Kitchen Nightmares

There are three grocery stores within walking distance of my apartment. Near as I can tell, one of them is terrific for fruits and vegetables. The seafood, however, feels overpriced. It’s a madhouse: two stories of noise at a decibel level more fitting for China than Japan. The second market – which I favor – is calmer. Seafood is reasonably priced, though the fruit selection is putrid. But there’s an ever-so-slight selection of international products, and it has the major bonus of offering household items as well – a poor man’s Target. The third and final market sucks. I’m not sure why it exists.

I generally go to the grocery store twice a week, spending roughly the same amount of money for the same assortment of goods. For me, breakfast consists of bananas on most days, bananas plus ham sandwiches on gym days. Lunch and dinner are interchangeable. A stir-fry is a staple nowadays, a concession to aging: an assortment of broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers, topped by fish or shrimp or whatever seafood happens to be cheap yet look filling enough. Other meals are more hodgepodgy: fish over green beans, or some combination of fish or meat with pasta or rice plus greens: more carbs than I should have. And a fruit item de jour.

My lack of imagination offers but one deterrent to the expansion of my kitchen adventures. My Tokyo shoebox boasts none of the items I took for granted in the States: a rice cooker, a crockpot, a microwave, an oven, …a microwave oven. I could easily purchase any of these items – oven notwithstanding – but real estate is valuable, and I figure two years without any members of the microwave family might be a healthy change. My gas range consists of but a single meager flame. I rest my supplies on the washing machine at my back, and place an extension rack over the sink in order to deploy my chopping board. This is Japanese efficiency: no room for arms or elbows.

It is enticing to never cook in Japan – too enticing. For no more than a dollar or two apiece, an onigiri or two suffices for breakfast, even lunch: it’s a rice ball packed to the brim, containing unknown parts of an unknown land or water animal within: a veritable lottery for the illiterate. Rows and rows of bento line the shelves at both convenience stores and markets. Rice or pasta, hamburg or tonkatsu or butadon, with a smattering of vegetables, for as low as three dollars, up to the exorbitant price of six. Sushi boxes come in all shape and sizes, takoyaki (octopus balls) six or eight to a box. All pre-packaged, with nary a concern about the taste thereof.

There are the restaurants, of course. A parade of restaurants, far as the eye can see, extending both horizontal and vertical, enough to overwhelm anyone who is halfway indecisive and cripple those who are entirely so. The places are demarcated by neon signs or folding menu boards or plastic molds or living human beings standing outside yelling at you to come in. The cuisines range from Japanese to Japanese-Chinese to Japanese-Italian to Indian: all the variations of rice and noodle and pasta and curry and skewers that you could possibly imagine. They’re all delicious and fast and cheap – especially at lunch time.

Still, I find motivation to cook. I cook even though it is cheap and fast and delicious to eat out, cheaper and faster and equally delicious to take out. I cook even though I have a kitchen scaled for the size and appetite of a Barbie doll, even though my fridge stands in my bedroom. I cook even though it takes forever to setup and forever to clean, while I scarf down my meal for one in less than five minutes (ten if I savor it). I cook even though I am within a minute’s walk of four restaurants – four that I can recall off the top of my head, not to mention the Lawson’s with its fried shit in the display case.

No, I cook. I cook and pack my lunch in a little bento box the size of a pencil case, only deeper, which I carry in my backpack and take with me to work just about every day. I cook and heat it up in the microwave at work (so much for being completely free), always just beating out the guy from Nepal who seems to cook every day as well. I cook and take my lunch downstairs and outside to enjoy the sun and the fresh air. I cook and save a few bucks and enjoy my own handiwork in a non-creepy way and make eating out a treat and gain a sense of accomplishment along the way. I cook.

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