Learning to Cook in Japan: A Tragicomedy

Before moving from Chicago to Japan, my husband and I prided ourselves on being competent cooks and hosts—nothing fancy, mostly inspired by the pages of Real Simple Magazine—but nonetheless, we were people who effectively fed ourselves and others, whose parties were exited with stuffed satisfaction.

In celebration of my love of all things tasty, I’d like to share a recipe that I developed during my first week in Japan.

You will need:
1/4 lb. of sushi-grade tuna
jet lag
lack of Japanese language skills
lack of stove



  1. Go to an enormous grocery store complex while jet lagged.
  2. Wander and wonder in sleepy perplexity at the mysterious labels, high produce prices and general lack of ingredients you are most dependent on (talkin’bout cheese).
  3. Purchase a beautiful cut of sashimi-grade tuna, alongside an array of other meticulously-selected groceries.
  4. Arrive home. Realize fridge in said home has been unplugged since your move-in two days ago.
  5. Have somewhere to go, with friends waiting outside. Panic, plug in fridge and shove treasured groceries into the freezer.
  6. Have dinner and drinks, arrive home. Fall asleep for 7-8 hours.
  7. Wake up and daydream all day about the delicious, buttery sashimi that awaits; contemplate whether it should be lightly grilled or eaten raw with wasabi.
  8. Around dinner time, realize with a start that your precious sashimi is still in the freezer, frozen solid. Place it in a bowl of water to thaw. Get hungrier.
  9. Turn on portable grill and place fish inside.
  10. Watch grill lid inexplicably fall off its hinges and collapse onto fish, smashing the meat and sending a good third of it underneath the grill grates.
  11. Burn fingers several times before finally accepting that grill is too hot to reassemble, and that perhaps the fish should just be pan fried.
  12. Turn to the gas hot-plate that is your temporary substitute for a stove. Attempt many times to turn it on, without success.
  13. Desperately stick fish into toaster oven. Get fish drippings everywhere.
  14. Have doubts about whether the toaster oven is actually cooking the fish. Take it out and stick it into your second, larger toaster-oven(?) instead.
  15. Confused by the Japanese buttons on the oven, just start pressing things. To your chagrin, a bright light will come on, and fish will begin to microwave. This is not an oven but a denshi-renji, a microwave-oven hybrid.
  16. Sigh, stare into the abyss, and let the denshi-renji* run its course.
  17. Remove fish. It should be raw inside, scorched along the edges, and smell like someone lit fire to a dumpster outside a Long John Silver’s.
  18. Give up. Throw fish in trash. Eat entire bag of prawn crackers for dinner.

    gross fish

Update: My husband and I have since settled into our cozy Japanese house and kitchen. We now have a stove and have managed a few delicious meals—some experiments with local fare (stir fry with octopus and an array of strange and beautiful mushrooms) and some cozy back-home classics (spaghetti with homemade meat sauce, complete with parmesan shaky-cheese). We’ve even had people over for dinner! We’re still learning to navigate Japanese stores, prices, and ingredients, but we feel a bit more in control of the food we eat, and, in turn, a bit more in control of our lives.

To those expats who are having trouble preparing meals in Japan, godspeed! It gets better.

*I still have no clue how to use the denshi-renji.


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