Memorial is a story about the nature and limits of love; one that transcends societal expectations and serves up a witty and profound look at joy in all forms. Washington brilliantly finds beauty in the everyday; love for food, home and each other. Here, Washington discusses the role of food, specifically, and its ability to provide a little comfort and a little foundation in his debut novel and our latest Discover Pick. Oh, and he also teaches us how to make Okonomiyaki — a popular street food in Osaka, Japan (you’re welcome!).
A recipe is only a recipe until it touches your hands — and then it’s a part of your story, nearly indistinguishable from your very own history.
Or at least that’s what I thought when I started writing Memorial. I knew, from the very beginning, that the narrative would be a romance. I knew it’d revolve around the couple wrestling with the forever-problem of what it means to be okay. And I knew, on a gut-level, that it was a story that I wanted to feel better having written; which is to say that, for the audience, I didn’t want anyone reading it to feel worse. But I didn’t know that cooking would hold such a tangible role in the story — or that it would, really, be the foundation for the whole fucking narrative.
But it happened naturally: Benson, one half of the couple, would fill a bowl with rice. Mike, his partner, set the table and minced the cabbage. And Mitsuko, Mike’s mother — the gravity solidifying
both men, and every other character in the novel — cracked the eggs and marinated the chicken, dicing and chopping and stirring and frying, bringing every character a bit closer to — if not a little bit of peace — then a surer sense of comfort.
John Birdsall, an author I admire deeply, called Memorial a novel that’s sneakily about learning to cook Japanese food. It’s a reading that I hold dear. Because what could be a surer way of finding yourself in this world — that’s forever turbulent, and deeply uncertain, upon which no foundation lays stable for too long — than to find pleasure for yourself, and comfort alongside it, by reaching in your fridge and bringing whatever you’ve grabbed to boil?
The characters cook to feed each other, and then they cook to find themselves. The cooking is the journey and the destination. If they’re lucky — and if we’re lucky — each meal is a novel in itself.
Okonomiyaki Recipe (As demonstrated in a virtual cooking class with Bryan Washington and Jasmine Guillory)
Descriptions: Okonomiyaki is a popular street food in Osaka, Japan. It’s a savory pancake made with eggs, flour and shredded cabbage. It’s topped with your choice of protein or veggies and a variety of condiments. Basically, it’s okonomi/yaki “what you like”/”cooked.”
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/4 cups of shredded green cabbage
1 large egg
3/4 cup dashi (water works too)
1/2 lb. thinly sliced pork belly (can substitute with thinly sliced bacon, cooked ground pork, cooked sliced chicken, zucchini, mushrooms, shrimp, octopus, or squid etc.)
Neutral flavored oil (vegetable, canola, etc.)
Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce
Gari (pickled ginger)
Aonori (powdered fried green seaweed)
Quick Okonomi sauce (if you can’t find or don’t have Bull-dog sauce):
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
4 tablespoons ketchup
3 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1.) In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar, baking powder).
2.) In a separate bowl, whisk egg with 1 tablespoon of oil, then add 3/4 cup of dashi or water.
3.) Combine wet and dry ingredients, then fold in cabbage.
4.) While those sit, make okonomiyaki sauce by combining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons oyster sauce, 4 tablespoons ketchup and 3 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce; mix all together until sugar is dissolved.
5.) Cut the pork belly (or bacon, thin veggie, etc.) in 1/2 so it’s about 4-5 inches long and set aside.
6.) In a large pan, heat vegetable oil on medium heat. When it’s hot, lay 4 strips of pork belly/bacon.
7.) Once the meat begins to sizzle (give it 2 minutes, or enough time for some fat to render), spoon half the batter on top and spread into a half-inch thick layer.
8.) Cook for 3-4 minutes. When the bottom side is nicely browned, flip over (flip it confidently to avoid it breaking apart, but if it does then that’s fine — you can re-shape afterward).
9.) Cook other side covered for another 3-4 minutes or until nicely browned.
10.) Transfer to a plate, add toppings and serve immediately; start the next batch when you’re ready.
1.) Add what you’d like to the top of the cooked okonomiyaki! Okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise in zigzag lines, dried bonito flakes, green seaweed, chopped green onions, pickled red ginger, etc.
2.) Cut in quarters and serve immediately.