I grew up in Southern California, which was always sunny, generally pleasant, and filled with people who wanted to be in the movie industry. And, let's face it, a good chunk of the people who lived there were absolutely nuts.
LA was the land of colonics and smoothies, the ever-tan and permanently grinning from facelifts. I remember seeing billboards for plastic surgeons touting breast jobs for teenagers on the side of the freeway. Dr. George Fishbeck fiddled with his bow tie nervously and apologized when the forecast called for rain. And LA is where I first heard of people eating a macrobiotic diet.
One summer, my family and I ended up at a garage sale in Malibu. I have no idea why these people were having a garage sale, when their neighbors down the street had a life-size replica of a TIE fighter on their roof, and everyone had Mercedes and Porsches parked in their garages. But there it was—a garage sale. Listening to the sound of the surf hitting the sand behind the house, we poked through old clothes and slightly scarred furniture. My mother found a standing lamp from the 1920s that she bought for $15. My brother and I found a stack of a single book: The Knowing Nose.
It was clear that the owner of the house had self-published this book. In fact, the woefully tall stack of these books may have been the reason for the garage sale. She was selling them for $1 each. (Or maybe the man she was divorcing had written the book, and she wanted them gone. I can't remember.) The well-bound pamphlet was written in the kind of mock-soothing voice that young yoga teachers use when they suggest you move your mats to the wall for headstands. The opening explained, in generously long sentences, with accompanying line drawings, that we all have the ability to be creative in life. In fact, we can find our intuition right at the end of our noses. All we have to do is imagine a small pencil growing out of the end of our nose.
Walk around, looking at life intently, circling what you like, tracing lines, and noticing. Your knowing nose will guide you to the right answer. The rest of the book offered exercises for how to use your knowing nose in public places, in times of crises, without anyone noticing.
(I am not making this up. And of course we bought one! I wish I still had it.)
I have to tell you, even though I am slightly ashamed, that when I heard of people on macrobiotic diets, I thought of The Knowing Nose. You know, like that. And when I first heard of gomasio (also spelled gomashio), I heard it touted as an essential part of the macrobiotic diet. No thank you. I just drew a line through the jar of it with my nose pencil and moved on.
Years later, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. No more gluten for me, ever. Quite quickly, I realized I had to erase any notions I had about unfamiliar food. If it doesn't have gluten in it, I'm trying it.
One quiet evening in the middle of winter, I sat talking with my friend Tara over the countertop in her kitchen. She cooked and stirred, I talked and listened. Soon, she handed me a bowl of perfectly cooked rice, some green steamed vegetables, and this salt-and-pepper seasoning.
"What's this?" I asked her.
"Gomasio. I learned to love it in Japan."
I shrugged off the old associations and dug in my spoon.
That bowl of food was just right for that long, rainy evening with my friend. Tara really knows how to cook rice. But more importantly, the gomasio woke up my senses. What would have been a well-meaning and healthy meal went from bland to a surprise in every bite.
"What is this again?" I asked her.
It's simply sesame seeds and Japanese sea salt. The kind I like best, which we buy from World Spice, has both black and tan sesame seeds. As those World Spice folks wrote, "We love it on fat soba noodles tossed with a touch of sesame oil and garlic as a side dish or simply sprinkled on edamame."
In other words, good salt and sesame seeds, toasted and tossed together. You can find it whole, like you see in the photo above, or some people grind it for a more traditional spice texture.
Elana, at Elana's Pantry, makes the creation of gomasio a family event in her home. Clotilde found spirulina gomasio in her corner organic store in Paris. And Petra at The Cooking Route even made gomasio cookies.
Mostly, I love sprinkling my gomasio on a bowl of brown rice and a poached egg perched on top. It's always comforting. I'm still trying to branch out with gomasio, because I love the salty, slightly chewy taste so much. So I asked for suggestions on Twitter the other day:
@renegadekitchen Love Gomasio! I use it on everything, from popcorn (with some chili oil) to fish (makes a nice crust on salmon skin)
@bubblevisions yes on gomasio. lately i tried making miso ginger + wakame mashed potatos and put it in too. yum.
@cook4seasons I use a homemade gomasio in all my stir frys since sesame seeds and sea veggies are mandatory.
@PorktoPurslane I LOVE gomasio sprinkled on fish congee...for a warming winter breakfast
And always helpful, my friend Tara: @tea_austen My fave use of gomashio is a celebratory Japanese rice dish—adzuki beans & sticky rice with gomashio on top. Festival food.
Okay, we may not be having fish congee for breakfast tomorrow. And I'm not even sure what wakame mashed potatoes are. But I'm going to find out. That's what I love about food. One discovery leads to another.
All I have to do is follow my knowing nose.