OUR JAPANESE exchange student wanted to experience “American food,” and we thought we were well-equipped to assist. After all, the 14-year-old was staying in a house where everyone loves to cook and loves to eat. Our only worry was that the exchange program, just a week long, was too short to sample everything we hoped to share.
We’d eaten doughnuts and ice cream during our week with a different exchange student a year earlier, and we all bonded over the pleasures of sharing culture through food. (She brought us green-tea-flavored Kit Kats, leaving the younger kids forever smitten with her country’s magical opportunities.) But this request for “American” meals made us think harder. What does it even mean?
There’s a melting-pot nature to almost anything we eat here — big, soft ballpark pretzels are thoroughly American, but also historically European. Pancakes? More ancient than ancient Rome, where they were apparently popular. Meals can be as American as apple pie, but apple pie itself dates back to Chaucerian England.
We tried not to get too hung up on semantics, and we think our visitor enjoyed a good variety of meals. But we noticed something strange in the process.
We piled grilled hot dogs on buns with yellow mustard and sweet relish, but it was the first time in years we had cooked hot dogs ourselves. (They lost their easy-meal appeal when the kids went vegetarian, and we have never found a good veggie dog.)
We hit big success dining out at Great State Burgers, with its picture-perfect hamburgers; crisp, crinkly fries; and vanilla milkshakes. But it was actually my first time eating there, too.
Almost anything we thought of as an American habit felt like we were tourists at our own table.
Our normal meal rotation includes homemade Indian saag paneer, Middle Eastern falafel, homemade tortillas with refried beans and cheese. One of the most American things about us is how every member of the family has a favorite hot sauce from a different corner of the globe. Stereotypical American favorites — deli subs? Hostess Twinkies? — seemed oversized or overprocessed compared to what we thought of as Japanese food, with its fresh ingredients and beautiful aesthetics.
But then, showing our guest around our pantry, he came across a familiar sight: boxes of Japanese curry, a comfort-food favorite we were introduced to years back by a friend who had lived in Japan. The popular curry-sauce mix is packaged in break-apart blocks that contain wheat flour and oils, MSG and caramel coloring and assorted other additives. Simmered with water into a sauce, it’s a mild, savory blanket for vegetables and meat (or, in our case, tofu), served over rice in a goopy, homey, soothingly satisfying meal.
As it became a family favorite, we tried making the curry mix from scratch once, ditching the artificial ingredients and going with fresh turmeric, fenugreek and other spices. The boxed mix was better.
Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who also believes the premade blocks are the way to go, included the curry in his book “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking,” writing that it can be traced from India to England to endlessly tweaked variations in Japan.
“Japanese curry is like the ﬁnal whisper in an international game of telephone,” he wrote.
It felt like a connection, even though we didn’t serve the curry to our student. We think he enjoyed his week exploring our corner of America. His family left our children an open invitation to visit, and I hope one day they will. I bet they’ll find a thrilling new place to explore, and maybe a few echoes of home.
This forgiving dish absorbs plenty of variations of cooked meat or vegetables, according to your taste. We like it with potatoes, carrots, peas and tofu.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
4 carrots, thickly sliced
4-5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed
5 cups water
1 box (7.8 ounces) curry mix (found in Asian groceries or most well-stocked markets)
1 pound tofu, cubed
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
Cooked rice for serving
1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven on medium heat. Add onion and carrots, and stir fry until onions are soft, about 5 minutes.
2. Add cubed potatoes and water, and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.
4. Turn off the heat, break the sauce-mix blocks into pieces and add them to the pot. Stir until the sauce mix is completely melted. Add tofu and peas. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
5. Serve hot, over cooked rice.
Loosely adapted from the back of the S&B brand “Golden Curry” box.