03/21/2011 09:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: A Lesson in a Bowl of Rice

A moment can wash away your world. It is a lesson we have had to learn over and over again lately, from Chile to Thailand to Haiti to China and now Japan. Maybe you think these extreme shifts have nothing to do with global climate change, that the world was going to have a shivering fit anyway. Maybe you think these things have nothing to do with you. But they do. We're all connected in ways we can't see, from the tectonic plates to dinner plates.

We are all, of course, focused on the crisis in Japan. I used to live there -- in the heart of Tokyo, in Minato-Ku. This was after college, my first real shot at independence. I didn't always get it right, what with being a gaijin (foreigner) and all. Fortunately, I had people looking out for me, strangers who went out of their way to be kind to me. And thinking back, I realize the connection almost always had to do with food. In Japan, I came to understand food is a gift. Whether it's the stylized mochi (rice and bean paste confections) arrayed like jewels in the sweet shop windows or a simple bowl of rice, it is presented as the precious thing it is.

There's no such thing as cheap food in Japan. Even the processed stuff. Sure, there's fast food and technicolor sodas, but much is grown with care, and the price, often breath-taking, reflects it. So you can't take it for granted. You don't supersize, you savor. The same is true of the people. Their bursts of warmth are sudden, brief and inexplicable in a culture of formality. I learned to enjoy them in the moment, in their season, so to speak.

There was the kimono-clad proprietress of my corner market, where I shopped every day (had to -- tiny kitchen, tiny fridge). She took pride in introducing me to produce I'd never seen back home, including what she painstakingly called mushrooms that grow on trees -- enoki -- sweet, tiny, white. And because they were the only kind I could afford, she'd keep them aside for me.

There was my friend, Ando-san, who even invited me into her home -- very rare for the polite, formal Japanese. It was right around this time, on March 3, Hina Matsuri -- Girls Day or Dolls Day. Traditionally, this was a day to pray for your daughters, wishing them happiness and health and to keep them safe from evil. That day, I became her daughter, too. She dressed me in a kimono and served tea and papaya (not native, but then again, neither was I). Having seen the fruit wrapped in tissue at the corner market, I had a wrenching sense of how much she'd spent for it. So it was an honor to share it with her, scooping up each soft slice of sunshine.

There was the OG (office girl in Japanese slang), who helped me out one afternoon in Hiroshima. I explained I was meeting someone for dinner later and asked how to get to the restaurant. She was immaculate, wearing the typical office uniform of a suit, stockings, pumps (not too high) and white gloves. I never knew how the girls kept their gloves so clean. She stopped and drew me an elaborate map (life before Google Maps). I thanked her, bowing, and went on my way, certain of my destination. But maybe she wasn't. That evening, walking to the restaurant, a motor scooter zipped past, then doubled back and stopped in front of me. It was my OG friend from before, now in leather gear and helmet and with a boyfriend in tow. She just wanted to make sure I'd found my way. She placed an orange in my hand -- cool, fragrant, bright, perfect, pricy -- for no reason at all other than to show extraordinary kindness to someone she didn't even know. I barely had time to thank her again before she and her boyfriend roared off into the night.

I don't know her name, don't know how she is, yet I worry for her, for Ando-san, my corner market lady, feel a connection to them and to so many of the people there. I don't know how many prayers it takes to keep anyone safe these days. The very things you'd think can rely on -- caring, prayer, food -- don't always work. And yet we reach out to each other anyway. We learn to savor what we can. I don't think that can ever be washed away.

Vegetable Donburi

In Japan, a donburi basically means something served over rice -- usually eggs. It's easy, popular, it's Japanese comfort food. I've enriched it by adding vegetables. Fellow vegans can lose the egg and it'll still be excellent. I wish all the people in Japan comfort and gaman -- endurance.

1 cup rice -- white is traditionally Japanese, brown is whole grain and healthier
1 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup sake or sherry
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil (optional)
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups broccoli (about half a head), broken into florets
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
4 scallions, chopped
2 to 3 eggs

Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until rice is tender and has absorbed liquid -- about 15 minutes for white rice, 30 for brown.

Remove from heat but keep covered and warm.

Bring broth to boil in a medium saucepan. Add sake or sherry, miso, soy sauce and optional sesame oil. Stir until smooth. Add broccoli, carrots, ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, or until vegetables start to soften. Add scallions and mushrooms and continue cooking.

Whisk eggs together in a small bowl. Gently pour over bubbling broth and vegetables.

Cover and cook about 2 to 3 minutes, or until eggs are just set. You don't have to mess with them at all, the heat does the work.

Divide rice into two bowls. Gently spoon vegetables, eggs and sauce on top.

Serves 2.