the top so they are also submerged in the water meant to cook the rice. If you are using powdered dashi, add it in with the soy sauce and sake. If you are using dried konbu, place it on top of the rice-carrot-ginger mixture.
8. By now, J and I have shared countless meals and supported each other through many life experiences. One of the places J supported me was at my wedding, where she was a bridesmaid. I was and still am mostly confounded by American bridal culture. I read all the blogs, scanned the magazines, even checked books out from the library, but when I got married, I felt like a foreigner and a fraud—more often self-conscious and nervous than confident and happy. I didn’t even quite understand the idea of a bridal party, just that it would be awkward-looking if my husband had people standing next to him at our wedding and no one was standing next to me. So I asked my sister, my sisters-in-law, and a few of my friends to be my bridesmaids, including J.
I did not have what currently seems to qualify as a “regular” bachelorette party—there was no multiday trip to Nashville, no coordinated outfits, no penis-shaped cake. Instead, I invited my bridesmaids to a nail salon two nights before my wedding so that we could get our nails done. My initial thought was that it would be a fun way to run an errand, given that I wanted a manicure done before the wedding anyway. But the evening was far from a pleasant chore. It was a raucous, delightful night, somehow divorced from all of the pageantry of weddings. We ate Costa Rican food, we listened to Rihanna, we gossiped and laughed. I felt completely cradled by the precious love of women. At the end of the night, after a few covert cigarettes were smoked and half of the women had gone home, I found myself in my little sister’s apartment. Everyone was silly and happy and sprawled like puppies on my sister’s bed. I stood over them for a moment before joining them, reveling in the view of my sister sideways across her bed and J cheerfully wedged in by the wall, of these two women who meant the world to me. This person is like family to me, I thought to myself. And then, for a moment, I was outside of my body, thinking about what it meant for her to fly to Chicago from New York to celebrate my marriage, to cuddle my sister, to tease me and joke so that I took myself less seriously. I realized I must be like family to her too.
That we were family to each other.
9. Hit cook on your rice cooker as if you were preparing a normal pot of rice. When the rice is finished cooking, discard the konbu square if using. Give the rice a good stir, dispersing sweet carrots, zingy ginger, and savory rice equally.
10. When I was little, my grandmother made us this dish whenever we got back to Japan after a long stint away in the US. Ninjin-gohan is a dish that tastes like homecoming, like welcome, like thank god you’re here, I’ve missed you so much, you who are cherished and dear to me. Tomorrow, J flies from New York to Chicago to spend the week with me and my family. It is one of many such trips we’ve taken to continue our friendship, despite the many cities we’ve lived in. In the afternoon, I plan to pick her up from the airport, her favorite snacks in tow. But before that, in the morning, I’ll be in the kitchen, washing rice and slicing carrots. I will prepare the meal that marks love, the ninjin-gohan I always make when I see her, no matter the city we’re in.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.