The only thing I remember from my two years in Japan is an aroma. But it wasn’t until eleven years later, when I was fourteen, that I remembered I had a memory of it. My mother bought a local version of Cracker Jack that day, and I recall opening the bag on the couch in front of the TV in the living room, and suddenly the snoz part of my brain lit up.
I had mom smell the bag, but she didn’t know what I was talking about, and my dad was in Vietnam, so he couldn’t help. Mom never bought that brand again, but over the years I’ve determined that what I smelled was a combination of the snack and the bag it came in. It was cellophane, but it was tinted orange instead of being clear, and whatever dye the manufacturer used must have combined with the molasses and caramel coating of the popcorn to create at least an approximation of that olden memory.
Five years later, when I was nineteen and in the military, I bought a bag of rice crackers from the little store in the big military training center where I was enduring AIT.
(For some reason there were all kinds of such food there, cans of sliced octopus, bags of dried cod strips, which looked like leather shoestrings, and vaguely I can visualize something that looked like a can of nuts but was dried shrimp.)
Back in my room, I opened the little bag—and there it was, the real smell! I even walked the mile down the hill from the barracks to the cluster of phone booths to call home and tell mom about it, that I had finally figured it out. She still didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, at least I knew.
I have bought them whenever I could from then on, and my kids and grandkids eat the mixtures they like best.
(There are several versions, some with peanuts, but all contain interestingly-shaped rice crackers, more like rice nuggets, and a few are hot with wasabi.)
Three years before that, I was living in South Korea, a whole year there, and because all the adults around me complained about the stench of kimchee (also spelled kimchi), I never tried it. It wasn’t until seventeen years later when I was stationed in Germany that I had my first taste. An officer’s Korean wife brought some homemade to the break room at work, and I loved it! Since then I buy it when I can find it (now and then Exwork has jars of mild) and have made my own.
But the main food I brought back from the east is Ramen noodles. Back then in Korea it was called Ramyun, derived from Ramyeon. (Apparently the promoters thought “yun” or “yeon” was too difficult for Americans to pronounce, so they ended it with “en.”) My mother, being a southern gal, made a Ramyun version of spaghetti and tomato juice, and I remember her feeling slightly ill from eating too much, it was so good. A package of Ramyun noodles is the first thing I ever cooked by myself, and I remember almost being hypnotized by how it churned in a rolling ring within the pot on the gas burner. You can’t do that on a coil or flat stove. My father shipped a case of Ramyun to the States for when we got back, and I think within a week we had eaten every one.
My Norwegian/German wife, who was born in Puerto Rico, and whom I first met in Korea (and that’s a long tale by itself) insists Top Ramen by Nissin is best, but I also like Maruchan (how do you say that?) and Nongshim, and other brands I find at my local Asian store.
I’m always looking for that original flavor, which I’m not sure had a name for its taste. Maybe it was “Oriental” which is now called “Soy Sauce” thanks to PC sensibilities, or beef or chicken or a combination, or a taste no longer made, or only made in Korea. I don’t know. But it came in a bright orange package.
Naturally I cooked “Ramen” for my kids and grandkids, mainly as a soup with tomato juice (I hand-crush the noodles) and two of my grandkids still eat it, cooking for themselves and adding spices for their individual tastes. But I also explored the art of rice rolls, starting some years not too long past, and that became a favorite: Jasmine in seaweed wraps, sliced and fried in sesame seed oil, served with soy sauce and wasabi paste. Eventually I started calling my culinary specialties “Papa’s Greasy Chopsticks,” a take on the “Greasy Spoon” eateries of truck stops. And then it became a thing, and my daughter, Cocoa Bean, had my sister, Craftster, make me a plaque, which I now hang above the entrance to the kitchen.
It’s all fun, making kimchee and noodle soup and rice rolls and buying assorted crackers, but my teen soul is still yearning and searching for Ramyun.