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Japanese cuisine helps children learn about country#039;s culture

Hamburgers, French fries and pizza are the favorite foods of American children.

Offer them a bowl of rice and they'll turn up their cute little noses and refuse with "Blah!"

But not when Beth Watkins is in the kitchen. She has kids eating rice like it's sugar candy and holding up their bowls for more.

Watkins is bringing the Japanese culture to children all across the county and beyond and they are literally eating it up.

Watkins was introduced to Japanese food when she was about three years old, and it stuck with her like "rice on ribs."

"My dad was in the military and he was stationed in Japan," she said. "I don't even remember the day that I first ate rice, but I know that I don't remember a time when I haven't loved it."

Rice is the staple of Japanese cooking and also a staple in the Watkins' household.

A 25-pound bag of rice is part of the kitchen d\u00E9cor. The brightly colored rice bag with Japanese lettering can't be bought locally. Watkins has to travel to Birmingham to get the special brand of Japanese rice that she prefers.

"Japanese rice is different from the rice that you can buy locally," she said. "The grains cling together and that's why it can be eaten easily with chopsticks. It is hard to eat other rice with chopsticks because it falls apart."

But, who around here eats with chopsticks?

A growing number of children are being introduced to Japanese cooking and the Japanese way of life. And, they are finding that learning about different cultures and cuisine can be a lot of fun.

Watkins was at Banks Primary School recently to talk to the first graders about a country on the other side of the world.

The students were learning about the Asian country where people sit on the floor to eat and eat with sticks instead of forks. But, they had never experienced dining like that.

Watkins brought a new world right into their classroom and, their teacher, Robin Fortner, said the children had an experience in ethnic culture that they will long remember.

"I expose the students to the Japanese culture in several ways," Watkins said. "By the way I dress and by letting them experience what the Japanese eat and how they eat."

Watkins dresses in a kimono to serve the children rice in special dishes with a Japanese design.

"Every time my family eats at a Japanese restaurant, we bring the dining trays home, so that I can reuse them," she said. "Several Japanese restaurants save the trays for me to use when I make school presentations. After the program, we wash the trays so the children can take them home as a souvenir."

In addition to the trays being used as serving dishes, the designs on the trays expose the children to Japanese art.

But, with food on the table, the Banks first graders were more anxious to try their hands at eating with chopsticks than they were at looking at the pretty pictures.

After a short how-to lesson on eating with chopsticks, the children got serious about getting the rice from tray to mouth using two sticks.

Megan Dansby tried over and over without much success. Then, she got the hang of it.

"I did it!" she said, with a big smile. "I can do it. I can eat with chopsticks."

Reed Williamson glanced over with an envious look.

"How did you do it?"

No one had to tell Megan to "clean your plate." She did so eagerly. Eating with chopsticks was fun.

"The rice is good," she said. "I like it."

By that time, Reed tasted success. His smile was even bigger than Megan's. He nodded in agreement. Rice is good. Eating it is fun - "with chopsticks."

Not one first grader will forget eating rice with chopsticks and Watkins hopes the introduction to Japanese cooking will be the beginning of a fascination with the culture that is such an important part of her life.

"My family likes Japanese food almost as much as I do," she said. "We eat it at least once a week, usually more. When they children have friends over I invite them to try Japanese food."

Last week, Watkins prepared an after-school party for her children, Beppy, Johnston and Behrens and a friend, Connor Ingalls.

The children sat Japanese fashion on a rug and ate off the low table filled with delicious Japanese cuisine - rice, sushi and rice cakes and sipped hot cider.

The Watkins' children ate skillfully with chopsticks like they had been doing so all their lives. Connor watched and, before long, he was getting the chopsticks to work for him.

Although a little hesitant to taste the sushi, Conner was soon sampling everything Watkins had prepared and enjoying a special after-school treat - Japanese style.

Watkins said she prepares Japanese cuisine differently for children.

"The rice bowls are not as decorative as they would be if I were preparing them for dinner for Paul and me or for guests," she said. "The Japanese like to make their dishes attractive by adding color. They would add carrots, boiled eggs and lettuce to a bowl of rice to make it more attractive. And, I like to do that will what I prepare. I like an attractive dish, too."

Watkins prepares many different Japanese dishes for her family, but of everything she's prepared and of everything her family enjoys, fried rice is at the top of the list.

"Anyone who wants to serve a dish that is truly Japanese, absolutely delicious but so simple to prepare should try fried rice," she said. "It's a good way to introduce a family to Japanese food."

Watkins said perhaps not everyone will like Japanese cuisine, but she encourages parents to expose their children to different cultures and what better way than through their "cooking."

Fried Rice

3-4 cups rice

1 cup carrots

1 pound bacon

Green onion

Green pepper

1 can green peas

Cook rice the day before according to directions. Chop bacon and fry. Push bacon to side of griddle. Add carrots and stir fry in bacon grease until tender. Push to side. Saut\u00E9 onions and push to side. Saut\u00E9 green peppers and push to side. Add day-old rice to center and heat. Then stir all ingredients together. In one corner of the griddle, scramble an egg and stir into mixture. On top of stove, heat a can of green peas and put on top of rice mixture to serve.

Hotdog, ham, shrimp or other preferred meat can be used rather than bacon. Fried rice is also good served with just vegetables.

Other recipes can be found in the book Japanese Cooking for Two

by Kurumi Hayter. Here are some of his suggestions (reprinted with permission).

The mixture of garlic, ginger and soy sauce enhances the taste of the chicken, with the sliced lemon giving refreshing "bite" to these delicious nuggets.

Ingredients:

2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized cubes

For the marinade:

3 tablespoons soy sauce

30g (1 oz) root ginger, peeled and grated

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and grated salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the coating:

2 tablespoons cornflour

2 tablespoons plain flour

vegetable oil, for deep frying

2 slices lemon, to garnish

1. Marinate the chicken with the soy sauce, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper for 30 minutes.

2. Mix the cornflour with the plain flour. Take each piece of chicken from the marinade and roll in the flour mixture until completely coated.

3. Heat the oil to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F) and deep-fry the chicken pieces for 4-5 minutes or until a burnished golden brown. Garnish with the sliced lemon and serve on a bed of salad leaves.