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Ooohh ... That Smell!!


I was asked to give a speech a while ago to a meeting of a 'kokusai koryu' group, and as the theme I was given was simply that vague buzzword 'internationalism', I felt pretty free to let my comments range far and wide. At one point during the talk, I found myself discussing kitchens, both Japanese and western.

Now to my mind, there's just about no better topic than 'kitchens' to illustrate some of the different ways in which Westerners and Japanese see the world. I described to that audience a bit of the history of kitchens, how in the west they have always been considered the 'heart' of a dwelling, a place where the most important activities take place. Guests are usually quite welcome there. And conversely, at least as it seems to me, how in Japan the part of the building where the cooking is done, seems usually to be just an afterthought, a place to be tucked away out of sight. Even in many supposedly 'modern' house designs here, the kitchen is small, dark and inconveniently located. A place for guests to see? Never!

But it wasn't the kitchen itself that I wanted to write about here today. It was something that comes out of the kitchen ... Something that wafts through the entire house, to greet visitors the moment they step in the door ... Something that shouts out loud, "Welcome to our warm home ..." Yes, the smell, the delicious smell of fresh baking!

When my family first set up housekeeping in our Japanese 'mansion', I had been a bit surprised to find that kitchen appliances were not included with our unit. Where I came from, a house or apartment being bought or rented always contained a full complement of kitchen appliances: a four-burner range, a large refrigerator, usually a dishwasher, and of course, a large oven. Here though, we had to go out and purchase some, but as our finances at the time were extremely limited, we were able to get only a small used fridge, and the simplest type of two-burner 'gas table'. An oven was out of the question, and indeed, as it is not such a common item in Japanese kitchens, we didn't even consider such an item.

So that bouquet of smells ... oatmeal cookies, fresh bread, pizza dough, muffins ... simply disappeared from my life. Being so wrapped up in the process of adjusting to my new life here in Japan, I can't say that I missed such things. I never thought of them. They were simply part of my past life.

A few years ago though, when my then wife left our family and returned alone to Canada, I went out and purchased a microwave oven. (Are you laughing at the idea of a house-husband being so helpless in the kitchen that he needs such an appliance? Don't! I was busy enough trying to earn the money to buy food for my family, let alone find time to cook it ...) Anyway, I made a very good choice of appliance, buying one that combined microwave functions and electric oven functions together in one unit. For the first couple of years as the main cook in our house, I didn't make much use of the oven, but simply thought of this appliance as a convenient way to heat pre-prepared foods that I bought at the local supermarket.

But two things happened to change this. I got a couple of packages of muffin mix from a mail-order food supplier, and I also got a present from my mother in England: a small cookbook that she had used for many years, a cookbook full of recipies for all those baked goods she had made when I was a kid. Flipping through that little book brought back a million memories ... Cookies, tarts, pies, pastries ... Here they all were, just as I remembered them. And as I turned the pages one by one, remembering those delights, was it my imagination ... or did I actually catch a hint of the smells ... the smells of fresh baking? The same smells that used to greet me on those cold Canadian winter days when, coming home from school, I would open the house door and know instantly what was waiting in the kitchen. Maybe today was 'eccles cakes', maybe a 'lemon cheese' pie, perhaps a big, heavy chocolate cake ... (Excuse me for a moment, while I wipe away a tear or two ...)

So, with my new packages of muffin mix, I tried my hand at baking. My first attempts were not so successful, but I have gradually improved, and the muffins I now serve to my guests are actually not so bad ... From there, I have moved on to some of the simpler recipies in the little book, and am quite enjoying these experiments. Don't get the wrong idea. Don't imagine that I am producing delicate creations of flaky pastry ... But my chocolate chip cookies and scones do seem to be quite edible ... At least they disappear quickly enough!

But over and above the pleasure I get from being able to serve people these simple things I have made, is the pleasure I get at serving them something else ... Yes that's right, my house is now frequently filled with that warm baking smell. My two girls are now ten and twelve, and perhaps it's too late for them to develop the same 'warm kitchen' memories that I have. But I guess I shouldn't try to pretend that I'm doing this for them. I'm much more selfish than that! You don't think so? Well, just the other day, when I had muffins in the oven and nearly ready, I went outside and stood on the veranda for a few minutes. It was cold out there ... but when I opened the door and came back in ... !