Food connects Kiwi-Japanese to home

For migrant communities around the world, food is a connection to home. 

But as we all know, the concept of home can evolve over time. Our preferences become a reflection of the sum of all our parts, which represents the complex identities we form through the very simple act of living. Here May Tien explores what that means for Kiwi-Japanese people residing in New Zealand. In the second of two parts, she talks to Midori S and Shojiro T. To read the first part, click here.

Midori S 

Midori is not your typical IT professional from Tokyo. Her decision to move wasn’t due to family, study, work or any of the other usual suspects. 

“My husband, I think he saw something on TV one day that featured New Zealand and he thought it looked so beautiful. We did some research and then I organised a transfer and relocation through work and moved here. That was about 15 years ago…it was one of the craziest things I did in my life. I love it, though,” Midori explains. 

Midori moved from Tokyo to New Zealand about 15 years ago. Image: Supplied

Midori and her husband currently live close to Wellington’s CBD and are enjoying life there. 

“Other than [missing our families] it’s fantastic. I miss my mom’s cooking, but I did come to learn and recreate them. There may be little things like Japanese fast food ramen and things that we used to buy from the department store basements back home, and snacks and desserts—there are so many variations from Japan." 

 “I think we’re starting to get more Japanese ingredients here, and there are people in the Japanese expat community who grow this type of ginger I like, which I’ve started growing myself after getting some starters from others and once a year I’ll get two or three, a small taste, and satisfy my craving,” she jokes. 

“I don’t go much to Japanese restaurants, but I’m fascinated with the cooking at Tatsushi—it’s very authentic there. There’s a nice selection of sake, which I miss because the variety of sake available in Japan is so good,” explains Midori.  

Tatsushi is an izakaya-style restaurant where there’s a full bar with very fresh fish cooked using a variety of methods to produce small, snack-sized plates for nibbling. It’s a place where you expect people to drink first, then eat, then drink some more. 

Sake is a Japanese alcohol beverage made from fermented rice. Photo by Zaji Kanamajina on Unsplash  

Living in New Zealand may have had more profound influences when it comes to food for Midori. 

“When I think of New Zealand food I think of lamb. The thing is, I hated lamb when living in Japan and only after trying the lamb here, I’m converted, and a lamb lover. I think it also helps to pair it with pinot noir; that combination was eye-opening and I especially love it with a Central Otago pinot noir.  

Midori is also impressed with the abundance of seasonal and local produce available in New Zealand. She does wonder why there isn’t much variety of seafood but attributes it to the possibility that Kiwis just don’t enjoy things like mackerel (an oily, strong-flavoured fish that is popular in Japan). She understands quite well one person’s caviar may be another person’s two-minute noodles.  

“Look, my husband loves his vegetables cooked until they’re very, very soft and mushy and that’s not for me. I still like it when there’s a crunchiness. It’s something very different from Western cuisine."

“In Japan, there’s an abundance of food and it’s easy to access so I never thought to make things from scratch myself—I just bought ready-made things. Here, it’s more expensive so I’m more conscious of making them so whenever I need to, I can use them,” says Midori. 

Mackerel is a popular fish in Japan, but less so in New Zealand, Midori says. Photo by Paul Einerhand on Unsplash  

“For example, I’ll make condiments and kimchee—we ferment it quite well. It takes time and it’s fun, but there’s a sense of achievement there so I try to make things as much as possible myself. I may not have perfected this, but I’ve been doing quite a bit of it."  

“The one dish I also used to always make with ready-made sauce was mapo tofu, and here it wasn’t easy to get so I started replicating the sauces from scratch and it’s the main dish I keep making at home. The only thing I buy is chilli paste to add to the sauce. This is the one thing I started doing after moving to New Zealand to get a taste of home.”  

“I share [knowledge] with the community and friends. Someone told me to get a taste of umeboshi (pickled plums) you can mix rhubarb with something and it’ll recreate the same flavour. We get really creative to replicate what we grew up eating,” explain Midori. 

When asked whether she thinks New Zealand is now home, Midori pauses. 

“Whenever I hear the news, and New Zealand is mentioned I feel proud, which is the same I feel for Japan.” 

Shojiro T 

One of Wellington’s premier Japanese restaurants Kazaguruma sits unassumingly on the quiet end at the top of Cuba Street, in a converted townhouse straddled between a hairdresser and barbershop.  

The contemporary Japanese food served at the restaurant is intelligent, complex, hyper ingredient-focused, and beautiful in its simplicity and presentation. The clean lines and almost clinically bare and humble dining room help diners focus on the dishes the executive chef Shojiro creates himself.  

Shojiro in the kitchen. Image: Facebook

He shares a strong philosophy for using local ingredients to best represent Japanese cuisine in New Zealand.  

Rather than wanting something that isn't in New Zealand, I want to find more [ingredients] that are only in New Zealand. We try to use local ingredients as much as possible and present Japanese food in a way that suits the tastes of New Zealanders. We consider Kazaguruma's dishes to be New Zealand-Japanese." 

“For example, if there are ingredients that can express the season such as herbs, vegetables, and mushrooms unique to Japan, I think the dishes [we can make] will be closer to Japan. However, there are domestic sake and wasabi in New Zealand, and I think that it is a combination of Japanese food unique to this country that you can enjoy New Zealand salmon, oysters and lamb together with it,” he explains. 

Diners seem to appreciate the meals served by Shojiro and his team. 

“Some people are nostalgic for their time in Japan, others say they first ate Japanese food in Kazaguruma and fell in love with it, and some say that they can now eat seafood. There are also a lot of people who feel like they have been to Japan by eating Japanese food because they could not visit Japan due to Covid-19." 

“I feel a lot of people are interested in Japanese food and culture…I think it's my job as a Japanese chef to introduce the appeal of Japan through my restaurant,” says Shojiro. 

Having lived in New Zealand for 14 years since first arriving to study English, Shojiro has become accustomed to the Kiwi life, and share some of the same struggles with other residents in Wellington. 

“New Zealand has a very comfortable climate and people are kind, so I haven't had any difficulties, but I remember having a hard time finding a place to live when we moved to Wellington.” 

 - Asia Media Centre