It happened that Good Food was nominated for a Beard Award and I found myself in NYC with an unbooked Saturday. I remembered a New York Times article I read on League of Kitchens, a unique organization that offers cooking classes taught by immigrant home cooks. I reached out to to the League to see if I could slip into a Japanese Immersion class. Even the name is perfect. Immersion like language, my language, food. Founder Lisa Gross and program manager Sonya Kharas were welcoming and so helpful. Each class is five hours long and has only six students, a perfect experience for jumping into a new cuisine.
I’ve said before that for me cooking is gestural. Familiarity with a cuisine or technique, bread baking, for example creates an embedded set of physical movements paired with ingredients. After awhile your moves just flow in the kitchen. When I embark on cooking a cuisine I’ve never made before I feel like an overgrown teenager, all angles and clumsiness. I read the same sentence of a recipe over and over again as if the words will impart gestural comprehension. I love cookbooks but if I’m starting at zero the only way to jump start my learning curve is to cook alongside a good cook.
Taking a class that is intimate in size and long enough to see enough repetition is a joy and all too unusual. Which is just one reason why the LOK’s classes are so good. First of all, the name. Isn’t it great? Conjures up cooking superheroes and in fact that’s who they are. The League of Kitchens is a group of immigrant cooks who teach in their home kitchens. To ensure success the League administration puts potential teachers through what might be called extreme vetting followed by a long and thorough training apprenticeship program. This is not a carelessly put together group of classes. The program is so thought out, so caring about the success of the teachers that the development of their skill set is paramount. And it shows.
I took a train up to Hamilton Heights (another benefit of the classes are seeing parts of the city you might not normally walk through) to the apartment of our teacher Aiko and her husband. Over five hours together we cooked our buns off and made all the dishes you see in the photo at the top of the page. Then we sat and feasted. I learned that I like Natto and the other slime fests Mountain Yam and beaten raw okra. We learned about Aiko’s journey from Japan to the US, her successes and challenges, saw pictures of her hometown, specialties of the region she’s from, in short got to know more than the food. We got to know her. What a generous gift, and how unusual. As for the actual cooking lesson the gestures finally clicked. Dashi is to Japanese food what olive oil is to Italian, at once a cooking medium, flavoring agent, and texture enhancer. This understanding opened up everything for me to follow recipes with less trepidation once I returned home. And the extensive introduction to a pantry of ingredients who labels I can’t read was so useful. If I lived in the New York City area I would take a class once a month. What a resource to bring together gifted home cooks who who have so many stories to share with curious home cooks who want to learn a new cuisine. Talk about building bridges across cultural divides!
In the last ten days I’ve made Okonomiyaki, Hot Udon Soup, Yakisoba, Tamagoyaki, and a Sushi hand roll spread. Expect more on my Japanese cooking journey to come.