A story that really rings true, touching your heart and finding so many ways to be relatable in its fantastical exploration of a little girls struggles with her emotions, is great, but when it also includes really fun backmatter, that’s a whole other story. Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen tells us about Willow, a young girl who fights to suppress her inner demons and runs away from home, only to find a forest spirit, Pilu, who has run away, too. Vowing to help Pilu get home, Willow takes the time to also teach Pilu and the reader a thing or two about the plant life around her, and sharing the important little moments that can hold a family together.
In our interview, Nguyen explained that she loves including little personal details to strengthen her characters’ backstories. Often those details come from the author’s own experiences, and what could be more personal than her mom’s recipe for kinoko gohan (mushroom rice). The dish is incorporated into the story in several different ways, and the recipe itself is included in the back of the book, along with a botanical journal for readers to record their discoveries and feelings in. “As someone who grew up with home-cooked dinners being the center of family bonding,” she said, “this personal touch was really important to me.”
Nguyen explained that the recipe in the book is an adaptation of her mother’s recipe. Steps and ingredients such as soaking sea kelp to make the broth have been removed to make the recipe more accessible. This is a good thing, especially for people like me. See, my ex was the one who did the proper cooking in the house. That’s not to say I don’t or can’t cook. It’s more like … well, let’s just say that slow cookers are the greatest invention in the world. You throw stuff in, and magic comes out six to eight hours later.
But, after reading and loving Pilu in the Woods so much, I wanted to embrace more of its sense of wonder and discovery by trying out this recipe for myself. If you’d like to try out the recipe and enjoy a delightful story, then I encourage you to pick up a copy of Pilu in the Woods. If you would like to come with my on my culinary journey, then—uh—here we go!
So first up, the ingredients: rice, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, chicken thighs, shredded/diced carrot, broth, soy sauce, cooking sake, mirin, salt, sugar, butter, chopped green onions.
I live in a town that is not big on diversity, and also, sometimes I suck at attention to detail, so I forgot to look for the mirin, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there so, uh, I was sure things would come out fiiiine. When I came home with the groceries and announced my culinary plans, my daughters, aged 13 and 10, immediately cast their judgment. One doesn’t like mushrooms at all, so she had particular side eye for the enoki mushrooms, which I’ve never cooked with before. The elder kid doesn’t seem to require sustenance beyond a spoonful of Nutella, so she noped out of my dinner plans before I even started. This was okay though, as I’ve finally learned to let go of control of their eating habits. I was a picky eater, to which my aunt, mom, and daycare providers will attest with ample eye rolls, but I now have a healthy appetite. I’m sure my girls will come around, but in the meantime, I no longer make an effort to cook for them. If they try something and actually like it, then yay! If not, then more for me. Win/win.
[Update: Younger did consent to leftovers two days later once she confirmed that it looked like fried rice and once she was certain that I had indeed removed all the mushrooms from the mushroom rice.]
I dutifully prepped all the ingredients, carefully noting which things I forgot and compensating accordingly like the master pretend chef I am. Then I carefully read the instructions all the way through again—which … isn’t usually my thing. I’m not a very patient cook, so Nguyen’s suggestion that rice will be flufflier if you soak it for 30 minutes, then drain it for another 15 minutes made me pause.
But, hey, since I’d already messed up on ingredients, I decided to make the effort to get this part right, even though this meant dinner would be much later than usual. My younger daughter decided she couldn’t wait so she made pasta and ate it in the bathtub while listening to her audiobook, while her elder sister convinced me that ice cream sandwiches do indeed meet the criteria spelled out in the new Canada Food Guide.
While the rice got settled, I started on the chicken and carrots in broth part, skimming off the foam as needed. By now, things were already starting to smell very good so clearly I must be doing something right!
When the chicken and carrots were ready, I shifted over to the larger pot where the rice was waiting and piled everything in on top of it. The instructions very clearly said do not mix—exclamation mark!—so I didn’t!
With tummy rumbling, I mostly resisted the urge to peek into the lidded pot over the next 10 minutes until, at long last, dinner was ready! No wait, gotta let it steam for 10 more minutes. OMG so hungry.
Okay, at long last, dinner was actually ready! (Crap, I forgot the green onions …)
Despite my missteps, this turned out to be exactly the delightful home-cooked meal I expected it to be, and I’m sure my kids will come to appreciate the experience in a few decades. If you’re looking for an opportunity to get in some extra bonding and cuddle time with kids who are, perhaps, younger and less surly than mine, then I highly recommend Pilu of the Woods from Oni Press. Not only is the emotional journey a poignant one that kids of all ages can appreciate and understand, it’s also an opportunity to get out into the backyard or nearby woods and learn a bit about the things that grow around us. And, it’s a great chance to spend some quality time in the kitchen, creating your own lovely traditions.