Wednesday, August 15, 2012
A Taste of War
I know exactly what I’m going to have for supper tonight. In fact if you asked me a month ago what I would be eating this evening, I would be able to tell you with absolute certainty. It’s the same old dish we have every year on this day. It’s a culinary tradition that began with my mother-in-law, and others of her generation, well over half a century ago and has now been passed on from mother to daughter.
Tonight is suiton night. Suiton is a meager bowl of dumplings in broth and we eat it without fail every August 15, the day Japan surrendered in defeat to end the wholesale carnage that was WWII. If roast turkey is the dish that defines the feast that is Thanksgiving in America, suiton is the dish that defines this anniversary as it does the nation living on the edge of starvation that was Japan prior to the end and in the wake of WWII. In his Pulitzer prize winning book, historian John Dower writes that during this period “most Japanese were preoccupied with merely obtaining the bare essentials of daily subsistence. Simply putting food on the table became an obsessive undertaking. Hunger and scarcity defined each passing day.”
Suiton is one of the handful of meals that the hungry masses of Japan could manage to scrape together in the final fearful days and smoldering aftermath of the war. A few dumplings made from flour of maybe questionable purity floating in a flavorless broth was made to sustain an entire population.
Born of necessity, it's on this day eaten in remembrance of those meaner and leaner years. Loaded with tasty veggies, in a flavorful soup stock, the dumpling dish to be ladled in my bowl tonight is nothing like it was back then. Ask anyone old enough to recall what the dish tasted like on those countless hungry nights so many years ago, you’re likely to hear words like “terrible,” “nasty,” or “horrible.” They are all fitting adjectives that pair aptly with war and that's enough to make suiton a meal to remember.