From the Kids' Table: Eat While it’s Hot!
On the comforting magic of movies, mothers, and fried rice...
Welcome to From The Kids’ Table, our personal essay series in which writers share childhood memories about dining. In this edition, Sanaë Lemoine—a cookbook editor and the author of the New York Times Editor's Choice novel The Margot Affair—reflects on her mother’s cooking, fried rice, and “Tampopo,” the Japanese “Ramen Western” that ties it all together.
As a child, I stayed close to my mother while she cooked. Though she is Japanese, she’d followed my French father to Paris. We rarely ventured to restaurants, aside from a macrobiotic spot in the 6th arrondissement. Instead, she and I spent hours in the kitchen of our small apartment. There are videos of her carrying me, strapped against her spine as she slices scallions for miso soup, fries rice over a gas flame. What surprises me is how well-behaved I am, despite being an irritable child. It must have been soothing — her bodily warmth, the familiar smells and sounds, absorbing the pleasure she took in handling ingredients.
Our family moved to Australia when I was four, and I have countless memories from the kitchen in Melbourne. By then I sat in a corner and observed her, learning to peel an apple with a knife, the skin one long ribbon, and to gently swish rice in water so the grains wouldn’t break. When I finally started cooking, the gestures came easily.
Even as a sullen teenager back in Paris, after eight years in Australia, I would listen for the sounds of her cooking from upstairs in my bedroom. There it was: The loud tap of a spoon against a pan, water splashing in the sink. My mother is both graceful and clumsy, able to cut the thinnest, even slices of daikon, but she also drops things frequently. Her banging around in the kitchen was the score of my upbringing.
There is a film my mother loves: “Tampopo” by Juzo Itami, a Japanese comedy from 1985. It follows a widow, Tampopo, who lives with her young son and runs a failing ramen joint. One day, she enlists the help of two truck drivers to revamp her business and learn the art of ramen. This storyline is interwoven with short food scenes, almost like mini digressions. My favorite scene is near the end. It is a darkly comic moment. A man runs home to find his wife on her deathbed, surrounded by their three children. The nurse and doctor take her pulse. The husband shakes her, asking that she hold on, but she barely responds. Only when he demands that she cook dinner does she rise. She stumbles to the kitchen and grabs a bunch of thick green onions. Stooped over a cutting board, she chops with precision. The children set the table. Next, she is at the stove, frying rice. She carries it to the table, watches them eat with a faint smile, and keels over. Moments later, the doctor pronounces her time of death. The father yells at his wailing children to keep eating and appreciate their mother’s food. “Eat while it’s hot!”
Although my mother cooked all the time, waking at 5 a.m. to ensure I had lunch for school, her style was inconsistent. It changed at the whimsy of the countries we lived in and new diets she discovered. We cycled through macrobiotic cuisine, dairy and gluten-free spells, ayurvedic cooking… Sometimes the diets were so strict that I had to bring my own food to sleepovers. Often it seemed there was no “mother’s specialty” to anchor me. What remained, however, was the pairing of extra-virgin olive oil with soy sauce, her affinity for fresh parsley and ginger, and how she sliced vegetables into the tidiest matchsticks. Of course, I imagined my mother cooking one last meal for us, her food still hot from the pan after she died. As a little girl, I was frightened and delighted by this image.
When I rewatched “Tampopo” the other day, I understood why the scene continues to haunt me. It is not just the dying mother preparing a meal for her children. What I remembered the most was the rhythmic sound of her knife hitting wood, the sizzle of a hot pan, rice generously spooned into bowls. The comfort food of my childhood.
It seems obvious that my mother’s “signature” dish would be endlessly adaptable, a catch-all for leftovers, and therefore unscathed by time, place, and diets. She would make fried rice for lunch, dinner, and even as an afternoon snack when friends came over hungry. Although there is no fixed recipe, hers has some peculiarities. Freshly cooked short-grain rice, so it clumps together and is easier to pick up with chopsticks. Leeks, onions, or scallions and lots of ginger softened in oil. Carrots for sweetness, and scrambled eggs, chicken, or leftover fish. A green vegetable, perhaps broccoli, or a few sprigs of parsley. The rice is simply seasoned with salt and soy sauce.
Fried rice is the one item I order, without fail, whenever I spot it on a restaurant menu*. While never quite resembling my mother’s rice, it satisfies a certain craving, until I see her next.
* These days, my favorite fried rice can be found at LumLum in Hell’s Kitchen.