How a Japanese Chef Taught Me That I Am What I Don’t Eat

I grew up in a household where wasting food was unacceptable—not just in theory, but in practice. One of our (many) dining table rules was that you couldn’t get up out of your chair until all the food on your plate had vanished (and not because you had snuck it into our dog’s mouth). My mom, the gatekeeper to the kitchen sink, was the enforcer of this rule.

The good news is that my mom is a fabulous cook. She takes into account dietary restrictions, preferences, and irrationals. There’s no reason you wouldn’t want to finish eating her food, except for when you took too much to begin with—when your eyes were bigger than your stomach. And in those instances, you paid for it.

This rule wasn’t restricted to members of our household; instead, it was applied to anyone dining in our home. More often than not, our neighbor would join us for dinner. My mom had convinced him that his spoon would start singing when he had finished everything on his plate. I distinctly remember one summer evening when, staring at his reflection in the stainless steel plate he had licked clean, my neighbor held up his spoon to his ear. “Do you hear it?” he asked, “Because I do. Listen.”

Not all of my friends were willing participants, though. At some point during my childhood, I learned that many of my friends were actually scared to come over for meals. Some waited until my mom was temporarily distracted so they could quickly send their unwanted food down the garbage disposal. Others told their parents they didn’t want to come over at all. “Don’t make me go over there! Aunty makes you finish everything your plate,” was the line.

In these instances, I was embarrassed to be her daughter. Still, I followed her rule because it was a rule. It became a habit. Until college.

Eighteen years after dining under my mom’s supervision, I, suddenly found myself planted in a culture of food wastage. I noted how many people—mostly women—would consistently waste a bit of their meal. I don’t know their reality, but I perceived it to be a signal of health and moderation. A way of communicating, “This is how I stay healthy.” It made me feel like if I ate everything on my plate, it would signal that I was unhealthy. Or worse, that I would become as such.

And so, two thousand miles from my mom’s dining table, I started wasting food to fit in. Unlike my childhood dinner table where there were repercussions to wasting, now, the repercussion, in the form of perceived social judgment, came with choosing not to waste. The wastage continued into my adult life especially in social and professional group dinners where every single person ordered plates to share. Now it was less about body image, and more about carelessness and abused privilege. When I cooked for myself, I finished what was on my plate, but often found myself throwing out food that I had forgotten about or gotten bored of.

Soon, I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

Earlier this year, I visited Tokyo. One of my most memorable meals was at Frey’s, which yes, was a pizza place, but was also some of the best pizza I’ve ever had (I have been to Italy). The restaurant seated maybe twenty people, and I was at the counter, being served by the chef. Before ordering my pizza, I ordered a salad. It was pretty basic, and I ate most of it. There were leaves left behind, though. Enough time had passed where it was clear that I was ready for my next course. Yet, nobody came to take my order. I made eye contact with the chef several times, completely befuddled as to why he hadn’t approached me. Finally, someone dining next to me, recognized the situation. “He’s waiting for you to finish your salad,” she told me gently. “Oh! Of course,” I said.

At that moment, I was embarrassed not to be the daughter my mom had raised me to be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I hadn’t finished my salad. I had just moved on to my next desire. But the chef read it differently. To him it said, “I don’t like your food.” It also said, “I am ungrateful for what I have.” If I had been too full to eat anymore, I wouldn’t have needed a pizza.

This experience opened my eyes to a good childhood habit I had wasted away in my journey to adulthood. My mom’s rule wasn’t just a rule, but an important value. She was teaching us to take only what we need.

So, I made a change. Now, I make it a point to finish whatever is on my plate or in my to-go box—and save leftovers when I can. When I prepare my lunch and dinner for the week, I am more deliberate about what, and how much, I make. If I think I’m going to get bored of it, I figure out a way to make it unboring. Or, I suck it up and look forward to the next week. If I mess up a recipe, I get creative with the failure. Neither my process nor I am perfect, and I will not choose  to overeat when I can put my plate back in the fridge to finish later. Still, it has raised my awareness of what I can afford and also what our climate affords me. Of the real meaning behind my mom’s rule.

I constantly remind myself now—and I only wish I could go back and tell my college self—that eating smart isn’t about portioning your plate. It’s about portioning what you put on your plate in the first place.

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One Thought to “How a Japanese Chef Taught Me That I Am What I Don’t Eat”

  1. Hena Mehta

    Love this Ro!

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