A Feast Fit for a Multicultural Table


A feast at the Safran-Biller household. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Biller-Safran)

It was a searing, magical coming of age growing up with parents from two very distinct cultures, who never let their children be defined by our mixed heritage. Rather, we embraced our differences as a delicacy of inclusion, simmering our unique and blended ethnicities as a celebratory feast.

In Hawaii, it is the memory of my Japanese grandfather, hefting the gigantic fish he claimed to have caught with his bare hands over his shoulder, before handing it to my grandmother to fry up Hawaiian style. He would always say with a smile “Douzo meshiagare” (Japanese for “help yourself”).

In California, it is the savory aroma that filled my Jewish grandfather’s quaint home as sweet and sour cabbage stewed on the stove and homemade fudge boiled in the pan while we licked the batter out of white Pyrex bowls.

But, what helped bond our family together most – making us feel strong, proud and integral – was the nightly family meals that we all took part in. Recipes from both families were dished up with “talking story” (Hawaiian slang for harmless gossip and small talk) and witty discussions about art, literature and film, as both of my parents were artists; my father a painter and my mother a fashion designer.

My parents also often hosted dinner parties with producers, directors, poets and other artists in attendance, who became intoxicated by our colorful array of tastes and outlook on life’s resplendence. My mother, whose beautiful voice was showcased in a Big Band during the 1940s, would sing Cole Porter and Hawaiian folk songs as she decorated the house for parties. She would carefully place the array of well-cared wild flowers from her ethereal garden in various sized vases from different eras and cultures on the dining table. My father traditionally wore a lampshade on his head and started parties with his infamous martinis. Jazz by Dave Brubeck or Stan Getz, or some obscure recording of an Opera, helped people feel comfortable right away.

Facing sweet, rather than bittersweet, challenges as a child with parents from distinct cultures was something I savored, along with each meal that helped me to see myself as exotic, rather than as excluded. On a daily basis, my mother’s worn wooden antique table was casually detailed with mismatched bowls and serving platters brimming with a halcyon blend of recipes of Japanese and Jewish, satisfying the most elitist culinary connoisseur along with the most neglected of taste buds.

The family meal, then, became a sacred time when we continued to enjoy emotional and tangy feasts with vibrant piquancy, along with acquiescence for our own blend of Hawaiian-Japanese-Jewish-Americana multiculturalism, which was often misunderstood and maligned by others.

Breakfast was super ono (Hawaiian for “delicious”), with eggs cooked Japanese-style or sunny-side-up, served alongside bacon or Portuguese sausage, side salads, fresh fish toast and vegetables. Often, we would add homemade pancakes and French toast to the mix, to feed the ravishing appetites of the six of us.

On the weekends, we would enjoy bagels, Lox (cured salmon fillet) and cream cheese, honoring my father’s Jewish culinary traditions. In Los Angeles, we would occasionally visit his favorite Jewish deli, Canter’s, then pick up treats for later – Matzo Ball soup, pastrami on rye sandwiches and some Babka and Taiglech, two traditional Jewish pastries. Batamt (Yiddish for “delicious”)! Lunch was usually comprised of a tasty arrangement of leftovers from the night before, including soups, pasta, chicken, fish, at least three vegetables and always rice.

Even our birthday dinners glowed with our multicultural pride. My favorite dinner that I asked my mother to make each year was Chicken and Dumplings with sukiyaki, a Japanese meat and noodle dish. My father’s request was always beef brisket with baked potatoes alongside Kimchee, while my older sister loved spaghetti cooked with pulled pork and Japanese pickled vegetables. While other children curiously asked where I came from and what I was, my three siblings and I saw our life as distinctly aromatic and imbued with luster and vibrant self worth.

Multicultural feasts have now become the center of joyous gatherings in my own home. With three daughters who are a blend of Japanese, Italian, Russian-Jewish, Polish, Irish, English, Scotch Welsh and little Spanish, what choice do we possibly have but to embrace ourselves as a proclamation of unity and ethnic pride?

As a result, my keikis and yelladim (Hawaiian and Yiddish respectively for “children”) have grown up thus far as seeing their blended heritage as a blessing rather than a burden. Whether we are feasting on fresh grilled salmon with Hawaiian barbeque chicken and rice or one of my grandfather’s hearty stews, we not only become nourished with flavor and variety, but also become completely satiated in knowing who we are and that we have made peace with each other and ourselves at each meal.

The other day, my eight-year-old daughter gave me the biggest compliment when she asked if I could teach her how to cook just like me and Meme. When I asked why, she looked up at me with her large Eurasian-shaped eyes the color of electric blue and replied, “Because, Mommy, you cook like a restaurant person and your food always makes me happy!”

She then sat down to list all her favorite recipes, which she now plans to illustrate and make into a book for everyone as Christmas and Hanukah gifts. We never did quite make it through the list as we soon found ourselves at the local market buying ingredients to make her first batch of challah (traditional Jewish egg bread) and ebi sunomono (Japanese cucumber shrimp salad).

Filling our paper grocery bags with vegetables, fish, meat and exotic spices, I knew my family tradition had come full circle, with many more appetizing memories yet to behold.
(Tags: Family, Food, Jewish)

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