Remembering Misao, and Pickled Cabbage or Hakusai

Today was Misao Kasahara's birthday, she would have been 104 today! She was a remarkable woman.

She was one of the first women in Japan to cut their hair and wear modern, Western clothes. Born in Hokkaido, she was a graduate of the only women's college on the island and contributed to the alumni news up to 1996. She wrote every day in her own journals.

She believed in equality of the sexes - a concept which is still barely evident in Japan today.

She raised a family during the war (Grandpa was a translator in Burma) when she had to barter clothes for food, take apart old clothes and re-fashion them into new garments, feed her daughters and nephew on sweet potatoes and dandelion greens when food was scarce. I guess you could say she was a forager before it was cool. She used a small plot of land that she convinced some monks to lend her for growing food.

After my Grandfather died, she got to travel, to the Soviet Union, including Siberia, South America, Europe. She received letters from students she taught until her death. I asked her once if she had loved being a teacher. She looked at me and said "No." I was shocked knowing how much her students loved her. "It was the only job women could have back then."

She loved books and read prolifically, she volunteered as a Braille translator with the National Library for the Blind in Tokyo, sharing that love with those who could not otherwise read. She always said her wish for her grandchildren was that they could study whatever interested them. She sent my mother to the US after she graduated college - both uncommon in 1959, too. She moved to Hawaii in 1971 and loved her independence there. She worked at a pineapple cannery and as a typesetter for a bilingual newspaper where her knowledge of Kanji outstripped that of the younger workers.

She also bought me my first real camera, sent me postcards from around the world. She was full of surprises right up to her death. I only learned she played piano when I heard her playing with Caleb on a banged up old upright my Mother had in her basement.

I loved watching her make hakusai, perched atop a small footstool to get leverage over the large bowl of cabbage, her bony but soft hands strongly massaging the napa cabbage. This is an approximation of hers with my twist.

Misao’s Hakusai

Americans would probably liken this to a slaw or salad more than a pickle, it’s not cooked in brine, simply “pickles” in salted water. It’s a great side to any meal and the basic recipe can be modified to taste. Some cooks add bonito (dried shaved fish) or a splash of fish sauce, soy sauce, or more or less chili flake. If you add garlic and chili you’ll have something more like Kimchi.

 

Ingredients

  • Napa Cabbage, salt, red chili flakes.
  • Vinegar (Rice vinegar or Yuzu vinegar)
  • Yuzo Kosho (optional if you like a little heat. If using, omit red chili flakes.)
  • Soy sauce to taste.

Directions

  1. Napa cabbage is best in winter. Rinse and chop into about one inch pieces.
  2. In a large non-reactive bowl such as glass. Layer napa in bowl, salting liberally as you go.
  3. Dissolve 1 tsp salt in about 1-1 ½ C of water. Add red chili flakes.
  4. Pour over top of salted cabbage.
  5. Place a plate or dish on top of cabbage and weigh down with 3-5 lbs of weight. (I use a big glass bowl and place my cast iron Dutch oven on top, with a big pitcher of water sitting in the pot.)
  6. This should sit at least overnight, up to 3 days.
  7. The cabbage will be naturally fermented, add a splash of vinegar if you'd like to brighten the flavor. I dissolve some yuzo kosho (Japanese green chili paste) in a little rice vinegar and toss it with the pickled cabbage.

 

dogwood Misao's favorite flower.