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Sharing Mana‘o

Each time I see my son, whether here on Maui or at his current home in Michigan, it gets harder to say goodbye. Over three weeks have passed since our most recent visit, and I’ve still got the post-parting blues, intensified by Jimmy’s impending birthday and the realization that we’ve now spent more special occasions apart than together.

It’s thrown me into a serious comfort food binge which, unfortunately, has amplified my melancholy, because I haven’t been able to replicate all of my childhood favorites. Oh, it’s easy enough to assemble a butter and sugar sandwich or open a can of tuna onto a bed of shredded lettuce. But even when following Mom’s recipes, I’ve never been able to cook chicken hekka or shrimp curry that’s as good as hers. I do make a pretty good creamed tuna, though.

The most elusive comfort dish is also the simplest: my Auntie Sachan’s ochazuke. Ochazuke — white rice and hot tea in a rice bowl — is a staple in local Japanese homes, usually garnished with tsukemono, Japanese-style pickles, or ume (salted plum). Auntie, like most folks, always added takuan, the pungent, bright yellow, pickled daikon. Whenever I spent the night at Auntie’s, she always made a bowl for me after dinner and sometimes for breakfast and/or lunch. In the past 50 years, I’ve eaten hundreds of bowls of ochazuke, but none has been as good as hers.

Once in a while, on a cold day, Auntie would make Portuguese bean soup. Having been born and raised in Makawao, she and Mom would say the same thing when either of them served up the hearty dish: “Not as good as Club Rodeo’s, but cannot help. It’s Japanese-style Portuguese soup.”

Auntie passed away far too soon, almost 30 years ago, and Mom doesn’t make soup anymore. But this Saturday, I’ll get to comfort myself with a bellyful of this local favorite, as a judge in the Best Portuguese Bean Soup Contest at Po’okela Church.

The contest is a highlight of the church’s annual bazaar, which also includes Hawaiian music and hula, pony rides and games for keiki, a rummage sale, silent auction and lots of food, including samples of the contest entires. The bazaar will be held from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, with the soup contest at 10 a.m.

Anyone is welcome to enter the contest, whether your Portuguese soup is Japanese or any other ethnic style. There’s no entry fee, and prizes will be awarded. Just show up at the church grounds (200 Olinda Road) no later than 9:45 a.m. with a pot of soup and a ladle. You don’t have to share your recipe, just your soup.

I’ve learned from experience that two people can follow the same recipe, using the same ingredients, but produce entirely different results. Technique is a major factor.

Take Auntie Sachan’s ochazuke. Like a mama bird feeding her young, Auntie would position her face above my rice bowl, a slice of takuan in her hand, and bite off little pieces, letting them drop into the ochazuke, one at a time. Described in print, it sounds kind of gross, but it seemed perfectly natural at the time.

Now, when I make my own ochazuke, I just top it with a couple of slices or a handful of chopped takuan. I’ve tried Auntie’s method a number of times. But it’s never as good as I remember. My mother and I laugh about it from time to time.

Once I asked, “Do you think it was Auntie’s spit that made her ochazuke so good?”

“I think it was her love,” Mom replied.

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.