Food For Thought.
Food For Thought.
BURNT with Zakia Spalter.

BURNT with Zakia Spalter.

Hey guys, you might have noticed a free newsletter was not sent earlier this week and that’s because I wanted to share this podcast with you all. Podcasts are usually sent to paid subscribers, but I really loved my conversation with Zakia and thought you all would too💗 .

In today’s new episode of the BURNT podcast, I’m interviewing Zakia Spalter from Occasionally Impervious. Zakia is a New Yorker living in Japan with her family and writes about the nuances of living in a monoculture country as an ex-pat. Her writing is the best kind of personal. It’s the kind that takes you on a journey of discovery as if you’re experiencing it in real time with her. Her writing is light as a feather and has supreme depth at the same time. I can keep gushing about her, but I’ll let you listen to our conversation instead. Before listening, go and subscribe to her newsletter. She’s currently on hiatus, but when she comes back you will be so happy that you’re reading and supporting her work (it also gives you time to read her archive)!

Natalie: Welcome to the Burnt Podcast, where we talk about mess-ups, kitchen failures, and advice on keeping it all together. Today we have Zakia, the fabulous writer behind the Occasionally Impervious newsletter. How are you doing today, Zakia?

Zakia: I'm doing really well. It's good to be here. Thank you, Natalie.

Natalie: Awesome. I'm so excited. Well, Zakia lives in Japan. Everyone, we are so jealous. And it's 7:00 PM my time and she's in the future. It's past 9:00 AM her time in Japan. Can you let us know a little bit about your background and why you started your Substack newsletter?

Zakia: Sure. Um, yes, I am in the future. It is the following day here in Tokyo. I started, okay, well lemme start. My background is in writing and in editing. I got my career started as a writer and editor back in the late nineties, back when AOL discs were ubiquitous and were like used as coasters for everything. And when you had to like, send DVDs back and forth to Netflix, so that long ago, but in new media and in publishing. I worked as an editor and content manager for a few startups during the dot com boom basically. So it was kind of a fun place to be at that time. In New York, mid-2000’s, my family started to grow. My husband and I have four children, so I turned my attention to parenting and that's pretty much what's been occupying my time for the time being.

Zakia: I started Occasionally Impervious last year because I wanted to focus on my writing discipline again and having a Substack that required that I work for a deadline for myself was a way for me to sort of get that happening again. So that's pretty much my background. Occasionally Impervious, I chose the name, because impervious is one of my favorite words. I remember watching Inside the Actor's Studio a million years ago. James Lipton, he, you know, does his little PR questionnaire at the end and [asks], what's your favorite word? And impervious was a word that popped into my head and it basically means, you know, incapable of being harmed and incapable of being bothered. And sometimes I feel that way, you know? Sometimes I feel that way and that's what I strive to feel. So occasionally I feel that way. And occasionally I publish. So that's where we have it. I treat each newsletter as a personal essay. And I pretty much chronicle my time here in Tokyo or pretty much anything that I'm turning my attention to. And it's just been a pleasure actually to write. [laughs] It's not always a pleasure to write, but I enjoy it once it's done and once it's published.

Natalie: That's awesome. Well, let's deep dive into what we're here for. We wanna know what is your story.  What is your particular story about a kitchen failure that's happened to you?

Zakia: Sure. Lots and lots of kitchen failures. I am a home cook and I have a lot of hungry people in my life that look at me every day to eat multiple times a day. I think my latest kitchen failure is actually a couple of years old. And the reason why I say that is because I don't even really see my failures as - I don't feel bad about my failures in part because I'm in Tokyo and I go into grocers. And when I first moved here in 2019, I would walk into the store and not only could I not read the signage and [I’m] basically illiterate here because I don't read, can’t speak Japanese. I also couldn't identify just visually a lot of the produce or products that were on the shelves in the store. And being vegetarian I have to be adventurous about my food choices because I need to know how to cook and so I have to try things that are unfamiliar.

Zakia: So yeah, the constraints of being vegetarian sort of gives me more room to try more things to figure out how I can put together a meal. I think my biggest kitchen failure was a sort of sense of pride kind of thing. It was Fall and I needed to make sweet potato pie and I was like, I know how to make sweet potato pie. I can make sweet potato pie in my sleep. I make a really good sweet potato pie. And I'm up for the challenge of trying to locate, you know the ingredients that I need. Sweet potatoes are really big- sweet potatoes are really popular here. People really like sweet potatoes. They're all over the place. So I was like, no problem. I got sweet potatoes, no problem. The hardest thing that I was going to find was condensed milk.

Zakia: I used my grandmother's recipe, that's what she calls for. Finding condensed milk it actually was harder for me than I thought it would be. You can't buy like a big old can of it. You have to- you can buy these little sorts of tubes. Tubes of it that look kind of like toothpaste because people generally use it during strawberry season. They use it during strawberry season to like, you know, to dip the strawberries or add like a little bit to their tea, but you're not like cooking and baking with it. So I finally found it in a store that caters to like an international crowd. It was like a million dollars, like the stupid $3.99 cans, were like a million dollars, but whatever. I was gonna make my sweet potato pie. I was excited about it. I had to make the pie crust from scratch because they didn't have, you know, frozen pie crust.

Zakia:  Fine, no worries. All good. Problem is I just grabbed some sweet potatoes and right then and there is stupid because they're all kinds of sweet potatoes. 

Natalie: Oh yeah. 

Zakia: Sweet potatoes come in a million different types of varieties. Sweet potatoes come in a million different kinds of consistencies, and sweetness levels, especially here in Japan. They take it very, very seriously. I know when I was back in the states, it was like garnet jewel and then Japanese sweet potatoes. Which again was not really truly just a Japanese sweet potato, but the ones with the purple flesh- the purple peel and the white starchy flesh on the inside, that's all I knew. Here the variety is kind of overwhelming and I just grabbed a handful of good-looking sweet potatoes. Turns out that they were absolutely the wrong kind of sweet potatoes to use for pie.

Zakia: They were overly starchy. They were, they just, it was just wrong. The pie was inedible. It was like, I kept trying to fix it. I kept trying to like add, I kept trying to do all these things and it just, it was just a dud. And like my entire family was- we had just moved here. We were looking for home comfort and they were like just looking at me like, “oh great, that's just, thanks”. That failed. That was so bad. I was like, I let everybody down. But at the same time, it sort of helped me dive into the world of sweet potatoes here, which has actually been super, super awesome. Roasted sweet potatoes are called yaki imo here. And people generally during the Fall season, people roast them, the same time they would be making pie. You can eat them just without any other addition or anything to them.

Zakia: And they're so sweet and they're so, so delicious. They're just incredible. They're so delicious. They have yaki imo trucks where people sell just roasted sweet potatoes, different varieties, and different sizes much in the same way that ice cream trucks are in the United States. It's kind of amazing. But one thing I wanted to back up and say, like, going back to this kitchen failure with the sweet potatoes, in particular. The lesson that I learned about it was to just pay more attention a little bit. Like, just don't assume that just cuz you think, you know, you don't always really know. And it was a good humbling experience. Also one of the things that I've learned about food and cooking, living out here in Japan is this concept of washoku. Washoku, and forgive me, I may be mispronouncing it, but washoku is this notion that food can not only be nutritional, but it also can be appealing aesthetically.

Zakia: There's so much intentionality around it. So dishes- not everything has to be this way all the time, it's just a concept. But the idea that you use the five senses. It should be the five tastes sweet, savory, umami, and salty. Bitter. The senses, sight, sound, touch, taste, feel like all of these are things, even the colors- five colors. Even seasonality these are all things that you think about when you're preparing your meals. So seasonality is a really big thing out here. Like you definitely, you would not serve, you know, X dish during this time. I mean, there are things that are here all the time, like ramen, you can get ramen all day any day. But even that, you might look at the way that it's presented and what is on top of the ramen? What is the ramen served with? I think this failure has forced me to be more intentional with my choices and to not make assumptions like, “oh, I know how to do this”. And it's like, actually you don't.

Natalie: I love that you feel like you learned the outcome from your failure was essentially kind of just to take your time and to kind of be patient, so to speak in a way. Just while you're cooking and shopping for groceries, I guess, at least from like me, a New Yorker point of view, it's just like, I just wanna be in and out. I don't even wanna look at what I'm putting into my shopping cart. It's just whatever. But I love that idea of, you know, seasonality is a thing here, but I love the way it sounds where it's like, even just the ramen. Like what's on top of your ramen? What seasonality are they bringing to something that's a dish that's 365, you know, all year round? But maybe in the Spring, it's something else. Maybe a piece of lotus root or something. I may be saying lotus root and it might not be lotus root. I dunno what's in season in Spring in Japan. But it might be something like a specific ingredient that correlates to the seasons or to the taste of the five senses. Like I really love that idea and that that's like kind of one of your takeaways that you got from just that one particular pie that didn't work out for you.

Zakia: Yeah, I mean, trust me, I've had lots of other failures, but that particular one stood out just because we were so disappointed. [laughs] But I haven't- we haven't made pie. I haven't made that pie since and I probably won't make it again. Even though I make it all the time until I get back to the States. But that doesn't mean that I can't, you know, make a different kind of sweet potato pie, and I probably will, you know, handle that here. But for now, that particular recipe is in the states, and I also just have to say real quick, I know there's a difference between yams and sweet potatoes. I just don't quite know exactly what it is. But again, when I was back in the US we used those words interchangeably. 

Natalie: Yeah. 

Zakia: And I know that they're not interchangeable. 

Natalie: Yeah, if you went to Africa they'd be like, “what?!”. Cause yams look like- yams almost look like elephant feet. They're really weird. They're huge. Number one they're huge and they look like elephant feet. They don't look like the little pretty sweet potatoes that are so interchangeably called yams and sweet potatoes. But yeah, that's, it's such a fascinating thing how we just kind of change words cuz we just decide to.

Zakia: But that's the point. Like again, I think it's also just getting older and just realizing how much you don't know and being okay with that. And so, you know, being flexible enough to learn from what you don't know and to improve on what you prepare and cook. So yeah.

Natalie: I love that. And one last question. What's one piece of great kitchen advice that you either stumbled upon or someone told you?

Zakia: Okay. I think, you know, this is all really basic simple stuff. I think clean up as you go along is the best kitchen advice that you can ever get. I mean I hate finishing a meal and then being faced with a big massive clean up afterward. I also can't cook in the kitchen if it's like super messy. So then that means I have to clean up the kitchen first and then cook, and then clean up the kitchen.

Natalie: I'm the same.

Zakia: I don't wanna cook anything. So yeah, clean up as you go along. Also, make sure you're not the only person who knows where everything is in your kitchen. Because that's also like the worst thing in the world. My kids don't get a free pass, for example, just for being kids. Like, they need to clean up, they need to cook, they need to help. All those things, put things away. I guess having you organized and knowing where everything is is probably my best bits of kitchen advice in addition to when it comes to food. Not being afraid to try new things. Not being able- not being afraid to incorporate new ingredients. I've learned so many new food types and incorporated so many different spices or just ingredients that I didn't even know existed, you know, before moving here into my cooking. And it's forever changed. Like I know that daikon- of course I knew daikon before I moved here, but I don't think I can live my life now without eating daikon on some kind of regular basis, which is hilarious because I wasn't checking for daikon before.

Zakia: But yeah, to be adventurous in your kitchen. I mean to be adventurous in cooking and adventurous with your food and your palate.

Natalie: I love that. 

Zakia: Yeah. I think that's my best advice.

Natalie: That's great advice. That's so great. Yeah, because a lot of the food writing I do is kind of me going on food adventures and I think that's exactly what I always try to do.

Zakia: Love your food writing.

Natalie: Aw, thank you. I just try to- that’s the whole entire thing trying to come across in my writing or in just in what I present to folks. My Sustack is just being adventurous. Try things that you might not be familiar with. You don't have to love it. Just try it. And if you don't like it, that's fine. Like, you know, everything's not for everyone. I wanna say that. But yeah, I love that so much. Zakia, thank you so much for being on the Burnt podcast. You have been so wonderful. I can literally talk to you about Japanese food for the rest of this podcast, but that's not what this podcast is about. So maybe we might have to have another conversation separately and just like an interview where I interview you about that.

Zakia: Yes.

Natalie: All the amazing things that you've discovered in the last, you know, three to four years that you've been living in Japan food-wise. From things that are now your staples in your kitchen to things that you didn't know you could live without. Like daikon. I love that, but I mean, fricking daikon is delicious. But you know, when your diet has changed and so like now your shopping diet. So I love that. We might have to have a part two of this conversation, for sure. Thank you so much. Where can folks find you? Also your Instagram.

Zakia: Sure, you can absolutely find me on Substack. It's the website is - the newsletter is Occasionally Impervious. You can also find me on Instagram there Occasionally Impervious, on Insta.

Natalie: Awesome.

Zakia: Natalie, thank you. It's been a pleasure. I enjoy your writing. Thank you.

Natalie: Aw, thank you. Likewise. I am a fan girl here. Thank you.

Cook. Eat. Repeat.

Natalie 💗✨

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