Our first year in Tokyo, Benjamin and I discovered Japan has street festivals every weekend all spring and summer long: cherry-blossom festival, plum festival, festivals all around town, with the people in each prefecture parading their own shrine through the neighborhood.
They all seem to feature happy crowds and street vendors selling grilled squid on a stick. We’d know we were closing on the festival location when we’d get that squiddy whiff of burned tires.
One summer evening, we were out walking and stumbled onto an event we hadn’t known about. It had squid, but it felt different. It felt hushed, as though everyone was holding their breath.
Women in their crisp yukata (cotton summer kimonos) and men in dark suits and ties clustered by the banks of the winding Sumida River in the fading light of day. They lit candles and set them afloat in little paper boats. Then they would bow and release them out on the water.
When darkness fell, the sky was lit with fireworks, what the Japanese call hanabi — “fire flowers.” But I kept turning back to look at the glow of the candles in their boats, floating out and away.
The next day, the proprietress of the noodle shop downstairs explained this was the week of Obon, when the dead return to visit their living families. The families gather, pray for them, do a little dance, place fruits and vegetables on the family altar, tidy up the graves of the dead, then send them off in the candle ceremony we’d witnessed.
One of the things I like best about human beings is our ability to make a party out of anything. The dead are busting loose? Outstanding. Let’s dance, let’s make them feel welcome, let’s cook. What’s their favorite thing to eat, besides squid on a stick? Japan’s other street food: donburi.
Donburi means something served over rice, usually eggs. It’s easy and popular; it’s Japanese comfort food. [I enrich] it by adding vegetables. And losing the egg. It’s still excellent.
In Hong Kong, Benjamin and I discovered Yu Lan, the Hungry Ghost Festival, much as we had come upon Obon in Tokyo — by accident.
We were on summer holiday, walking along Cat Street, with its dazzle of antique and apothecary shops, the street vendors holding up their wares. They called out in English and Cantonese, their shouts ringing together like music.
Amid the bustle of vendors, I spied a woman with a cooler full of ice. She was selling fresh lychees. There may be some for whom grilled squid on a stick sates a deep and urgent craving, but for me, it’s chilled lychees on a gloriously hot afternoon. We bought a bag and went on our way, peeling the fruit, popping the cold sweetness into each other’s mouths.
We had no destination in mind, no schedule to keep; the day was its own reward.
We came to a temple surrounded by a fug of incense. Through the high open doors, we saw people bowing and praying as if their lives depended on it.
In theory, China’s Yu Lan is similar to Japan’s Obon. It’s an honoring of the dead, but it translates into something edgier. In China, hungry ghosts are seriously hungry, depicted with teeny little mouths, narrow, reedy necks, and big, empty bellies that can never get enough.
Oh, they might venture back to their living kin for a reunion, but they’re more likely to hang out in the water, waiting till you take a refreshing swim. Then they’ll pull you down and under. They’re dead, depleted, ravenous, and in a bad mood.
Like Obon, Yu Lan involves prayers and altars and food offerings, but the consumables are more likely to be a pack of smokes and a bottle of scotch. It’s not healthy, but what does it matter? They’re offerings for people already dead. Booze and ciggies are what they want — or what we think they want — and it’s better they’re appeased. Or else.
Go ahead, blame the dead. They’re not corporeally here to defend themselves. I think we’re more often the ones who want more, more, more. Even better, we want you to have less.
Some of the seven deadly sins are fun; lust comes to mind. Gluttony, sloth, and pride also have their appeal. Of all of them, I get plagued by envy, your real downer sin. I can tell you, too much wanting gets in the way of living, the way too much salt ruins the dish, scours your taste buds, and makes it so you can enjoy none of it. And it’s exhausting. Bad enough to be that way when I’m alive; I’m not going through it when I’m dead.
A little desire, a little appetite, is sexy. Even in a ghost. It means you’re open to receiving the world’s pleasures. The question is, what are you hungry for? If you knew almost 10 billion animals are killed every year for food, would you really want seconds on the barbecue?
We’re hungry for more than dinner. I am, anyway. There’s not a bunch of kale or head of broccoli or loaf of zucchini bread big enough to fill the ache, the hole, the hunger to be more, to be better.
Often — mostly late at night — my insecurities come out and dance. They’ve got the moves; they’ve got the looks. Meanwhile, I’m lying there awake and fat and old and stupid and ugly. This is what my insecurities tell me, anyway. While they’re dancing. Through perfectly lipsticked lips, they remind me I’m not Deepak Chopra. Or today’s Food Network star. Or Lady Gaga (though they know I would never, ever do her meat-dress thing). Or you.
When necessary, I visualize rushing out on that dance floor and tripping them. Then I rip off their false eyelashes and hair extensions. When I can prize my grip off my obsession du soir, the thing I lack, that I must have or die, I am — human paradox — less hungry for it. It is a matter of breathing through the crazies.
I strive for enoughness, feeling complete with what I have and who I am. It is not all about me. Lady Gaga probably has bad days, too. Perhaps another word for this is perspective.
The next recipe is one of those Zen, less-is-more kinds of things, perfect for when your inner hungry ghost is being particularly pesky. It requires many vegetables and a bit of prep. Embrace the process; it’s there to get you out of your own head. It’s a simplified version of Buddha’s Delight, the traditional mild and meatless monk’s stew that brings good health and good fortune. Its selling point isn’t spice, but a symphony of textures. It delighted an enlightened guy like Buddha. May it work for you, too.
Shirataki are low-calorie, gluten-free noodles made from sweet potato, with an interesting chew. They require no cooking, come packed in water, and can have an off-putting smell when you open the bag. Don’t be afraid; just rinse them well. Find shirataki, along with rice vinegar and sesame oil, at most Asian markets and natural-food stores.
2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 scallions, chopped
1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
1 cup shredded cabbage
4 ounces firm tofu, cut into bite-size cubes
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian rice vinegar
1 teaspoon agave nectar or honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 package (8 ounces) shirataki, rinsed well and drained
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are fragrant and softened, about 2 minutes.
Add the carrot, celery, and red bell pepper. Cooking, stirring occasionally, until they become tender, 2 to 3 minutes more.
Add the cabbage and tofu. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent the vegetables and tofu from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cabbage wilts quickly, so this will take only 3 to 5 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, agave nectar, and sesame oil. Pour the mixture over the vegetables and tofu, and stir gently until evenly coated.
Add the shirataki and toss to combine. Cook, giving a gentle stir, until the sauce is mostly absorbed and the shirataki is heated through, a few minutes more.
Related recipe: Hungry Ghost Mood Modifier
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry