Monday, November 12, 2007

Chopsticks and Other Birthday Surprises

My son has become enamored of all things Japanese. He’s a huge Pokémon fan, and he’ll watch as much Japanese animation as I’ll let him (which isn’t much). About six months ago, he announced that he wanted to go to Japan. Our family travels a lot – we skip the expensive toys and save up for trips instead – so announcing that you want to go to some far away country is a perfectly natural thing to do around our dinner table.

When he made this announcement, I asked him why he wanted to go there. “Oh, you know,” he said, trying to pretend it wasn’t all about making a pilgrimage to Pokémon hallowed ground, “See the sights, see the people, try the food.”

Try the food? My son, the picky eater? The kid who wouldn’t eat wet food until he was 7? Who won’t eat a cooked vegetable if his life depended on it? Who refuses to eat food that is mixed with any other food? The kid who needs a new fork when he switches from his chicken to his pears?

The kid who’s allergic to nuts?

Oh dear. Japanese food uses a lot of nuts, I explained. And I think they cook with cold-pressed peanut oil that leaves the proteins alive and well and ready to attack unsuspecting allergic boys. Japan may be off the travel itinerary for a few years, I explained.

Undeterred, he kept up his requests for all things Japanese, including the food.

Then I found Tepanyaki – a Japanese restaurant in our town where the chef does the fancy cooking tricks at your table-side grill. Right there on the menu, it said they didn’t use nuts in their food. I asked the waitress, and she assured me they were a nut-free restaurant. I couldn’t wait to surprise my son!

Friday night, we celebrated his 9th birthday. After a party with 15 friends at the skating rink (whew!), we went to the restaurant for a family birthday dinner with just us and his grandparents. He was buzzing with excitement. His eyes were as wide as saucers as the chef entertained him with flying egg tricks, fancy knife-banging, and an onion volcano.

Then came the real shocker. My son the finicky eater tried EVERYTHING. He tried several sips of the soup and gave me the thumbs-up sign. (He hates soup.) He mastered the chopsticks in about 90 seconds, and used them to eat the stir-fried veggies. (He hates cooked veggies.) He dug into the stir-fry noodles. (He hates noodles with anything but margarine on them.) He ordered shrimp, gobbled it all down, then asked to try the salmon and scallops, both of which he loved, then asked for more. (He’s decided he loves seafood.)

My husband, my parents, and I all just stared at him in confused delight. “Who are you and what have you done with my son?” asked my husband.

The whole time, the birthday boy was grinning like a monkey and bouncing in his seat, eagerly looking for the next course and the chef’s next cutlery trick. When they brought out ice cream with a birthday candle in it, he blew out the candle, then proceeded to eat the ice cream with chopsticks. I kid you not.

Tepanyaki has just vaulted to the top of my son’s favorite restaurant list. If he can’t go to Japan, this will be the next best thing. Seeing him so happy at a restaurant where he had the freedom to try anything on the menu made me feel like I got the real birthday gift this year.

You know what this means, don’t you? It means that I’m buying a big box of chopsticks, and from now on, whenever I cook anything new, I’m going to tell him it’s Japanese.

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