DIY kitchen: sunomono
“Headquarters, for you.”
The topic of discussion today in typical, roundabout fashion: Japanese sunomono cucumber salad.
Growing up in Berkeley, CA was like taking the life course: It’s Cool to be Different. (Further courses included: Question Authority and Root for the Underdog). Aside from the blandly conformist years of junior high, where apparently hormones trump geography, being outside the mainstream was a thing to be celebrated.
In high school, in addition to the jock track, there was also the beatboxing/breakdancing track, the purple hair/angsty journal writing track, the re-create the 60’s through smoking much marijuana and learning to play the Led Zeppelin canon on the guitar track, the artsy-sophisticate/date older men track, the mod/I ride a scooter and wear checker-print mini-skirts track, and even the smorgasbord/sampler platter track, in which you could bounce freely around all the social groups. Basically, by age 14, I was clear on the fact that not being blonde, svelte and attired in the latest fashion was not an impediment to, well, anything.
This was my reality partly because I went to the melting pot of public school; partly because I had parents who, after dying my hair orange and then black then purple then maroon, were more concerned that I clean up the spilled hair dye in the bathroom than about any alterations to my appearance. And partly because differentness was reflected back to me all over town.
When I was ten The Cat Lady moved in next door. She had upwards of fifty cats and walked around the neighborhood with a large parrot on her shoulder while toting a cat inside a portable carrier. Everyone knew The Bubble Lady, who wore enormous orange housedresses, blew bubbles and recited poetry on Telegraph Avenue (she also published 23 volumes of poetry). Wavy Gravy’s son was a friend of mine, and I spent a fair amount of my 16th year at his North Berkeley compound, called The Hog Farm, where teenagers were left freely to do what teenagers do best.
There was Rare, a Telegraph Ave regular, who could be counted on to flip a quick sidewalk handstand and growl-shout, “how do you like it?” Also, the guy who had proof that author Steven King shot John Lennon, and was happy to ensnare anyone into a lengthy explanation of his discovery. And Rick Starr, throwback to another era, dressed in rumpled suit and cowboy hat, who dragged a microphone (unplugged) to Sproul Plaza and sang, over and over and over, Frank Sinatra’s, I did it my way, while thousands of people walked by, ignoring him. These were the people in my neighborhood.
Walking through the vast UC Berkeley campus, as we often did to get from North Berkeley to points downtown, was a feast of languages, accents, skin tones. I always felt like I belonged, right smack in the middle of the chaos, the colors, the differentness. Like it was this very diversity which could save the world from its own dangerous pull towards the tidiness of monoculture, in foods, people, beliefs.
When we went out to eat it was Korean, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Japanese. Asian food is still my very favorite. And here is where we go from the freaks of Berkeley into a lovely little Japanese recipe.
Also, worth noting here is LOOK AT THIS TILE! Does it look familiar? I know, it’s my logo! (which Dan drew many years ago for a gardening column I used to write called “Sowing in the San Juans”). This was a surprise gift made by writing student and friend, Linda Barnes. I love it so.
Also worth noting is this gorgeous purple pottery handmade by our friend Liz, who said “consider this my sponsorship to your blog.” We love love love our new bowls.
This Japanese cucumber salad, called sunomono, is light and delicious, something you might order as an appetizer before your main course of domburi, yakatori, sukiyaki or udon…if, that is, you lived somewhere with a real Japanese restaurant run by real Japanese people. I’ve been making sunomono a lot because 1) The garden is spitting out cucumbers. 2) Rose loves it, and anything from the vegetable kingdom that the kids love gets put into regular menu rotation. 3) Our town is very far, culturally-speaking, from Berkeley, and it makes me happy to say to Rose when I pick her up from a friend’s house, “did you share the sunomono I packed you?”
(makes enough for appetizer for 4)
2 nice sized cucumbers, the long Japanese or Armenian types are best, but any will do.
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar (if you use the seasoned rice vinegar, no sugar needed)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Chop cucumbers into thin slices (traditionally, they are sliced very thin, but I settle for “somewhat thin.”) Place in bowl and cover with all ingredients. Let sit for five minutes, stirring to penetrate cucumbers with vinegar. You can get creative, of course: sometimes I add a splash of sesame oil, tamari diced chives or ginger, but mostly I like the exact recipe above. Also, I give the frugal among permission to pour the vinegar left in the bowl back into the jar. And additional permission for anyone to sponsor me with gifts!
* Also worth noting: many of the “Berkeley characters” had some level of mental illness. But it seems that they made their own way in the community, accepted, tolerated and cared for.
* Also worth noting is that despite all the so-called diversity of Berkeley, I didn’t meet a Republican until I left home.