by Alan Sherman

“Oh Ssshhhitake. I bought vinegar instead of oil! Lucky I smelled it before I poured some into the frying pan.”

That was one friend when he first came to Japan. Now, on a Saturday night, several of us gaijin were gathered around my liv­ing room swapping culture shock stories of our early Tokyo days. Out came the Napa Valley Cabernet I hoarded away for such occasions, and the stories unfolded.

“That’s nothing,” I said. “I thought I bought a pack of lus­cious, dark fudge to treat the kids. Imagine my surprise when I spread the ‘fudge’ on my freshly baked brownies and it turned out to be sweet bean paste. The kids are still making fun of me.”

The stories kept coming, along with tears of laughter and nodding heads. Having your apartment smell like the lower deck of a tuna boat after attempting to make dashi; finding that unagi on Ritz crackers doesn’t work like lox on bagels; learning that miso paste and jelly may look like a PPJ, but tastes nothing like it.

Although we all knew our way around a kitchen, we had experienced becoming instantly illiterate, finding it impossible to read labels, understand cooking directions and know what to do with never-seen-before vegeta­bles and fruits. We found local cottage cheese and plaster of Paris have definite similarities, as do the prices of coffee and BMWs.

Local markets had isles of wonderful looking spices, sauces, condiments and boxes we just stared at blankly.

We all wanted to learn and understand, to try new things and offer our families a home-cooked Japanese dinner. What they were getting was the same as before coming to Japan – hamburgers, hot dogs, meat loafs, fries and stir-fries.

So what to do? Learn! Talk to people, ask questions, buy a few Japanese cookbooks— ones with pictures of ingredients. One that I use is Quick & Easy Japanese Cuisine for Everyone. Start adding a little of this and a little of that to American foods – an East meets West concept.

Here is a recipe I use that is easy to shop for, easy to make and is often a “do over” at my home.

Donburi with Beef and Asparagus (Serves 4)

* 1/8 cup of oil
* 1 pound of thinly sliced beef (450 grams)
* 2 packages of asparagus sliced in 2-inch pieces (cutoff hard ends)
* 6 large stallions (green onions) sliced in 2-inch pieces
* 3-inch chunk of ginger cut into thin slices
* 1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
* 1/4 cup sake or white wine or mirin
* 11/2 tablespoons of Oyster Sauce
* 1 tablespoon cornstarch
* 1 tablespoon of sugar
* Salt and pepper to taste
* 1/4 cup of chicken broth
* 8 cups of cooked rice

1)  Dissolve the cornstarch in the sake or wine and stir in oyster sauce, sugar, salt and pepper.
2)  Marinate the beef in the sake mixture while doing next two steps.
3)  Heat a stir-fry pan over medium heat and add oil.
4)  Stir-fry the onions and ginger for a minute or two, add the asparagus and then the green onions and continue cooking until asparagus is tender (about two minutes).
5)  Add the beef and marinade and continue stir-frying until the beef is cooked (about two minutes).
6)  Add the chicken stock and stir to combine (about one minute).
7) Put rice in each person’s bowl and place the beef and aspara­gus stir-fry on top.