Conjuring Up the World Through the Sense of Taste

BANGKOK — My grandmother in Tokyo kept a pail under her sink. It was filled with what resembled wet sand. But from its pungent depths came what I considered to be the most miraculous of treats — a pickled carrot or daikon or, one of my favorites, a bud of a ginger-like plant called myoga.

The pail contained rice bran, which provided a fermenting bed for a Japanese style of pickled vegetable known as nukazuke. Every day, even in her 90s, my grandmother would reach her arm into the bucket and aerate the bran.

The fermenting bed was my grandmother’s equivalent of a sourdough starter, a lesson in resourcefulness from a war widow who turned humble ingredients into something delicious.

I do not need to worry about preserving ingredients because of economic deprivation. Still, I took from my grandmother instructions in flavor.

Credit…via Hannah Beech

At home in Bangkok, I often pickle: Texan okra, Hunan long beans, miso garlic and kosher dills. But until the coronavirus pandemic, my job as an international correspondent for The New York Times required a lot of time not being at home. Nukazuke was off-limits because it requires the ministrations of a homemaker, the daily turning of the rice bran, or nuka, so it doesn’t spoil into a moldy mess.

When Thailand all but closed its borders this spring, it became clear that I would be an international correspondent without much international corresponding to do. And so one of the first things I did was to get my hands on some nuka. I added the salt, kelp and vegetable scraps needed to achieve the proper environment for lacto-fermentation and began to pickle.

To me, the sour-salty punch of a good nukazuke is a taste of home, even if I never actually lived in Japan, except for childhood summers at my grandmother’s cedar-scented house, chasing fireflies, watching fireworks and learning from her in the kitchen. Her pantry was filled with umeboshi, wrinkled pickled plums; vinegared young ginger; and a brandy perfumed with loquats that I would steal sips of when she wasn’t looking.

Of all the senses, taste, inextricably linked to smell to awaken flavors, is the perhaps most evocative in its ability to conjure memories of time and place. I am fortunate to have roamed the world, both for work and play, and my kitchen holds the bounty of this wandering, letting me relive a globe-trotting that has halted with the pandemic.

My freezer is packed with sumac from Istanbul, Sichuan peppercorn from Chengdu and chai masala from Jodhpur. The cupboard has orange flower water from Malta, sardines from Portugal, hot sauce from Belize and first flush tea from Sri Lanka.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the plenitude of Thailand, a country of 70 million people who can enjoy multiple types of eggplant and innumerable varieties of shrimp paste.

If we cannot physically travel, at least my family can do so with each meal, and we are lucky to be able to explore continents at the table.

As we eat, experiences are conjured up: The oysters slurped with green Tabasco at a port town in Namibia; the tiny skewered octopus stuffed with quail eggs at a Kyoto market; the noodles hand pulled by Uighur Muslims living in exile in Kazakhstan after escaping repression in China; the reindeer and cheese soup on an island near Helsinki, when the cold rain meant nothing but minced reindeer and hot cheese would sate us.

For work, too, food creates bonds that transcend language and custom. Being a journalist means constantly intruding, walking into someone’s life and demanding sensitive personal data. How did your wife die? When did you have an abortion? What is your religion? Why do you hate your neighbor so much?

Sustenance, during these meetings, can serve as a peace offering. In 2019, on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines, Catholic teachers terrified by years of deadly insurgent activity joined in a seafood feast with a local Muslim leader. The briny rice stuffed in sea urchins transcended matters of faith.

And often I’ve found, people who have very little are willing to share with a stranger who asks the most invasive questions.

In eastern Indonesia, after an earthquake and tsunami leveled part of a city, an elderly woman, suddenly homeless, offered up rice aromatic with turmeric and lemongrass cooked on an open fire.

In southwestern China, at my host’s urging in her grass-roofed home, I dug my chopsticks into a honeycomb studded with bee larvae, fat and juicy.

“Eat, eat,” my host said, a nourishing refrain that seems all the more genuine when there isn’t much food around. I ate.

Once, in northern Afghanistan, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a plane flew low and dropped ersatz Fig Newtons from the sky. Children ran forward and tore open the packages, only to crinkle their noses. I fear the only people who ate the treats from that American airdrop were journalists scouring the sere landscape for shiny packets of cookies.

For the Americans covering war, perhaps the fig treats brought back a taste of childhood: a powdery pastry around a thick jam that left seeds lurking in molars for days to come.

My mother remembers that when she was a child growing up in Japan during the occupation era, a beefy American G.I. offered her a piece of chewing gum. He was so big, she said, and the gum so sweet. Every day, when I grew up in Asia and the United States, I had to drink a tall glass of milk, so I could grow tall like an American.

One day, in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, I ducked into a shelter where a group of women was waiting for me in the gloom, away from the men and the dust of refugee life. I was reporting an article on girls and women who had become pregnant as a result of rape committed by members of Myanmar’s security forces. Gang rape, along with village burnings and point-blank executions, had compelled more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar in 2017.

As we talked, a sister of one of the girls who was pregnant, herself still in her teens, kept her fingers busy, rolling balls of dough into pellets no bigger than grains of rice. She was making a traditional Rohingya dessert often reserved for religious feasts. The tiny dumplings are sun dried, roasted in butter, then served in sweet milk redolent with cardamom. Making the dessert is labor intensive.

The sister said she, too, had been raped. The girls cried as they remembered, wiping their tears on gauzy veils. Someone’s baby crawled across the dirt floor. Then the girls’ hands took up the dough again, rolling and pinching and shaping, a taste of a home they will likely never see again.