Wednesday, July 6, 2011
My Japanese Table: Making Bento Boxes
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.
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.
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.
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."
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)!