By Anna Mindess
I first met Noriko Taniguchi as I was examining a package of gray speckled noodles at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market. The pixieish grandmother leaned over her shopping cart and whispered, “Yam noodles — very good for the digestion.” As we chatted, I learned she owns a Telegraph Avenue restaurant that features home-style Japanese cooking and promised to visit.
Two weeks later I arrived at Norikonoko at 2556 Telegraph Ave. for lunch. Once I figured out how to slide open the restaurant’s traditional wooden door, I was charmed by the cozy interior that resembles a typical Japanese countryside inn, adorned with innumerable tiny treasures, like miniature tea sets and teensy origami cranes.
The menu also intrigued me with unusual items such as a daikon salad with chirimenjako (tiny dried fish that Noriko sautés in butter to make them crispy).
More recently, I met with Noriko again. I asked her what led her and husband Takumi to open Norikonoko, which, for 18 years, has been serving, as her business card puts it, “homey dishes from Japan.”
“I always wanted to have a little Japanese restaurant,” she tells me while slicing dainty cucumber moons with her favorite Japanese knife, “not another sushi place, but one that served ‘real food’ – what Japanese people eat every day, what Japanese mothers put a lot of effort into cooking to nourish their children. I cook Japanese food the way it used to be, so young people can be reminded. I love everything about food: buying, cleaning, chopping, cooking and presenting Japanese dishes the way they are supposed to be — as art.”
Noriko was born in Manchuria when it was a Japanese territory. After WW II, when she was five, her family returned to her father’s seaside town. “But life was not easy,” she says pouring me a cup of tea, “So, when I was 14, we moved to California where my aunt lived. I started 10th grade knowing no English. It was challenging but interesting to meet Americans from many different backgrounds. While my mother cooked mostly Japanese dishes at home, I loved discovering new American foods like roast beef, hamburger, corn dogs, meat loaf, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, even Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
During lunch and dinner service, Noriko is a study in perpetual motion: stirring curry on the stove, hand-shaping triangular onigiri rice balls, carefully adorning every dish she plates with a fan of pickles, a sprinkle of carrot shreds or a light shower of sesame seeds.
After high school Noriko attended San Francisco State University where she studied International Relations. She planned to work at the United Nations.
“But I met this man from Tokyo and we got married,” she says. “After eight years away, I wanted to return to my country and relearn my culture, so we moved back to Japan and lived in the middle of Tokyo, where my husband’s parents owned a restaurant. I helped out as a waitress and cashier. Since I spoke English, I was good with American customers. But in Japanese culture, back in the ’60’s and ’70’s, women were not supposed to stand out. My husband’s family believed I should stay home and just be a nice housewife, taking care of our two children. I had other ambitions. When the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964, I saw an opportunity and hoped to work as an escort to foreign visitors, but my husband and his parents refused me this opportunity and I couldn’t quite understand why.”
While filling a small flower-shaped dish with cooked spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds and little wedges of creamy sweet onion croquette, Noriko says: “Japan is a beautiful country, but I felt it was too small for me. There were so many things I wanted to do, but my opportunities were being erased by the culture. Once you get married, everything you do is supposed to be for the family.”
“I was expected to fit into this narrow box. But that’s not my personality. Plus, I wanted my children to have more experiences, with open possibilities and a broader future. Since my parents and my brothers were here, I decided to move back to the U.S. with my children. I knew my husband couldn’t leave Japan because he was the eldest son and had to take over the family restaurant. It took me almost four years to make him accept why he had to let us go. I felt bad but he finally understood.”
“When my kids were nine and seven, we moved to the Bay Area. It was hard to leave Japan but I’m proud that my son and daughter both graduated college with advanced degrees, are now working independently and happily married here in the Bay Area. I have a grandson and a granddaughter.”
“When we moved here in 1974, I began a series of jobs. The first one was at a bank, but that wasn’t for me. Next I worked at a Japanese travel agency, and finally found a job at UC Berkeley in the housing department. But I always wanted a little Japanese restaurant that I could run by myself.”
“In 1993, when I found I was eligible to take early retirement from UC, I decided to pursue my dream and bought this place to run with my husband Takumi. I met him when I was still living in Tokyo and he came to the U.S. to learn English and pursue his career as an artist. At the same time, he helped me by taking care of my children while I worked. Takumi has also worked at Yoshi’s so he knows a lot about running a restaurant. We opened Norikonoko on April 29, 1994 (the Japanese holiday to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday.)”
For the warming bowl of oden I order, Noriko uses her chopsticks to adjust the vegetables, knotted kelp, gingko nuts and seven kinds of fish cake until they are positioned just so.
Takumi and Noriko make a good team. He cooks the grilled food and she makes the side dishes. Noriko shows me a pair of Japanese cookbooks she uses for inspiration. “Every meal should be balanced, with vegetables, soup, pickles, rice, a main course and 2-3 side dishes.”
“Sometimes I have to encourage customers to try their pickles or my variety of side dishes, such as mountain vegetables, because they’ve never had these before.”
“I try not to serve every customer the same side dishes. I use my intuition to figure what they would like. My pork curry is very special. I learned how to make it at the family restaurant in Tokyo. It takes three hours to make, including two hours in the oven and is so unique that you won’t find it anywhere else.”
“People tell me they like all the little tiny things displayed here, it makes them feel warm. I started putting out some and now customers bring me things all the time. We have many regular customers and I know most of their preferences and try to understand their allergies. The name of our restaurant means “Noriko’s child,” and as soon as customers slide open the door, they are all my children.”
“My life motto is: ‘kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku soshite tsuyoku.’ What this means to me is to live pure, fight injustice and help others while keeping your love, sweetness and politeness. But in the end, be strong enough to stand up for what you believe.'”
Norikonoko is at 2556 Telegraph Ave. (between Blake and Parker) in Berkeley. Hours: Wed-Fri, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Wed-Sun, 5:30-8 p.m.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. She is a regular contributor to “Oakland Magazine” and KQED’s Bay Area Bites. Follow her food adventures on her blog East Bay Ethnic Eats or on Twitter@EBEthnicEats.
This story is published on Berkeleyside and on Berkeleyside NOSH, our new food section covering Oakland and Berkeley. Bookmark Berkeleyside NOSH and follow Berkeleyside NOSH on Twitter, and on Facebook.