Beet Soup and the Art of Gyotaku

An example of Japanese Fish Slapping or 'Gyotaku'

An example of Japanese Fish Slapping or 'Gyotaku' (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was ignoring the few beets and carrots left over from last week’s produce box simply because my preferred method of preparation is roasting, and I don’t heat the oven for just a few lonely vegetables. I think all the Easter-related cooking sapped a bit of enthusiasm for much culinary creativity, but I grabbed this month’s selection from my VegCookBook Club, Blissful Bites, and found a very easy beet and carrot soup. It sounded promising.

Sometimes if I’m handling beets I wear thin kitchen gloves just to keep from getting my hands all red, but since I was only going to chop two or three, I didn’t bother. Sure enough, my hands were darkly stained in a matter of minutes, which triggered an almost entirely forgotten memory.

When we were newly married we lived for about a year on the same property as my husband’s mother. Marian lived in a very tiny back cottage and we took the house in the front. She’d been a widow for close to twenty years, worked hard as a school teacher and cared for her own mother, but in between—what there was of an in-between—she painted. Occasionally she would venture outside of her acrylics and oils on canvas and would decide to experiment.

This one time I walked to the rear of our house and found her outside putting paint and what I thought was red dye all over a big fish. She had been studying a book she’d found at the library about the Japanese art of fish printing–gyotaku! Traditionally, fish printing involved painting fish with ink and then laying rice paper carefully over the surface of the fish. When the rice paper is lifted off the life-size impression of the fish is revealed. The end result on delicate rice paper can be quite beautiful.

Well, she had decided that in order to save paint, and also to experiment with natural pigment, she was going to give vegetable dyes a try. The red color all over her hands and on the fish was very thick beet juice! I don’t think any part of it was coming out the way she had envisioned, but it didn’t matter to her at all. She was having a wonderful time! It was all about the experience–the tactile semi-scientific art experience! I can remember how enthusiastic she was about what she had learned about gyotaku—she was a high school art history teacher after all, and learning about a new-to-her art form and then giving it a try was the best possible “escape route” for a woman with a great deal of creative energy coupled with very demanding life pressures.

Art was her stress-reducer, and she maintained her curiosity and love of learning and experimenting with new art techniques, maybe not quite as experimental as a fish covered in beet juice, but with enthusiasm nonetheless, until she passed away just a few weeks short of 90.

I’ll share a bit of the recipe that triggered my memory. It’s taken from Blissful Bites by Christy Morgan. Christy also has a very interesting website absolutely full of recipes you might enjoy trying–or do as I do, and just read them! Even that is relaxing to me.

Christy’s soup had a few more ingredients, but I adapted it for what I had on-hand, and Jay and I both ate it right up!

Just a few ingredients necessary:

1/2 cup of water

2 medium carrots, chopped

2 medium red beets, peeled and chopped

1 TB coriander

1 tsp oregano

pinch of sea salt

5 cups filtered water

1 cup lentils (red was recommended, but I didn’t have red!)

1 TB red wine vinegar

1 small lemon

Simply steam the beets, carrots and spices in the 1/2 cup of water for just a couple of minutes until they’re slightly cooked. Add the rest of the water and the lentils and simmer partially covered for about 25  minutes. You can puree the mixture when it is done…I used my immersion blender. At the very end add the juice of the lemon and the vinegar. The tartness added to the sweet soup–carrots and beets are quite sweet, was just a wonderful addition. It could be topped with a little Greek yogurt or soy sour cream…I didn’t do either. It was good just as it is. Heart healthy and simple!

Some of us cook, some paint, others garden, or write or travel or make music or dance–or maybe enjoy all of these lovely pursuits! My mid-week encouragement to you is don’t let obligations or responsibilities keep you from celebrating  the art of living. Your overall well-being completely depends upon it!

Here’s a picture of a very happy Marian–almost 90 years old.

Happy Wednesday…Debra

47 thoughts on “Beet Soup and the Art of Gyotaku

    • I know what you mean, Rita. She was a great role model for me! I married at 19, and at the time she was 64! So we had quite the generation gap, but I really admired her and we definitely miss her…she still teaches us! :-) Debra

  1. Wow.. what a woman, I would have got a long famously with her! She truly had the spirit one would long to have.. and right up until the age of 90! That’s so impressive, a real creative soul. I remember a teacher making these with students in an elementary school where I taught and they are quite stunning. Your soup looks like a bowl full of heaven and would be wonderful with the overcast skies we’ve been having! The art of cooking is my idea of throwing away responsibilities.. even though that sounds paradoxical:) xo Smidge

    • I like what you share, Smidge, about cooking and throwing away responsibilties. We do need to nourish our souls…and cooking for my family can be a way to really slow down and be more thoughtful, too. I get very inspired when I read your posts and see the beautiful results of your time in the kitchen! I often do look to others for inspiration, and when I admire something or someone, attempt to pull from something I could learn from their example. My mother-in-law was one of those amazing people who just lived her life pursuing the things that most interested her…she wasn’t a fashion plate, rarely cleaned house, and was just “herself.” I’ll always think of her in that way and miss her smiling face! I’m glad I could share her with you. :-) Debra

  2. The artwork is stunning and the recipe sounds delicious. I must admit, though, I found the story of Marian to be captivating. What a wonderful spirit and how fortunate you are to have that memory of her. It speaks volumes about her, just as your re-telling reveals how much you appreciated & admired her. Thanks, Debra, for sharing her with us.

    • I’m so glad I could share Marian with you, John. I know how much you pull from your family roots, too, and so you “get it” that when they are gone, they’re still teaching! When I married at 19 she was 64–so for many years I found the generation gap wide, and didn’t completely understand what motivated her, but through the years I really saw what a remarkable woman she really was. I do miss her…our whole family does! Some people are just special for being themselves, and nothing more! Thank you for encouraging me to share about her. She loved to garden…I think I’ve been missing her more with spring! Debra

  3. You are blessed to have such a wonderful mother-in-law. I have a friend who did a degree in fashion design and she was always dyeing fabrics with natural products. She made her sister’s wedding dress and dyed it in a bath tub with tea leaves xx

    • I’m so amazed, charlie at how creative some people can be with design and art techniques. That’s not my strength…but I do admire. I’m glad I could share Marian with you. She was very special. I often really miss her sense of humor and her grounded wisdom. She didn’t spend one day trying to impress anyone else, she just loved life! Debra

    • I do think I was very fortunate to have had many years with this lovely woman. She’s been gone for 15 years now, but in many ways she is still teaching me. She had a tough life, she really did have some big heartaches, but she found ways to enjoy life every day. That’s really an inspiration to us all! :-) Debra

  4. Marian looks like she had a lot of fun. Red lentils would intensify the color of a beet and carrot soup. Oregano and coriander is an unusual spice combination. I may try this soon — the only beet and carrot soup I make is borscht.

    • Marian never even touched a computer, Sharyn, but she would have been a blogger, I think! She had ideas and loved to share them. She might have used some of her art similarly to the way you do. We feel so fortunate to have many of her pieces hanging in our home and we always remember how much her painting meant to her. And about the red lentils…I will definitely use them next time. The color was a little “off” with the “regular” lentils. It was fine for us, but if I wanted to serve it to someone else I’d need the color to be a bit more vibrant. I really did enjoy it! Debra

    • I would love to see some prints and be able to examine how different artists choose to color the gyotaku. I can only recall one other time, long ago, when I did see something at an art fair, and I don’t recall much about it. Now I’m curious! Debra

  5. I love this story, Debra. I wish I loved beets, but they taste like dirt on my palate. MTM pickles them and really likes them that way, but he might also enjoy trying this recipe. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Pickling takes time…so I admire his effort, Andra. I’m afraid I don’t do much cooking unless it doesn’t take too much time. I’m inspired by so many bloggers, though, who really do beautiful things in the kitchen. It makes me want to slow down a bit and learn! I’m amused at your comment about beets…they taste like dirt? That’s an interesting reaction to texture, I suppose. We are all so individual in our tastes/likes and dislikes. Maybe in a soup… :-) Debra

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the memories I shared of my very creative and enthusiastic mom-in-law! She was something! And yes, isn’t an immersion blender just wonderful? This recipe is easy, healthy and very economical! I’ll be making it often! Debra

    • Thanks for stopping by, Margie! You ARE lucky…my husband is helpful if I ask, but he is not a cook! :-) The beet soup may be too ordinary and simple for a guy who really cook–but it is good! Debra

  6. What a delightful memory, Debra, and I will try this recipe sometime. I love beets. What a creative person your mother-in-law was – and what energy. If only I had that much now. Sigh.

    I actually did gyotaku using plastic fish with second graders as a Sunday school project a few years ago. It was so much fun for the kids, both the little ones and the big one. Me.

    • The beet soup is so quick and easy, Penny, so if you enjoy beets this would be a great last minute soup! I wish I could have shared more about Marian. She had such an interesting life she’s worthy of a lot more space. Life had been very hard for her, and by the time she retired in her mid-60s she just decided she was going to simplify her life down to her books, art, gardening and she even limited her family involvement. She liked one-on-one, but not the big family gatherings. That is also how she managed to remain so creative…she wasn’t spreading herself so thin…hmmmm. That’s the secret I haven’t yet learned :-)

      How fun to have done the gyotaku with the children! I would imagine they had a ball with that! I miss the artwork I did in early childhood classrooms. I’m not much of an artist, so preschool level projects were really great for me! Ha! Debra

  7. What a beautiful essay! It’s so precious how you often weave a story around a recipe and a memory. Debra, I ALWAYS learn something here — how to paint fish, how to make a yummy soup, how to just relax and have a laugh. THANK you so much. :-)

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Natalie. I really enjoyed spending so much time remembering Marian. She would have been 105 this past month…like we often do when someone is gone, I think of all the things I never asked her. As an example, I was thinking that I never asked her if she remembered anything from her childhood about the Titanic. She was a child and young adult through some major headlines! I really appreciate you encouragement and appreciation, Natalie. Blessings, Debra

    • Thanks, Jen. I’m glad you enjoyed my little memory of my sweet mother-in-law. Gyotaku is really a very unique and lovely art…I have only seen a good example of it at one particular art exhibit, but I really do like the results of watercolors on rice paper. I’m partial to Japanese and Chinese artwork. There is so much to learn, however. I’m not an artist, but I can appreciate! :-) Debra

  8. a fantastic story and recipe combination. And you’ve just intriduced me to a “new to me” style of art, so thank you, thank you. I love the spirit of your MIL, that element of prepared to try something new, a great reminder for me, and I’m sure many others. Claire

    • Thank you, Claire. I think that one of the things that amazes me is how someone who has been gone from our lives for 15 years still continues to teach me. Now that I’m getting older, of course, I think I understand her better than maybe I did when she was living…but she was a character! And her enthusiasm for doing what pleased her most and living without a lot of “baggage” really speaks to me now! I’m glad I could share her with you! Debra

  9. Such a lovely post, Debra and with a gorgeous soup recipe as a bonus. Your mother-in-law sounds like she was cut from the same cloth as my DH’s mother – endlessly active and still interested in everything at a good age.

  10. What a heart-warming story you’ve shared with us, Debra. I really enjoyed reading your memories of your mother-in-law. She was, indeed, a special person, and at her age, WOW!

    I love beets, and have to agree with Andra, that they do sometimes taste like dirt. Maybe it’s the brand I buy. I’m not too fond of carrots so I’ll probably adapt your recipe to use something else.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. Blessings!!

    • I’m laughing at the idea that you love beets, but do agree they sometimes taste like dirt! Now with two people saying that, I’m likely to discover new tastes next time I bring them out :-) I’m so glad you enjoyed hearing about Marian. She was such a delightfully quirky and interesting woman. And she was interested in everything that came her way, right up until the very end. I think she would have loved blogging…both reading and posting her own. Thank you so much for stopping by…I hope you have a great weekend. Debra

  11. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory Debra. What a gift to have a mother-in-law that you describe as

    “… so very special. I often really miss her sense of humor and her grounded wisdom. She didn’t spend one day trying to impress anyone else, she just loved life!”

    As for the beets, I love them – perhaps because I grew up eating them – but my Mom’s cold beet soup was just beets and water. I’ve never had a beet soup with lentils and can’t imagine the coriander/origano combination. I will definitely try this. Thanks

    • Hmmm. Beets and water…that might be a little plain! This was a good recipe, Rosie, and not much more trouble to make than your mom’s recipe! And yes, thank you for your sensitive comments regarding my memories of my mom-in-law. She really was quite a gal! She’s been gone for fifteen years and we still talk about her a lot. She was just memorable! :-) Debra

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