Japanese food connects family across generations – Setsuko’s legacy (part II)

Japanese food connects family across generations – Setsuko’s legacy (part II)

In an earlier blog, we learnt about Japanese migrant Setsuko Donnelly (b. 1933–d. 1991) and her remarkable life in Aotearoa New Zealand through the words of Setsuko’s daughter, Deb Donnelly. In the recollections gathered below, various members of the Donnelly family remember their mother and grandmother through the cherished Japanese meals (especially sukiyaki!) and cultural practices she passed on to them.

A father, mother and son standing behind a table set for dinner. The table has a lace tablecloth and the mother is wearing a white apron.
Setsuko, Mick, and Pat preparing for a meal. Photo courtesy of Jo Cullen

Setsuko had four children, who now have 12 grandchildren between them. Though she passed away before many of the grandchildren were born, her love of cooking and eating Japanese food has been important in bringing the family together and is one way they have kept their heritage alive. “Making food for others is sharing your love for them and our mother did that beautifully”, says Jo Cullen, Setsuko’s daughter.

Nerina Donnelly (granddaughter)

Sharing a meal is a great way of bringing people together, but in our family, unless it’s Japanese – there might be uproar amongst the cousins. Family dinners at either local Japanese restaurants, or a family member’s house, with siblings, parents, aunties, uncles and all cousins present is the norm in our family. A love for Japanese cuisine uniting us.

We are a culturally diverse family, but our Japanese heritage is the prevailing force, predominantly displayed through our cuisine. Although the roasted agria potatoes are a hot favourite, the ginger meatballs are always the first to go, but you can count on your cousins to stash a few for you when you’re running late.

It’s amazing how one member of our family has left such a strong influence on the younger generations, through the memories and culinary skills of our elders. I have no memories of my Nana, but I enjoy hearing my father and his siblings recall memories of her.

My love of Japanese cuisine is my way of identifying with that side of my culture and how I represent the memories of my ancestors.

A bowl of food is sitting on a kitchen bench surrounded by a drink, bread, and kitchen utensils.
Sukiyaki meal in a frying pan made by Leo Donnelly for his 65th birthday in July. Photo courtesy of Leo Donnelly

Jo Cullen (daughter)

I am not a fan of sashimi – raw fish – but I do love the way this and all Japanese food is presented. My favourite dish would have to be Sukiyaki. The soy sauce, sake and sugar give a wonderful flavour to the meat and vegetables in this one frying pan meal cooked and served at the dining table.

In preparing for a Sukiyaki party large or small, Mum taught us the tricks to preparing and slicing the vegetables perfectly. Getting a Newtown butcher to thinly slice the porterhouse steak on his meat-slicing machine meant time saved doing this job. With practice and Mum’s insistence on very thin slices, I remember he took to freezing the meat a little to get the best results. Once cooked, dipping everything in the raw egg is best of all and of course there is the customary bowl of rice.

For me, the Japanese diet is based around rice. Mum would always have the rice cooker on every morning for her breakfast and lunch fixes and it was then often in use again in the evening. Friends have told me they never knew how rice was supposed to be cooked until they ate my mother’s rice dishes.

There are many interesting ways in which rice can be served and our mother taught us all how to make several of them – from the simple onigiri rice balls wrapped in seaweed, often with some delicacy such as umeboshi (pickled plum) in the centre, to the intricate norimaki which is sushi rice with colourful fillings wrapped in seaweed and then delicious chirashi-sushi with flavoursome cooked vegetables throughout the sushi rice and topped with salmon, prawns and sliced omelette.

I love cooking Japanese food for my family, friends and students, sharing my culture through food inspired by my mother and her ancestors.

Deb Donnelly (daughter)

My earliest memory of Japanese food as special treats would have been the warm triangular-shaped rice balls known as onigiri (which means to grasp) or nigi nigi as we called them as children. Wrapped with a piece of nori (seaweed) and often with daikon (pickled radish) or umeboshi (pickled plum) inside. A good flavour to enjoy on hot or cold days.

Our mother showed us how to shape these triangular rice balls by first dipping our hands in salted water. The beginning of many kitchen table lessons later helping Setsuko to prepare makisushi platters for guests or groups.

When Japanese guests visited us for dinner at home in Berhampore, as they often did, they might bring packs of crispy okaki (rice crackers) and sometimes beautifully shaped okashi (sweet candy). This is before the advent of rice crackers in New Zealand supermarkets as snacks.

One of my favourite desserts is dorayaki or sweet red bean filling inside of hotcakes or served in a soup with mochi, a.k.a glutinous rice cakes made on special occasions like New Year’s Day, which in Japan fell during winter. Our mother, however, was always in charge of the main course, shabu shabu hot pot or sukiyaki with thinly sliced porterhouse beef and vegetables (some from our garden) with rice and raw beaten egg to enrich the flavours.

These experiences of food helped to form our shared love of tastes and family celebrations of a culture we mainly knew through our mother’s cooking and Japanese community connections.

Ellie Donnelly (granddaughter)

Vegetarian sukiyaki, Setsuko style, illustrated by Ellie Donnelly:

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As someone who sits in the Asian diaspora I have come to adapt to and appreciate both Western and Asian cuisine. My illustrations recognize sukiyaki as an enchanting energy that both celebrates Japanese cuisine and outlines the connection between food and our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits for wellness.

Ellie with her repeat pattern fabric showcasing sukiyaki. Photo courtesy of Ellie Donnelly

Imogen Kiyoko Donnelly-Lawrence (granddaughter)

“What would you like for your birthday?”

Whenever asked that question, I would always respond with: “As long as there’s a Japanese dinner involved, I’m happy.” This would make up 99% of our family gatherings and celebrations and we would barely accept anything else.

A combination of nostalgia and comfort came with these family affairs with sukiyaki making a frequent appearance and the famous ginger pork meatballs becoming a coveted food choice amongst the family. Often one might get a text ‘Save me some meatballs!’ as guaranteed someone would be late.

We soon developed the gatherings into small competitions such as gyoza (Japanese dumpling) battles and sukiyaki battles every so often, but always come back to the familiar gatherings either located at one of the parents’ houses or one of the many Japanese restaurants we frequent in Wellington.

Japanese food has developed into something that is more than just a genre of cuisine one may have a hankering for every so often. It has become something that resonates with me in a comforting way in which no other cuisine can do. I look forward to the day where I can teach my kids how to make onigiri, tamago, sukiyaki and more. All to enjoy the small delicacies of Japanese delights. Itadakimasu!

Paddy Donnelly (grandson)

Cooking together as the “Yakitori Boys” is good fun and working as a team to make delicious food is always rewarding. Walking up to the BBQ and putting my bandana on, I’m ready to cook!

Two peole standing in a sheltered outdoor area cooking on a barbeque.
The Yakitori boys. Photo courtesy of Kiri Donnelly

A big part of how we celebrate Japanese food in our family is the sharing and altering of recipes as they are handed down the generations. Having get togethers and being able to see how each family member cooks our cultural food in their own ways, putting their own spin on it like vegan or gluten free variants.

An example of one of these events was the gyoza challenge, a fun competition to see who made the best gyoza. Here you could really see the differences in cooking styles and variations. From the ingredients to even the way they were wrapped, these gyoza really showed how even though it was still gyoza, the creative differences shone through. The best part was eating afterwards because good or bad, they were from us as a family.

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A young boy in a green t-shirt is sitting at a table and has a Japanese dumpling in his chopsticks which he is dipping into a bowl of soya sauce.
Paddy dipping gyoza in soy sauce. Photo courtesy of Kiri Donnelly

Willy Donnelly (grandson)

The pickled daikon remains one of my earliest memories when eating at Nana and Grandad’s and remains a favourite to this day. Alongside that, we remembered having soy sauce on our rice, always from the glass Kikkoman dispenser with the red top. It was something we initially associated with Nana and has evolved into the minimum standard when we have anything with soy sauce now.

Sukiyaki and ginger meatballs continue to play an important part in any family get-together and are the two dishes I try and master…along with a special technique for fried rice. The special technique was included in a hand-written recipe that dad showed me called Setsuko’s Fried Rice. It’s a recipe I love and continue to cook regularly to this day. Fried Rice Friday has become an oft-requested occurrence in our house.

A long-haired woman is holding a plate of food and a small bowl while a seated man in a cap and sunglasses takes some of the food. They are outside in a garden.
Jo serving ginger meatballs to Ryan at a Donnelly Family Christmas. Photo courtesy of Kiri Donnelly

Patrick Donnelly (son)

The gorgeous secrets that Setsuko Yotsugi carried with her from Japan included a collection of family recipes that would give her a dash of fame as Mrs Setsuko Donnelly. Her absolute favourites were the ones that brought her family together around the dining table at home.

Her signature dish was Setsuko’s Sukiyaki – a traditional Japanese dish of thinly sliced beef, vermicelli noodles and vegetables simmered in a sauce made up of equal parts sake, soy sauce, sugar and water. Mum fried some onions in butter, added the beef, then the sauce and then noodles softened in hot water. Finally the vegetables went in before letting it simmer for five minutes. My siblings all make their own version of the original recipe, often for family birthdays. It is a very personal way to celebrate a special occasion.

We call Christmas the festive season but a Japanese festival is something else, an uplifting experience rather than an event where the point is to get over the finishing line.

We have ginger meatballs at Christmas as a special treat to mark my mother’s birthday. She was fond of telling me that her grandparents had traded food and community spirit in a village called Takehara, situated in the countryside outside Hiroshima. She continued that tradition in New Zealand, offering scarce Japanese vegetables from the garden to people who wanted to taste and smell the memories of home.

The relationships she built that way continued across generations – she created our family culture around the dining table.

Two men are standing next to a barbeque. One of the men is moving the food around.
Rohan cooking yakitori and kushiyaki at Jo and Hugh’s birthday celebration. Photo courtesy of Deb Donnelly

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