Butterflyblue

水曜日, 7月 14, 2004

Enkai

    An enkai is a workplace party in Japan. Although the atmosphere is rather formal to call it a "party," there is a lot of drinking. It's usually at a restaurant that serves dainty portions of attractively displayed Japanese food, and you sit on the floor--sitting crosslegged is not allowed, unfortunately. Another interesting feature of enkais that I learned recently is that the highest-ranking person sits farthest from the door. So in the typical company, the CEO would sit farthest from the door, and that way the kimono-clad serving staff know to serve everything to him first.
    We're teachers, though, and presumably equals, so at every enkai I've been to (quite a few now) with the teachers at my school, we draw numbers at the door to get our seating assignment. Why can't we sit where we want? Oh no, then we might actually sit by someone we want to talk to. The idea is that you're supposed to socialize with people you don't normally get a chance to talk to at the office. It is a must for workplace relations.
    Everyone is supposed to eat exactly the same thing at an enkai. They are nice about bending the rules for vegetarians, though. My school calls in advance and orders a vegetarian meal just for me before the event. My friend Fi who doesn't like fish told me her school does the same thing for her. So they are flexible in that way, and they've never been unpleasant to me about it. But it's definitely a cultural difference. Even if I weren't vegetarian, I wouldn't like having no choice in the matter. Where's the fun in that? At the workplace dinners I went to in the U.S., ordering was part of the process of getting to know each other. Also, we ate sushi sitting on chairs at a table, which seems impossibly quaint and far-away to me now. My farewell dinner before coming to Japan was at a sushi bar in my hometown, which makes a convenient point of contrast for me when I go to enkais here. The conversational topics are basically the same--the usual workplace gossip and polite chit-chat--but the rules are different.
    They never have coffee at these places; they serve you beer, sake, and tea, in that order, whether you like it or not. The drinking etiquette is highly developed. It's well-known that in Japan you can't pour your own drink but must wait for someone to pour it for you. When you notice your neighbor's drink is low, you must refill it. That way, you can tell who the pariah is at your office by observing whose glass is empty. Everyone makes a big fuss over the sake. There is just one kind of beer and just one kind of tea, so the many different varieties of sake on the menu always provoke an excited discussion. Should we get this kind or this kind? Never mind that they taste pretty much the same.
    An enkai wouldn't be complete without a toast and a few more unnecessary speeches. The enkai I went to last night was all women (gender segregation again) and I was struck anew by how few full-time teachers there are at my school. In addition to the female teachers, the female office staff and any woman who has ever worked at the school in any capacity was also invited to the dinner last night. On my left was a woman I'd never seen before who left the school 12 years ago if I heard correctly. On my right were two women of the office staff whom I didn't know too well, and one teacher I get along well with. After an initial awkwardness, we had a pretty good conversation. Towards the end of the evening, we were all staring at a teacher at the next table--or rather, her feet. She had risen to a kneeling position, and we had a clear view of her glittery stockings peeking out under her long dress. At first I thought everyone was staring at her sparkly stockings. And I thought they were pretty cool. This teacher, Ms. K., is always pretty and fashionable, and I like her sense of style. But then it turned out that the others were impressed by her silver anklet.
    I must have seen hundreds of anklets in my life, so I confess I didn't even notice it until the other women at my table started talking about it.
    "You can say mimiwa for earring and udewa for bracelet, but you can't say ashiwa for anklet," remarked Ms. M, the teacher at my table. (As in the rest of this post, all conversations are translated from Japanese.)
    "That's because sukiyaki in English is still sukiyaki. Anklet in Japanese is still anklet." explained one of the other women.
    They complimented Ms. K. on her anklet, and she walked out with us. On the way, though, she explained that she had to stop at a bakery on the way home to get a cake for her husband.
   "Erai ne," said one of them--it sounded strange to hear this said about buying a cake--usually it means something like "I admire you." It took me a minute to figure out that it was her thoughtfulness to her husband that was considered admirable.
   Ms. K. disappeared into the bakery. We continued to the subway station. "Ms. K.'s husband eats cake twice a week," Ms. M. confided to me. "Don't you think that's too much?"
    Shortly afterwards, Ms. K. caught up with us. "Your husband eats cake twice a week, was it?" Ms. M. asked.
    "Four times a week, actually."
    "What about the other days?" I asked. "What does he eat for dessert?"
    "On the other days...I guess he falls asleep before dessert."
    We boarded the subway train. We started talking about health and weight. They all have those scales that measure body fat. I was quiet because I don't have one. One of the office women thought I didn't understand the conversation based on my silence and tried to draw me in by asking if I understood the Japanese words for body fat and aojiru, a health drink made from the juice of green vegetables. Of course I understand these words because health-conscious people talk about them constantly. So I told her I understood it already. But I had to ask about the next word that came up, kurosu. It sounds like the English word clothes or perhaps cloves, so I was momentarily confused. She puts cloves in her aojiru? How would that taste? I wondered. But it means black vinegar, a health food fad item.
    "I drink black vinegar every morning. I mix it with aojiru." Ms. K. proclaimed.
    "Erai ne," murmured the others. "I could never do that."
    "I have it delivered to the house in bulk," said Ms. K.
    "How about your husband? Does he drink it too?"
    "Him? No, he only likes sweet things. He eats a lot of cake. Sometimes I ask him, 'What do you want for breakfast, honey? Toast or cake?' and he'll always have the cake. I caught him eating shuu creme (cream puff pastry) for breakfast once. Shuu creme and coffee. While I have black vinegar and aojiru."
    I can imagine their breakfast table.
    "But he's not fat?"
    "No, he's thin actually. Men are so lucky."
    I tried bringing up my health food bias of organic food, but nobody cared. Black vinegar is in and organic produce is out, I'm afraid.
    That's the end of my story. It's not too exciting, I know, but I wanted to cover the topic of enkai for my blog readers back home. Now I want to back up a bit and talk about what vegetarians actually get served at enkai-style traditional restaurants. It's not like any other vegetarian food you might have experienced elsewhere. Japan doesn't really have a vegetarian cooking tradition anymore, the celebrated monastery tofu dishes notwithstanding. So it's always fun to see what they come up with. Here are a few of the usual suspects...

    Yuba - this stringy soy processing by-product is tofu's answer to string cheese. It doesn't have much taste. It's mostly texture. It often appears in place of one of the fish dishes.

    Vegetable tempura - when you're lucky, a plate of this appears near the end of the meal. Sometimes they serve it with a mixture of matcha and salt to dip it in, yummy.

    Bland tofu and vegetable dishes - with a light soy sauce flavor, these are fairly tasteless and unsatisfying. After eating these and taking the train home, I'm invariably starving by the time I get back and find myself eating again as soon as I step in the door. Did they actually contain any calories? Or were they just decorations in the shape of food conjured by some wily sorcerer?

    Konnyaku sashimi - This is one of my favorites. I think it's so funny. Other countries have the garden burger and the tofu turkey, but Japan has no need of those. If you don't know konnyaku, it's a transparent, gelatinous, non-caloric food made from a kind of potato starch and used as an ingredient in many Japanese dishes. Served in thin slices with soy sauce and wasabi, it looks and tastes a lot like raw fish. Well, the wasabi helps.

    Three things floating in a tasteless soup - served in a fancy lacquered bowl with a lid, this soup is missing the fish stock that would normally flavor it, so it's basically small boiled objects floating in a bowl of hot water. Last night the three items were a single shiitake mushroom; a single slice of negi (Japanese green onion), and a piece of tofu cut in the shape of a maple leaf.

    Miso-flavored eggplant or tofu dishes - I like these. You can never go wrong with miso flavoring. Last night there was something flavored with yuzu miso, a heavenly combination. Yuzu (the English translation is "citron," but it's one of those things I don't think we have back home) is one of my favorite flavors, along with coffee, matcha, and lychee. You can put yuzupon cooking sauce on any bland Japanese vegetarian food and it becomes tasty as if by magic. I often use it when cooking at home. There are also other kinds of ponzu sauce that are usually ok for vegetarians--aji-pon and lemon-pon are good too. I like to make vegetarian udon using yuzupon in the broth instead of fish stock. Now that I know about the existence of yuzu miso, I need to learn to make something with it at home. It was the only really tasty thing in the whole dinner.

1 Comments:

  • At 2:18 午後, Blogger Matt said…

    That pouring thing, I still don't really understand all the etiquette, but I usually just circle the entire goddamn room, pour a glass of something for everybody, and hope for the best.

    Also, if it makes you feel any better, the non-vegetarian food at my school's enkais usually isn't that great either. Lots of dishes are a weird compromise between Japanese and European cuisine that kind of misses the point of both. Still, as long as the company's good...

     

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