When my mom, Christine, was a little girl growing up in post-war Los Angeles, eating in a restaurant was a serious affair—really serious. I mean, someone actually had to die first. You see, her parents—like most mainland Japanese Americans—had been abruptly uprooted and carted inland during the war, and when they returned home to California after years of "camp" in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, money was tight. So the family would eat out only on the rarest of occasions: after funerals.
These dinners were always held at Chinese restaurants—often at the Far East Cafe in Little Tokyo, near downtown LA. My mom describes the food as "old-time Cantonese," and despite the depressing circumstances of her visits there, she must have liked it because years later, she recreated the seaweed soup that was one of the family's must-order items. I grew up eating this soup, but didn't learn the story behind it until I asked my mom about it for this post. I will resist the temptation to call it "funeral soup" and stay faithful to her recipe, in name and substance.
FAR EAST CAFE SEAWEED SOUP
1/4 pound ground pork 2 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and finely sliced 1/4 cup minced water chestnuts 1 cup cubed tofu 1/4 cup peas 1 teaspoon sesame oil 2 teaspoons soy sauce White pepper and salt to taste 3 sheets lightly toasted nori (pass them over an open burner a few times) 1 egg, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons chopped scallions
Brown meat in a little oil. Add about 4-5 cups water or lightly seasoned chicken broth. Add mushrooms, water chestnuts, and tofu. Cook for ten minutes or so and add seaweed torn in large pieces. Add seasonings and peas (don't keep them in broth too long). Take pan off heat and swirl in the egg and add scallion. Serve piping hot!
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