Monday, April 15, 2002



All these years of living in Japan haven't changed me in such core attributes as my mother tongue and my taste in tomatoes. Yes, it's true; mock if you will, but despite my broad-spectrum appreciation for Japanese cuisine, I have never taken to the Japanese tomato. There are certain things in life that define one, after all; if one goes wishy-washy on those just to be accommodating, then what good is allegiance? What good is history?

Anyway where was I. Oh yeah, tomatoes. Well, seeds, actually. Back when I was gardening in the USA, I could go to the seed store or look at the seed catalog and choose from half-a-dozen or more colloquially named (Latin name too) varieties of tomato, cucumber, squash, pumpkin etc.; the general American perspective to gardening, as to dining, being deep, rather than broad (wild vegetables, for example, commonly eaten in Japan, were rarely on the menu, except in maybe houses where immigrant grandparents lived; you'd see the grandparents out on public lawns and vacant lots gathering dandelion greens and mushrooms (agaricus campestris)); the Japanese perspective, in contrast, tends to be broad rather than deep: only one kind of everything, but lots and lots of everything.

To augment your wide range of wild vegetables, go into a seed store here and you see one kind of cucumber, one kind of tomato, one kind of pumpkin, with no scientific names to tell you exactly what they are since there's only one choice, and anyway everyone knows exactly what they are, except me. One thing I do know though is that the Japanese tomato is not what I think of as a 'tomato,' Americans such as my otherwise increasingly former self preferring their tomatoes large and soft and juicy and flavorful, as reflected in such grandiose US tomato variety monikers as BEEFSTEAK, BIG BOY, ULTRA GIRL, MORTGAGE LIFTER etc.

The Japanese, being on the opposite side of the world, count on their fingers starting with the pinky, make their zeros starting at the bottom, call their tomato 'tomahto' and prefer it uniformly sized, hard, rather dry, still a little green so it's crunchy, and always eat it raw. I don't think they have this variety in the US, though they do have genetically engineered tomatoes there that may one day take over the planet, and some time ago a conventionally engineered square tomato was hybrided that wouldn't roll back down the agrobusiness monstroharvester conveyor belt, and that had the taste and texture of an agrobusiness monstroharvester conveyor belt. These tomatoes were not a hit with the American public, and the widely unheralded Tomato Rebellion is now underway.

Such a thing would never happen in Japan, where there is only one tomato; rebel against that and you've got no tomato. If while visiting Japan you don't feel like eating the Japanese tomato you can play tennis with it, though there's a little point on the bottom that makes it kind of erratic on clay. If the tomato is left around too long, though, it gets so red and soft and juicy that no one wants to eat it, and then it's useless for tennis, so it's sold at incredibly cheap prices in the markets, where nobody buys it except me.

Who is that foreigner going to throw the rotten tomato at, I can feel native shoppers thinking. It seems like what this rambling journal entry is getting to be about though isn't really tomatoes, per se, or even seeds, but about what food industry people call 'mouth feel,' which is very big in Japanese dining, the other aspects of Japanese cuisination being cherry-blossom subtle, in contrast to America's Fourth of July over Grand Canyon approach (the Quarter-pounder, the Jumbo shake, the Bucket of Coke could never have been conceived in Japan), which I experience anew every time I return to the US and go to a restaurant and a meal comes that would feed my family, including in-laws.

But to get back on tangent here, another vegetable, the boomerang-shaped Japanese cucumber, though useless for sports (it can be thrown a considerable distance, but will not return), wins hands down over the standard US cucumber in terms of mouth-feel, the Japanese variety being long and thin and mythically crisp, with intangible seeds unless you let it stay on the vine too long, when it begins to resemble a small version of the standard US gargantua cuke and is considered inedible because crunch is no longer the word and the seeds can be felt in the mouth, and even I won't buy it.

But having been here for some years now, I guess it was in an expatriately atavistic mouth-feel nostalgia that I went to the seed store looking for seeds of 'real' tomatoes, in some sort of remnant American optimism believing that they might be there; I wanted Fourth of July fireworks over maybe Niagara Falls, tomato-wise; BEEFSTEAK tomatoes would be good, but of course there weren't any, there were only seeds for the tennis tomato. So I turned from thence and went to where all the good vegetable seeds can be found nowadays, wherever in the world you are: on the Net.

Found a place and ordered among other things, BEEFSTEAK tomato seeds, and when they came, planted them in flats, and soon they were 8 inches high, wondering where in the world they were; I planted as many as I could use plus a few more, and by midsummer I was BEEFSTEAKing my way to satori on what the monkeys left me. I gave the rest of the seedlings to Japanese neighbors and friends so they could learn what a real American tomato tastes like, and they said they were pretty good while still a little green, but they got soft and watery too fast.

I keep forgetting I'm on the other side of the world.

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