A taste of home: Japanese-Kiwis in Aotearoa

For migrant communities around the world, food is a connection to home. 

But as we all know, the concept of home can evolve over time. Our preferences become a reflection of the sum of all our parts, which represents the complex identities we form through the very simple act of living. Here May Tien explores what that means for Kiwi-Japanese people residing in New Zealand. In the first of two parts, she talks to Tomoyo G and Tsubasa T. You can read the second part here.

Tomoyo G

Tomoyo and her family are vegetarians and don’t usually eat at Japanese restaurants. She hasn't found many traditional places that serve dishes made without fish stock or seafood so Tomoyo and her family eat mostly home-cooked Japanese meals.

Tomoyo was born and raised in the Akita prefecture in northern Japan and moved to Sydney for three years after the 2011 Japan earthquake. The earthquake and the subsequent radiation concerns from Fukushima prompted her family’s decision to relocate. 

As vegetarians, Tomoyo (pictured) and her family focus on cooking Japanese food at home. Image: Supplied

They were living in Tokyo when the quake struck. When it came to finding food, there weren’t many things on the shelves they felt confident to buy and eat. “We were also concerned about the water supply being contaminated, all of which made us especially worried for [our] baby,” says Tomoyo.

However, the move from Australia to New Zealand was the biggest food culture shock—even bigger than the one from Tokyo to Sydney. She discovered she couldn’t find as good a variety of tofu in New Zealand as in Japan. Mushrooms (fresh and dried) weren’t readily available in New Zealand either.

“For me, I often ate okra and natto (fermented soybeans) for breakfast, but here in Wellington, it’s hard to find good quality okra so I gave up on it. The quality from the ones in the supermarkets aren’t great,” says Tomoyo.

“I enjoy cooking if the ingredients are available. If they’re not available, it challenges me to make dishes with alternative ingredients. For example, it’s hard to find gobo (burdock root) so I use Jerusalem artichoke instead as a substitute. Sometimes, it’s like an experiment to make food here." 

Natto, with welsh onion and karashi. Image: Wikimedia Commons

“I sometimes seek information from other Japanese expats or friends overseas to help. I also find information on the internet. I make natto here, which I would never have tried to do in Japan (because it’s so affordable and readily available), but here it’s quite expensive so I searched for a recipe on the internet. I often ask Japanese friends where I can find organic soybeans and as a last resort I go to the Chinese markets for nonorganic ones,” she says.

Tomoyo thinks many non-Japanese Kiwis don't fully understand Japanese cuisine. The foods that are most commonly eaten in restaurants or takeaways (such as sushi and tempura) are seen less in Japanese homes. Regional variations, preferences and supply vary within Japan as with New Zealand. 

“I’m from the countryside in Japan, and in autumn, we usually harvest mountain vegetables like mushrooms and small bamboo shoots, and we often stew them. The big city people from Tokyo don’t really eat these types of food either. We have them in abundance in our area, but they’re really expensive and limited in big cities."

A mushroom and bamboo shoot dish. There are many ways to prepare these vegetables and Tomoyo often stews them for her family.

“When I went back to my hometown, I ate products that can only be found there. One kind of seaweed I like is very slimy, which is part of the wakame family. Another particular favourite ingredient of mine is called tonburi (field caviar) for which Akita is famous. These are seeds from a plant that resembles caviar, with a very crunchy texture, that is often eaten together with yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam), which is pretty slimy, too."

“Texture is important for me. Those slimy and sticky textures in food remind me of my hometown. Even those textures can be found in Tokyo and big cities, the ones from my hometown are fresh, and of course, you can’t ever find it in New Zealand,” Tomoyo proclaims.

From time to time, Tomoyo helps place and support international students from Japan with homestays in New Zealand. Tomoyo feels that through her connections with other Japanese expats she can find the kind of ingredients she needs and vice versa. They help each other network through local contacts, but sometimes there are wider communities on social media who are most helpful. There is a strong sense of community between the shared nostalgia for flavours from Japan.

Tsubasa T

Tsubasa has been living in New Zealand for a long time. He first arrived at the age of 14 to study English. Over the years, he’s established himself as a mainstay in Wellington’s restaurant scene and is the proud owner of two popular eateries. 

One is a Western vegetarian restaurant Hillside Downtown, and the other is Daisy’s Neighbourhood Eatery, a French-fusion café. Until recently, he was also the owner of The Ramen Shop/Karaage Burger on Victoria Street in Wellington. 

Tsubasa was born in Tokyo as were generations of his family. And although Tokyo is where he spent his childhood, he doesn’t really consider it his hometown.

A Sunday roast from Daisy's Neighbourhood Eatery, which Tsubasa owns. Image: Eat At Daisy's/Facebook

“I haven’t been living there for a long time now, and probably Wellington is the place I’ve been the longest, which is about 15 to 16 years. I’m comfortable with Wellington as my home now,” says Tsubasa.

What he enjoys most about living in New Zealand is what Tsubasa calls the speed at which time travels.

“When I was living in Tokyo, everything was so busy. It was exciting, everything happens 24/7, but after coming to New Zealand I realised I was feeling a lot of stress in Tokyo and I didn’t even realise it." 

“After seeing how chilled and laid back things were in this country compared with Japan, I realised how nice it was to live in a country where not everyone is rushing all the time. I like that laid back atmosphere—I’m pretty much a Kiwi now,” he states happily.

Tsubasa moved from Tokyo (pictured) to New Zealand with his family when he was a teenager. Image: Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

When it comes to cooking, Tsubasa has a similar laid back and reflective approach.

“For me, cooking is something I can do anywhere in the world if I have what I need. I don’t think there’s any difference between cooking in New Zealand compared to cooking in Japan. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 15. Ninety percent of the ingredients you can get in Japan you can get here, except for special or fresh ingredients. There might be some differences like the type of soy sauce or something like that."

“I’ve been away from Japan food scene in New Zealand for quite a while now and even though I ran a Japanese ramen shop, that shop really wasn’t really 100 percent Japanese—there was a Kiwi twist to it. I feel like I’m used to the ingredients in New Zealand so I’m comfortable with using what’s available here." 

“Probably 10 years ago, I would have complained about a lot of things I couldn’t get here, but now I’m so used to it—it’s quite hard for me to think about what I can’t get,” he explains.

“When I owned the ramen shop I didn’t think I needed to adjust the taste to accommodate the Kiwi palate. What I personally think is tasty usually, Kiwis think is tasty, too. There is actually no traditional way to make ramen. In Japan, there are so many styles and different shops doing their own ramen so it’s very hard to define what is traditional. Ramen in Japan is like craft beer in Wellington. People enjoy the methods and ideas of different shops and when they find their favourites, they keep going back,” says Tsubasa.

For Tsubasa, ramen is like craft beer in many ways - there are so many ways to make it and people all have their own preferences. Image: Photo by Stephen Bedase on Unsplash  

When Tsubasa thinks about New Zealand food, he goes straight to the ingredients for which the country is known: lamb, salmon, pāua.

“It’s a pretty typical answer, but a lot of seafood is quite nice here. Even when I was running the ramen shop, I was using lots of New Zealand mussels and crayfish and some of these items were for stock because crayfish is expensive, but clams and mussels were used whole as toppings on ramen." 

“I’m an adventurous eater, anything that looks interesting or that I’ve never eaten I’ll try,” says Tsubasa.

This adventurous spirit is reflected in his cooking philosophy. However, if there is one thing he thinks about often, it’s yakiniku (Japanese grilled meat).

“The next time I go to Japan, I would probably stop by a yakiniku place first. In Japan, there are so many affordable yakiniku. It’s not something you can find in New Zealand, you can eat similar things like at Korean restaurants where they do a BBQ on a hot plate, but it’s just not the same.”

- Asia Media Centre