My wife, Lyn, made Niu Jau Ch’ao La Tzu the other night, a northern Chinese dish she was taught by two Benedictine nuns in Tokyo. We were there with the Air Force in 1959. The dish is delicately sliced beef and green peppers in brown sauce flavored with ginger and garlic. Our three boys loved it back then and now. The aroma floods the house along with memories of far-off times in Japan.
Sister Francetta and Sister Regia were Midwesterners who in 1930 ventured off to the University of Peking as missionaries of the Benedictine Order. They went with the same excited expectation that took hold of Lyn and me when we learned of our assignment to Tachikawa Air Base in Japan. They must have felt similar estrangement and homesickness, though they were there in World War II and we saw only its wake.
Japanese invaders forced the sisters into a concentration camp. They were freed by Nationalists only to be forced to flee communists to Formosa and then Japan where, to support themselves, they fortuitously opened a Chinese cooking school. Their primary students were the wives of American servicemen who were also dislocated women and found the school an anchorage in a foreign port.
We purchased a tiny house at the edge of the base. Our heating was a kerosene space heater. The first time I worked the hospital emergency room, I took a wild ambulance ride to a neighbor’s house where a space heater had blown up. Many of us stored our kerosene in discarded B-52 wing tanks instead of barrels. A nuclear-armed armada of these giant bombers was located at nearby Yokota Air Base. Out our backdoor was a camouflaged concrete hangar used during the war to conceal Zero fighters, or so we were told. Just in front of our compound we had our own active underground air raid shelter.
Within a month of our arrival in Japan one of the Air Force wives who had been there awhile invited Lyn to a session at the Chinese cooking school. Going off base and negotiating the currency and railroad system into downtown Tokyo was a challenge. But watching buxom Sister Francetta in her flowing black robes playfully pushing skinny little Sister Regia’s elbow to spill “just a little more wine” into the sauce was a much-appreciated change of pace. Those who had nuns as grammar school teachers felt very much at home indeed.
Lyn began experimenting with her newly acquired skills; we had sweet and sour fish, savory fried rice, chicken and cashews, beef with mushrooms and onions. Then she came home with the news that husbands were invited next Saturday. Fuji San had come to work for us as maid and baby sitter. The amazing difference in the value of the dollar and the yen made her affordable, and with three boys under the age of 5, Fuji San was a godsend. Ironically, Lyn always felt guilty about such a luxury.
The cooking school trip for me was like going home and watching Mom put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner, but Mom never made chicken Kiev. What a delicious experience, after driving on the wrong side of the road and dealing with Japanese customs and Air Force bureaucracy. Lyn says, “No, the sisters made shrimp fu yung when you came. I made the chicken Kiev at home. Press chicken breast paper thin; roll it around strips of butter and sauté.”
Hmm, whatever. All good!