A yen for adventure... peek inside Japanese cookery author's home
When Fiona Uyema opted to study Japanese in college, she knew she was taking a gamble. Little did she realise that it would result in two love affairs and a name change. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
It's a well-known fact that Irish people are useless at languages. The majority of us can't speak our first official language, despite immersion from an early age, and we're also pretty bad at continental languages, even though they're taught them throughout secondary school, so what hope is there for oriental languages? There are legions of stories of people who've done evening classes in Japanese and Mandarin, but found they'd barely learned how to say 'hello' after a year.
So Fiona Uyema (nee Mahon), who grew up on a sheep farm in Lorrha, Co Tipperary, is a beacon of light for anyone contemplating taking up Japanese; Fiona not only took to the language, but also to the whole Japanese culture and way of life. And she immersed herself so much in the cuisine that she's made a career out of it, and has just produced her first cookery book with the inviting title, Japanese Food Made Easy. Published by Mercier, it's beautifully produced - "I didn't want any dragons or red lanterns," Fiona emphasises - with seductive photos, the kind that would make you want to try the recipes; and Fiona herself is so engaging about how and why she found herself in Japan, that she opens up the seemingly mysterious side of the East.
"I knew I wanted to study business after school but I thought, 'That's a bit boring', and when I saw Japanese with Marketing in DCU, that captivated me," she says. "Everybody said I was crazy, but I thought, 'What's the worst that can happen? I can hate the course, so what? I can start from scratch somewhere else'."
Fortunately, the opposite was the case. "Do you know what, I just naturally found Japanese culture very interesting, how different it was from us - you know, the whole respect for seniority, the humbleness," she says, adding, however, that there is a reason for the high drop-out rate in learning the language. "It was a tough course. Japanese has three alphabets; you would want to love it to study it. I worked around the clock."
She got the opportunity to put her skills into practice when she spent her third year of college - 2000/2001 - in Japan, both studying and working. During this time, she spent three months in a Japanese household, and it was here that her love affair with the cuisine began. "Some people think the Japanese are cold, but they were very welcoming. It's part of their culture to give foreigners a lovely experience of their home," Fiona says. "We were in the countryside - a slow pace of life, rice fields everywhere. In those days, there was no Viber or Skype, and very little contact with home, apart from letters. I spent most of my spare time in the kitchen with the mother, she was lovely. Without realising it, I was absorbing everything she did."
Fiona's love affair with Japan was enhanced by the fact that she met her future husband, Gilmar, there that year. The gorgeous Gilmar was born in Brazil, but both his parents are Japanese, originally from Okinawa, which is the place in Japan most renowned for longevity, due to the healthy diet there.
When she finished her degree, Fiona returned to Japan, and she and Gilmar both got jobs teaching English; Gilmar in a private school, and Fiona in a junior high, in a tight-knit farming community where she fitted right in. "I joined the local clubs, the yosakoi dancing club, which is a high-energy group dance, and great fun. Things like that. It was very friendly," Fiona recalls with a laugh. "The villagers would leave gifts of their locally harvested vegetables on my doorstep. I was never out of rice; the farmers always gave me bags of rice. I remember one of the farmers saw shop-bought rice on my shelves and he insisted on giving me his locally grown rice in future, and the farmers' wives gave me their recipes."
Such immersion in the community enhanced her knowledge of the cuisine. "With my yosakoi dancing, we'd dance at all the local festivals, so I got to know festival food. We'd go hiking and have barbecues on the beach, and their barbecues are different to ours. And I loved making my bento box. It's a lunch box, but they put so much into it, making sure it contains all the food groups and that it's also a feast for the eyes. When you're with local people, food is a part of everything, so you're learning all the time," the bubbly brunette enthuses.
Given that she's now a mother - she and Gilmar came back to Ireland and married in 2005, and they have Scott (4) and eight-month-old Matthew - she's become very mindful of the Japanese approach to healthy eating, which starts with children. "One thing that really stood out for me was that every school has a nutritionist who designed the menus for the kids' lunch, etc. The kids help to prepare it and that instills in them a pride and a sense of excitement about their own food. And you know children here are six times more likely to be obese than Japanese kids," she says.
Throughout the early years of their marriage, both Fiona and Gilmar worked in the corporate world, but during her maternity leave with Scott, Fiona took a step back. "I got to thinking about my life. I thought, 'I have so much interest in Japanese food, why don't I give it a go?' and I started cookery classes," she says.
The classes have been very successful, and Fiona has also done a lot of TV, so the cookery book was a natural progression. And it was while expecting Matthew that she put it together; soon after his birth, the photos for the book were done in the family home.
It's a modern, four-bedroomed detached house near Naas, Co Kildare, which they bought and gutted three years ago. They put their own stamp on it with a soft, neutral colour palette, with accessories from The Elms in Naas - no red lanterns or dragons here, either. Needless to mention, the kitchen was their priority and it's large and full of light, with the best of cooking equipment. "We designed the kitchen knowing I'd spend a lot of time in it," says Fiona.
And given that the book is really taking off, she could soon be at her stove researching the next volume.
For details of Fiona's classes, see fionauyema.com
'Japanese Food Made Easy' is published by Mercier Press, €22.49
Sunday Indo Life Magazine