The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Maya Erskine is the co-creator and star of PEN15, a series on Hulu that celebrates the awkwardness of being a teenage girl. Maya started featuring her mother, Mutsuko, in homemade film projects when she was in school at NYU, and now, Mutsuko plays her mom on the hit show. The two invited Great Jones to Maya's Silver Lake apartment and showed us how they make nabe.
Maya: We don’t really do anything for Mother’s Day — sometimes we cook something together.
Mutsuko: All the restaurants are so packed, and the service is bad!
Maya: We do this a lot; we like to cook nabe together. It’s mostly just prep. You cook a broth for hours with chicken bones, prep a ton of vegetables, and make chicken meatballs. Then you sit for hours and eat out of the pot, take a nap, and return and eat more of it. It’s very nourishing. The interesting thing about nabe is that I have a lot of friends who make it with their mom, and everyone has their different approach to how they cut it or what vegetables they put in.
Mutsuko: There are different kinds of nabe. Today we’re doing kimchi — it’s spicy. Sometimes you do it with soymilk. I learned to cook broth in Japan and here. When I got married, I didn't know how to cook for a family. So I started learning from my mom.
I started learning from my mom.
Maya: You cook so much Japanese food, I learned that from you, but you also make really good Italian food. Pasta I’m pretty good at as well. My dad’s sister lives in Italy; she has a house in d’Ischia, this Island off of Naples where we used to go. She taught us a couple of tricks with how she makes classic tomato sauce. One is to add a little sugar at the end.
Mutsuko: Maya has a brother who’s five years older, and both of them really can cook. They’re really good.
Maya: Now we’re more interested, but I think because she cooked every meal, we got used to it. I’ve tried to replicate the fish that my mom used to make in the oven, with green onions and soy sauce. I’ve never even attempted to recreate your curry. I wouldn’t know how to do that. When I’m alone, I do cook, but I’ve been pretty lazy about getting takeout because I get home late and I’m tired. I’m very into Korean food right now, so I order a lot of tteok-bokki, those rice cakes, and I cover it in cheese. It’s fucked up … it’s really good, though. If I’m cooking and I’ve gone to the farmers’ market, my favorite thing to do is to steam a bunch of vegetables with sweet potatoes, quinoa, avocado, and seaweed. Any kind of bowl is really my go-to.
When I’m alone, I do cook, but I’ve been pretty lazy about getting takeout because I get home late and I’m tired.
Mutsuko: This recipe is a combination of you and me. Because I don’t usually put kimchi in it.
This recipe is a combination of you and me.
Maya: The chicken balls are a combination of both of us, but the stock is all my mom. I don’t know how to do that.
Mutsuko: I’m sous-chef today.
Maya: No, you’re top chef!
Mutsuko: Food was really different growing up in Japan. It was right after the war. I remember our family had one egg every other day or something. I remember fighting with my mom, saying, “I want another egg!” Dessert was bread with sugar.
Maya: Sometimes we’ll take trips just to eat. She’s going to come to New York with me for a couple nights. We’re already thinking about Russ & Daughters — that sturgeon! I haven’t found that here in L.A.; it’s so perfect and sweet. We crave that ... I loved having her on set on Pen15, acting in the show. She provided a nurturing, calming presence when we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. She would sometimes pack me and Anna lunches, which was very sweet. When we did the presentation, we auditioned a couple of actresses and then we said as a joke, “What if we just use my mom?” And then I made an audition tape with her, and she was just so much better than anyone else auditioning. She killed it, and everyone was like, “Of course your mom should do it.”
Mutsuko: After the presentation, I thought, I could do this. Most of the people who were working on set were Maya and Anna's friends that I knew, so I felt really comfortable. If it was a different situation, I probably wouldn’t have.
Maya: I put her in my student films at NYU growing up, and she couldn’t act, but she got it together, man!