Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Japanese Table: Making Bento Boxes

"It is often said that in Japan 'one eats with one's eyes,'..." ---Debra Samuels
Aesthetics are an important element of Japanese cuisine, as well as Japanese culture in general. Consider the Japanese culinary art of Mukimono, where fruits and vegetables are carved into decorative shapes, commonly as a garnish. You might see such handiwork on a plate of sushi or in a bento box. The famed bento, a boxed meal, is also an example of Japanese aesthetics, providing a nutritious and delicious meal but also presenting a compelling image as well.

For more information on bento, I was fortunate to be invited to a special bento class hosted by Debra Samuels, a cookbook author, food & travel writer and cooking teacher. Debra's newest book is
My Japanese Table: A Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family ($27.95), a hardcover book of 176 pages, which will be published by Tuttle Publishing on September 10, 2011. I also received a review copy of this new cookbook and have been enjoying its contents.

How did a Jewish girl from New York come to write about Japanese cuisine?  Debra's first visit to Japan was in 1972, where she spent a semester abroad with her new husband, and at that time she knew little of Japanese cuisine. Around 1977, she and her husband, with their infant son, returned to Japan, spending about 2 1/2 years there. During that time, her Japanese neighbors essentially "adopted" her family, helping to show Debra how to shop and cook. It would be those culinary lessons that would form the backbone of the recipes in My Japanese Table.

During the last 40 years, Debra has spent 10 of them in Japan. She has conducted numerous cooking demonstrations and classes on food culture in the Boston area as well as for the Japan Information and Culture Center of the Embassy of Japan in Washington DC, the United States Embassy in Tokyo and for its American Cultural Centers in Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. I found Debra to be personable and passionate, with an infectious love for Japanese cuisine.

My Japanese Table consists of nine chapters with the addition of several introductory sections. The introductory section includes a basic overview of Japanese cuisine, from the importance of balance and aesthetics to the nature of its seasonings. There is also a section on common Japanese ingredients, describing some terms which might be unfamiliar to you, such as adzuki, shiso and tonkatsu.  After describing the ingredients, there is a brief bit on cooking utensils, from rice cookers to drop lids. Finally, the introductory material concludes with over 20 Basic Recipes, including Crunchy Cucumber Pickles, Teriyaki Sauce, Shiso Pesto, Dashi, and Seasoned Rolled Omelet. Overall, this introductory material is informative and useful.

The nine chapters of recipes include Sushi, Snacks & Appetizers, Soups & Salads, Rice & Noodles, Meat & Poultry, Fish & Seafood, Vegetable & Tofu Dishes, Bento, and Desserts & Drinks. Each recipe begins with a descriptive section, detailing the role of the recipe in Japanese cuisine or a personal story related to the author. As I have written before, "There is not a recipe without a story." Thus, it is good to see Debra including some of the stories behind each recipe she presents.  Each of the recipes is also accompanied by an appealing color photo of the dish. The complexity of the recipes appears to vary from simple to moderate.

The recipes range from traditional dishes, such as Miso Soup, Onigiri, Shrimp Tempura, and Salted Edamame, to more modern variations, such as Chunky Miso Chowder, Shoko's Summer Sesame Chicken Salad, Scallops with Citrus Miso Sauce and Sliced Okra with Wasabi Soy Dressing. With the basic recipes, you also have the tools to create your own Japanese inspired recipes. If you have desired to prepare Japanese cuisine at home, this book is a great way to start.

Debra is crazy about obento, stating that it is "culture in a box."  Her original intent was to write a book solely on obento but her publisher wanted a more general book, so obento now forms only a single chapter in the book.  Her first experience with obento was around 1983-84, when her son returned home from school, disappointed with his American-style lunch and wanting a cute lunch like his schoolmate's bento boxes. The roots of bento extend back to the 1600s-1700s, when multilayer boxes were used for picnics.  But it was not until after World War II that "cute" bentos became a major phenomenon.

Creation of a proper bento box takes time and effort, and is supposed to include five elements: Color, Texture, Variety, Seasonality, and Nutrition. This is because, like all Japanese cuisine, the key to bento is that: "It is all about balance."  In her book, Debra breaks down how to create this balance in bento, such as by combining five color foods: Red (like meat or fish), White (like rice or onion), Green (like broccoli or green pepper),Yellow (like sweet potato or orange) and Black (like seaweed or sesame). And when preparing a bento for a loved one, "Make sure there is something in it that makes his heart dance." 

Bentos are popular with all types of people, from children to business men. You can easily buy premade bento boxes at stores and restaurants, but nothing is probably better than a bento box made at home, with love. Locally, you can find several Japanese and Asian grocery stores and shops which sell bento ingredients and supplies. Some Japanese restaurants also offer bento boxes, usually for lunch, and that is often my choice when I dine out for lunch. I like receiving a sampling of different foods, almost like a mini-buffet, though I bet the restaurants offer bento boxes that are far larger than what you would find in Japan.

I recommend that you place My Japanese Table on your wish list and get a copy when it is published in September. If you have an interest in Japanese cuisine, it is a great introduction and will allow you to prepare a variety of Japanese inspired dishes. Plus, it might inspire you to start preparing bento boxes.

For myself, I am craving some Sweet Potato Tempura Fritters (p.134)!

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