Dish: Nikujaga (translation: meat and potatoes)
Roots: Kyoto, Japan
Cooking in Nashville since 1999
Ayumi Bennett laughs out loud when she thinks about moving to the United States from Japan when she was around nine years old. “My father really loves America,” she says. He was so anxious to live here that, even though he was a doctor in Japan, he took a position as a professor at East Tennessee State University, just so he could move his family to the U.S.
Their arrival in Johnson City, Tennessee, came with plenty of culture shock. But Ayumi mostly remembers the good parts, like the blanket of fireflies that she encountered in her new back yard—a sight she’d never seen—and also how nice and friendly everyone was in her new town. “That set me on the right path for my American journey,” she says.
One major adjustment for the family was a lack of Asian ingredients nearby. “At the time, you had to drive two hours to Knoxville to get short-grain rice,” she says. And it was impossible to find really fresh sashimi. “There are a lot of things that you can make with some soy sauce, some mirin, and some sake,” she says, but also adds, “What’s interesting about Japanese food is that because we’ve adopted making mother sauces, there are certain things that translate okay, even when you’re in another country.”
The first thing Ayumi remembers cooking is béchamel, which her mother taught her when she was just three years old. “It’s just part of the culinary breadth—that we should always know how to make a gratin with good béchamel,” she says.
So even though Japanese ingredients were hard to come by, her mother was still able to cook the food her daughters recognized from home. And she loved that being in the U.S. gave her access to great kitchen tools.
Ayumi attended Vanderbilt University and stayed in Nashville after graduation. She worked in politics and journalism before deciding to take a course in coding. She now works at a software development company. She met her husband here, too. “We bonded over things like chicken and dumplings,” she says.
Ayumi’s parents have since moved back to Japan but every time they return, they bring some of those hard-to-find ingredients. And on their last visit, her mother brought back a cookbook. In the margins, her handwritten characters outline small tweaks that she’s made to the recipe over the years, like using dashi instead of water or a blend of low sodium soy sauce instead of regular.
Ayumi points out her mother’s notes on cooking rice, which is something she makes almost daily and is still trying to perfect. “I think that’s kind of the thing with Japan is that they keep trying to perfect something that has been around forever,” she says.
In a way, this dirty page defines the multiple cultures that Ayumi identifies with.
“There are a lot of recipes that I could go back to but this is a typical dish called nikujaga, and it literally translates into ‘meat and potatoes,’” she says. “I thought, well, when people call you a ‘meat and potatoes gal,’ you typically think—well you don’t think of an Asian girl; you think of Cracker Barrel. But here’s a good example, of me, being a meat and potatoes girl, and having this traditional Japanese dish.”