I'm several stories up in an apartment in Hamilton Heights, standing in front of a makeshift kitchen set up in the living room. On the table, a pair of cutting boards and knives, an electric griddle and a small gas stove and lots of packages with labels that I'm unable to read. Next to me is Aiko, a retiree from Japan who's one of many instructors with The League of Kitchens, a company that pairs immigrants with people eager to learn how to cook food from around the world, and today, we're making pancakes.
As part of her workshop, Aiko teaches a small group of students to cook five or six dishes from her native Kagawa, a region near Osaka. Udon noodles are a specialty of the prefecture, sushi and other fish dishes a staple of Japanese cuisine, but today we're learning to make okonomiyaki, savory Japanese pancakes made with cabbage.
Aiko shows me how to cut the cabbage into thin slices, followed by a few green onions. The vegetables are bound together by okinomiyaki flour, which is a mixture of wheat flour and yam powder, then griddled like any other pancakes. The name of the dish translates to "what you like," and Aiko explains that you can add seafood, pork or other kinds of vegetables to make the dish however you'd like it. She prefers shrimp, squid, pickled ginger and deep fried wheat flour for texture.
Once the pancakes have cooked, it's time to top them with drizzles of both kewpie mayo and okonomiyaki sauce and a scattering of bonito—dried fish flakes—and dried green seaweed. While we eat, Aiko tells me about the garden she'll plant this spring, about the paintings and ceramics she's taken up decorating. I ask her about the electric keyboard I saw in the other room and she explains that she's been taking lessons. It reminds me of cooking and talking with my grandmother, which, of course, is exactly the point.
League of Kitchens offers dozens of workshops from Japanese to Bengali, Lebanese to Trinidadian. Immersion workshops with Aiko are $149 and include a welcome meal and beverage, hands-on cooking instructions for multiple dishes, a full dinner and recipes to re-create the meals at home.