From Nara to New Jersey: How Food Pics Keep My Family Together

Plus, the photogenic cake my grandma, mom & I are making right now.

June  1, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

I’ve filled the past two months with an assortment of projects and distractions: sprouting scallions, designing vegetable gardens onto focaccia, and binging the latest Terrace House (Tokyo, I miss you so). Many of my friends have left New York to scatter to more spacious family homes, but our locations have never mattered less. At a time where all hangouts are of the virtual variety, Manhattan may as well be Auckland, and Nara may as well be New Jersey.

Many around me are newly navigating how to cook together, while alone; as for my mom and her mom, they've been sending virtual food pics since 1993.

Despite her great enthusiasm for golf and seemingly boundless energy, my grandmother’s been diagnosed with cancer twice, and a potential relapse is always a possibility. My mom, a registered dietician nutritionist, considers good food to be as powerful as medicine and watches my grandma's diet like a hawk from across the world. She (innocently) asks for images of my grandma's meals, looks out for noncompliant foods hiding in the background of a video call, and supplements their daily chats with international shipments of organic vegetable juice.

She’s thwarted only by my aunt, who lives just five minutes away from my grandma, and visits frequently with contraband (ramen noodles and vienna sausages). Their joint efforts have led to a lighthearted sparring of sorts, as each daughter brings her own kitchen and life philosophies.

While most of my mom’s counseling occurs over chat, she does visit Japan a few times a year—each time with pounds of premium cinnamon sticks, specialty lentils, organic unhulled sesame seeds, and Bob’s Red Mill’s entire line in tow. She’ll then spend the first few days clearing the kitchen of the sausage tins and noodle packets to make space for her offerings.

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Top Comment:
“Cake is delicious but is the photo of the loaf cake shown here supposed to be the Matcha-Turmeric Ombré Cake? It doesn’t look anything like the actual cake.”
— HK1231

My mom knows, of course, that the blueberry powder smoothies and cabbage salads are met with nothing but eye rolling. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the drama caused by her twice- or thrice-yearly clear-outs, she does them anyway. Providing really good food (at least, her definition of it) is her love language. I think she regrets not being there in person, for my grandma, and so makes up for it by calling daily, designing her meals, and bringing premium sesame seeds to a country known for their premium sesame seeds.

Screenshots of chats from Nara to New Jersey. Photo by Chihiro Tomioka

The silver lining of this time is that communication between my mom and grandma has, largely, gone unchanged. Images of food continue to be exchanged frequently between them, only they are now slightly more aspirational: my mom has begun sprouting her own daikon sprouts for her salads and has perfected her soybean fermentation technique, while my grandmother’s been playing with variations on lentil-studded rice (“I was so smart to bring so many bags of lentils last time!” my mom texted me in a separate chat).

Now that I’m at home cooking and baking more often, I’ve been inducted as a new member in these chats. I recently sent an image of a brown-rice-flour based ombré cake, colored with dusky matcha and golden turmeric, which spurred my aunt, grandma, and even my sugar-avoidant mom into baking their own. Below is the recipe—I’m hoping you’ll make it, enjoy it, and share it (virtually) with those you love, too.

Matcha-Turmeric Ombré Cake

Makes 1 loaf cake

  • 200 grams (1 2/3 cups) brown-rice flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 170 grams (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) granulated sugar
  • 115 grams (1 stick) butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 120 grams (1/2 cup) yogurt (any fat)
  • 120 grams (1/2 cup) milk (any kind)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons matcha powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoons turmeric (or to taste)
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F degrees. Line a loaf tin with parchment paper.
  2. Cream butter, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and vanilla with a stand or hand mixer until lightened. Add eggs, one at a time, and continue beating until airy.
  3. Add the flour, yogurt, and milk, and mix to combine. The mixture will be quite runny.
  4. Spoon half of the mixture into a separate bowl, and stir in the matcha. Add the turmeric to the remaining half.
  5. Pour half of the turmeric mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Cover with the matcha mixture, then pour the remaining turmeric mixture on top. Using a knife or chopstick, swirl a design through the batter.
  6. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Let cook for 5 minutes before removing from the tin and cooling completely.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Michiko Tomioka
    Michiko Tomioka
  • HK1231
  • June Lam
    June Lam
  • Coral Lee
    Coral Lee
  • Chihiro
I'm an old soul


Michiko T. June 25, 2020
Nothing is the best medicine than love you brought to your grandma.
Michiko Tomioka, RDN
HK1231 June 22, 2020
Cake is delicious but is the photo of the loaf cake shown here supposed to be the Matcha-Turmeric Ombré Cake? It doesn’t look anything like the actual cake.
Chihiro June 25, 2020
I'm so glad you liked it! The photo is not of the matcha-turmeric cake, but you can catch a glimpse of it in one of the snapshots of the text messaged accompanying the article.
June L. June 1, 2020
Hi Chirhiro. I don't have brown-rice flour. Can I use all-purpose flour?
June L. June 1, 2020
I also have Almond Flour. Which would be better; all-purpose or Almond flour?
June L. June 1, 2020
By the way, I also have Almond Flour. Which would be better; All-Purpose or Almond flour?
Chihiro June 25, 2020
Hi June, all purpose flour would be a safer choice!
Coral L. June 1, 2020
Such a sweet story. Thanks for sharing, Chihiro!