Monday, July 18, 2005

That rock soup story

Convenience food in Japan is a cultural phenomenon. There is a pre-packaged sauce/mix for nearly every dish under the sun. They all promise wonderful results in a matter of minutes, with the obligatory 'results not typical' picture in the front. All these sauces suggest that the home cook add this and that to make the best out of the sauce/mix/dish and how the best results can be obtained if I were to add fresh vegetables, mushrooms, meat, and other 'odds and ends'.

What they don't tell you is that the odds and ends are what really make the dish. Much like that old European fable about the three hungry soldiers who came into town looking for food, only to find doors closed in their faces before they started a pot of soup with rocks as the 'main ingredient', the sauces and mixes promise that it is the main ingredient. And much like how the villagers got suckered into providing all the rest of the ingredients - which incidentally really made the soup - I find myself adding everything I needed to make the dish, quickly coming to the realization that I could have easily made the dish without spending the extra $5 on the mix...

But these mixes and sauces get to the core of the busy. The promise of good food fast without thought or planning, simply mindlessly following the instructions drawn on the back of the box has this magical comforting effect on me. I find myself gravitating towards these mixes when I am over-worked and just too tired to think.

This sweet and sour (subuta) mix made a yummy dinner a few nights ago. It was a mindless and simple protocol which I could follow without planning - but upon reflection, it was quite a bit of work. I first had to marinate cubed pork in ginger-soy sauce before coating it with corn starch. After dusting the corn starch on, the pork was flash fried in peanut oil before stir-frying with mushrooms and peas. The mix was added at the end and heated for five minutes. Now, for a regular stir fry that I would make on the fly, I would never go through all of the meat-processing steps. But somehow, when the instructions on the box told me exactly what to do in what sequence, I was hypnotized into action.

I'd even hesitate to call what is on the box as a 'recipe'. It feels more like 'instructions'. It's hypnotic and definite. I modify recipes all the time to suit my needs, but these somehow defy modification. I find myself bringing out my best ingredients and going the extra step to follow the protocol listed on the box to make that magical soup out of something as mundane as rocks from the side of the road... But then I guess even if I had to spend 30 minutes to prepare dinner, at least I didn't have to think about what I had to do during that 30 minutes...


Anonymous said...

When the I use box sauces, and tells me to do things that's not my norm (in this case flash fry the meats, marinate it, etc.) I OMIT.

...perhaps that's why I don't like box sauces...the outcome doesn't taste that good.

Alice said...

Hi, there,

I can see how they won't be so good without all the extras!