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Delving Into the Life Journey of Japanese Grandmas During World War II Through Home-Cooked Food

Grandma’s Recipes is a 10-part Japanese documentary series that features the stories of ten different octogenarians and their relationship with cooking.

It all started when Yu Nakamura found herself without a house and nowhere to go. A self-proclaimed glass-half-full person, Nakamura saw potential in the uncertain times:

“‘Wait, I don’t have [a] house means I don’t need to go back to one place do I?’ And [then I] start[ed] [to] travel around the world,” Nakamura, the creator and producer of Grandma’s Recipes, tells Saigoneer via email. She would stay in one location for two weeks and then take off to another. A trained chef, Nakamura started seeking out farmers and organic food producers, stepping into local people’s kitchens in many countries including Sri Lanka, Micronesia, Spain and Georgia. 

Nakamura’s hunt for deliciousness and local stories eventually led to her first project YOUBOX. She founded 40creations, a group of people who collaborate on food-related projects. During this time Nakamura started meeting and interviewing old women, learning their recipes, which ultimately laid the foundation for the Grandma’s Recipes docu-series, in which she partnered with Discovery Go to produce.

For the series, Nakamura narrowed her focus on Japanese women in their eighties who experienced World War II, a demographic that is often underrepresented in popular discourse. Similar to the way Nakamura has found a prospect in uncertainty, she found beauty in wrinkles:

“I really think as you get older your character and personality will appear [on] your face. So I wanted to talk with [grandmas] with beautiful wrinkles on their faces that how they live and what story makes their face beautiful. And the best place to interview was [in] their kitchen. [The] kitchen is [a] sacred place for good cooking [grandmas], and once you get in, you will get along with them so well,” she says.

Satsuko-san in Toyama makes dishes from wild vegetables.

Each part of the docuseries tells a story of a different “grandma,” their relationship to cooking and a certain dish. Through the act of cooking and talking about food, the series unravels deeper layers of the society these grandmas are living in and have lived, spanning discussions of religion, family, gender relations and war. Interesting anecdotes fill the series. These include a grandma named Masami living in Nagano who is over 100 years old and used to be in an arranged marriage; a woman from Toyama who often sneaked out to the mountain to pick sansai, a type of wild mountain vegetables; and a grandma named Tatsuko who was working in a 300-year-old soy sauce factory where she cut almost every ingredient to exactly 1.5 centimeters.

The presence of World War II is also prominent in their stories — many recall their memories of hearing bombs and bomber aircraft. Keiko, who is living in Kanagawa in the south of Tokyo, still keeps a frying pan she made out of an unexploded bomb she found in her garden. 

One can easily spot the resemblance to Vietnamese culinary practices during the war and postwar period that reappropriates military objects into everyday cooking: using American army’s M1 helmets as mortars to grind rice when mills were not widely accessible; or mugs that are made from the remnants of a crashed B52 strategic bomber.

While the project offers a fascinating look at the history of Japanese home cooking, it also presents a new perspective on war narratives which often emphasize men and the battlefront while overlooking the experiences of women who had to provide care and food. 

“Women [who are] octogenarians had experienced [an extremely] poor era but they had to feed their family all the time. They created something out of nothing, so their recipes are creative,” said Nakamura.

Despite the name Grandma’s Recipes, no actual recipe is featured in the episodes, at least not literally. The grandmas cook from their intuition, thus the recipes in this sense are not a matter of exact measurement on paper or screen, but rather manifestations of instilled cultural traits and muscle memories. 

Over the years, Nakamura has talked to over 100 grandmas all over the world. She published a book in Japanese based on the interviews she’s done in 15 countries. Nakamura is currently living in Bangkok and working on a project that introduces Japanese artisanal sake and European artisanal wine to Thailand. 

Check out Grandma’s Recipes here and other projects from Yu Nakamura and 40creations here.


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