There are not many American foods I’ve missed during my three months in Japan. There was that one time when I really wanted a burrito. My only other longing has been for cheese.
While the sauce aisles, produce sections, and seafood departments of the grocery stores here in Tanegashima are gorgeous enough to make any food lover swoon, the dairy cases are abbreviated and elementary. So far I’ve found individually wrapped American “cheese” slices, little wedges of creamy cheese wrapped in foil, and cans of powdered “parmesan”. When I’m at home I like to keep enough real, delicious cheese on hand that I could grate it up and roll around in it if I wanted. But here I’ve had to console myself with meticulously prepared, charcoal grilled chicken. Which maybe undermines my whining completely…
My point is, when we landed in California last month, I had one immovable item on my agenda: find cheese and eat it (sorry family, priorities you know). Cody’s hometown of Sutter Creek has an adorable cheese shop where the owner hands out samples like her customers are starving, but I didn’t beat around the bush this time. I knew what I wanted: Two Sisters Isabella, and Lamb Chopper. Both aged goudas, one from cow, one from sheep, both sharp and nutty and utterly unavailable in Tanegashima. I cannot get enough aged gouda, and these are just different enough that I get to eat twice as much gouda and still feel like I’m having some variety in my cheese choices.
On the way back to Tanegashima I started devising ways to bring cheese with me. There was no way I was going another two months without cheese. Customs can be tricky though, so I found that giant department store I mentioned earlier: Isetan, home of the stink-less seafood department. They had a decent selection of cheese and I walked away with a wedge of parmesan, a block of some really rich swiss, a craggy hunk of mimolette, and a brick of basic yellow cheddar. I promised myself I would share.
With the parmesan, I made a pretty successful risotto in the Sun Pearl’s kitchen with some gloriously starchy Japanese rice. Papa-san, your typical strong and silent type, actually spoke to me to tell me my risotto was “oishii” and it warmed my shriveled little heart. The rest I brought out to share with Midori-san and Suja. Midori had the funniest reaction to a little piece of parmesan she popped in her mouth. It was like the cheese was hot or sour – that kind of puckering squint. And this is a woman who likes spicy things and lives in a country where wasabi is liberally applied to 25% of the dishes. I tried to think of a dish that might elicit a similar reaction in me…maybe a huge mouthful of stilton? I’m just so used to Parmesan that her reaction was surprising and adorable.
It’s been about three weeks since I polished off my cheese stash, and I’m feeling…stable. But as much as I look forward to getting home and re-stocking my fridge with enough gouda and gruyere and feta to fill a human-sized bathtub, I know it means I’ll be giving up all my Japanese food crushes like crispy, charred yakitori shio and impossibly rich tonkotsu ramen. It will be interesting to see how long I make it in the US before I start getting rude cravings my favorite Japanese dishes. I’m anticipating a few desperate attempts at re-creating them at home, followed by an impulsive plane ticket purchase.