I have always been slender apart from a few hiccups after having my babies. I ranged from heroin chic skin and bones, where a friend told me very confidently it made my nose look even damn well bigger when I was that thin. Ouch. I never hated my nose. I wasn’t tortured by it. It seemed to be other people that wanted to poke at my face, not me. I longed for thighs with a thigh gap, and a non existent ass. These were the days before having a well padded backside was seen as desirable. I was a little too early to be fashionable. However thin I got I had a backside and thighs. However thin I got, I did not have much in the way of boobs. I got past wanting bigger boobs by the time I was in my late teens. I enjoyed the sleek look and men didn’t. It was good enough for me.
When I had children it all changed. For the first time in my life I was fat. I lost the weight as fast as I put it on. I was inactive, I frequently ate sugary stuff. Cheese sandwiches, gallons of milk. I used to live on fresh air, coffee and cigarettes. All of a sudden I was a living breathing animal and I was ravenous. I’d fry pans of ground meat, have people in other countries send me gravy powder. Japan was sorely lacking in gravy. I didn’t want fish, I didn’t want alien foods. I wanted stodge and fat and sugar in forms I was familiar with, and I cut loose. I ate with abandon. It was glorious. I found this little cake shop close by, and since I was still working, I had my own money, and I would go there, and work my way through the menu of cakes. Mont Blanc turns out to be a Japanese take of a chestnut gateau. Strawberry shortcake, but made delicate and tall, thin layers of puffy shortcake interwoven with strawberry mousse, strawberry gelatin, and strawberries, cut carefully into slices, topped with cream and strawberries. The Japanese white strawberries are the sweetest and best, huge pink tinged white berries. I had never eaten like that before….or since. I found out a little known secret: the Japanese can really make cakes. Mango creme, blueberry gateau, mille crepe cakes with their layers of crepes, cream and flavored dust. The maccha ones are addictive. Wobbly Japanese cheesecakes which are judged by jiggle. If your cheese cake don’t wobble, it is out of there!
Japanese cake shops are part of Japanese twentieth century culture – Peko chan is a cultural icon. You see her not just standing licking her lips outside of Fujiya cake stores, gigantic statues standing sentinel like some modern Kami, guarding all the cakes in Tokyo. Her face is on everything from stationery, to pens to tee shirts. Everybody loves Peko chan. She is the face of Fujiya’s milky candy. If you say “candy” in Japan, people think, Milky! Milky is generic candy. It is the filling extracting lusher cousin of milk dots. The candy’s slogan is “milky tastes like mama.” I would impress you with an urban legend concerning the origins of Peko-chan, but it feels like more Japanese-hating propaganda, so I won’t.
Instead you will have to make do with Anpanman. The story goes, that the creator was so hungry as a child in WW2, starving half to death, that he dreamt of food…except the food he dreamt of came to life – Anpan is a anko stuffed treat made from two thick Japanese pancakes, filled with sweet red bean paste. Anpanman is everywhere, every child has anpanman baby toys, he stares out from the TV, you can visit him in various theme parks. Anpanman is a superstar. He has friends – a melonpan girl, germ guy, riceball dude…you get the idea. The Japanese love to eat and eat very well!
By far the most boring and most ubiquitous are the sponge cakes called Castella. The plainest cake you can imagine, something close to a victoria sponge, yet made with honey. They are the plain boring cousins to the creamy soft confections you can buy at Ginza Bakery or Fujiya, yet even the most decadent of Japanese bakeries always offers this plain quiet cake, and people buy it. There is something understated and very Japanese about Castella cake. If I see one, I am transported back to Shinjuku in the early 2000’s, lining up in a train station department store food hall, to buy a baumkuchen, take it home, smother it in preserves and eat it greedily and alone. If you ever want to waste half an hour, youtube here is a video of Baumkuchen being made. Early trade bought cakes to Japan, and these oldest imported confections are much loved. I would rather spend my calories on something more delicious…like that maccha cake above..
The large train stations are shopping complexes that you can easily kill a day in. They have department stores attached to them, and each department store has a food hall. These are extravagant places that you can find the absolute best of the best of Japanese food. Luxurious bento with chestnut and mushroom rice and fuwa fuwa (fluffy…but you knew that, foowahfoowah just screams “I mean fluffy!) puffy hanpen fishcakes.
I got more adventurous over time, strawberry daifuku – Japanese pounded rice mochi filled not with western ice cream to make it more palatable, but instead traditionally with sweet red bean paste and a strawberry. Mochi and fish-shaped anko filled waffles, dango mochi balls on a stick, water drop “cakes” with roasted soy bean flour and kuromitsu, which is basically Japanese mollasses, tiny superheated fried balls of mochi filled with sweet red beans and rolled in sesame seeds. These traditional treats became my favorites. I was in serious danger of becoming extravagantly padded for ever.
Until my body gave up.
I felt sick all the time, nauseous and lightheaded, I slept and slept and slept, I started not keeping food down, and spent most of my life in the bathroom, when I wasn’t sleeping. Even Mr Charming was worried about me. Heck, who would he have to torture if I kicked the bucket!
A trip to the doctor, after I ditched weight despite eating, revealed quickly what was wrong. No, nothing terminal, though I was worried when things got so bad that nothing was working right…Celiac disease.
Go away, don’t eat gluten and you will be fine. Somewhere between the doctor in Shinjuku and my apartment, it sunk in. No cake. No cake and no bread. If someone had told me just how extreme it was going to get – also no corn, no mochi balls from shops, my body reacting to 5 parts per million of gluten cross contamination, no drinks in coffee shops, no ready made food, no processed food, then developing an awful allergy to nuts that put me in the hospital….I would have been distraught. As it was I was mildly irritated, but relieved that it was nothing more sinister. This was controllable and free to control. There is no medicine, there is no treatment. Don’t eat it. The end.
Except as soon as I cut it out, walking longingly past cake shops and living on riceballs, it got worse. I got more sensitive. I developed the celiac rash which is something close to torture with it’s red raw itch. My food world shrunk and shrunk.
No more eating out. I would get sick every single time. Food became a game of cat and mouse, of dodge the reaction, of terror at setting the rash off, My body was a bomb, and gluten the fuse. By this point things had got tough in the marriage, he had started hurting me more regularly, more extravagantly, with more abandon. I was not working anymore, he wouldn’t let me. I had no money for food. Food became precious and rare. I went without. I would be forced to go days without eating – because he would not let me eat. I lived on sweet potatoes and apples. Days would go by without food for me. I would feed the children, feed him, and then look for scraps that wouldn’t make me unwell.
Gone were the days of strangely named French cakes cooked in Japanese kitchens, gone were my experiments in Japanese popular street food. I could no longer get octopus on a stick, partly because it was brushed in soy and butter (soy sauce is wheat-filled), partly because I was held hostage by my husband. I had no access to bank accounts, no money except what he did…or didn’t put into my hand. I turned thief, stealing lost 10,000 yen notes from his pockets after he got home from a drunk.
Six months ago, I took a risk. I was in SF, and the Boy told me about a gluten free bakery. I had not had a cake or a baked treat, or even been able to eat GF bread without an awful skin reaction caused by my celiac disease. We had no cooking facilities, I was going days without food in the shelter – people unable to feed me. Unable to cook or feed myself. Reader, I bought a gluten free cinnamon roll. I ate it out the paper bag, sitting watching the bay go past, laughing at the insane sweetness of it, and I was not sick. The rash didn’t come to bite me, my stomach slightly confused, but bearable. It was pure joy. Perfect sweetness.
I haven’t been feeling too great recently, so had my blood sugar tested yesterday, my blood pressure done by a nurse who helps the homeless. My blood sugar was so low I was sent off to eat sugar immediately. My blood pressure was in my boots. Sometimes the lower intestine gets so damaged, that you can’t absorb sugar sufficiently. I can’t afford a proper check up, I have no insurance, so I guess…Ill just have to eat cake!