Japan Eats

Book Review: The Just Bento Cookbook

Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh

Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.

With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.

Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.

Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.

Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.

In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)

The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.

In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages

Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 4, “Is it safe?”

This week we discuss the ongoing effects of the Tohoku earthquake and a food poisoning scare

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt, and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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In this week’s Japan Eats Podcast, Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt, and Christopher Pellegrini discuss how the Tohoku earthquake has affected the food we eat in Japan and the recent E coli scare.

Here are some links to the issues we discussed this week:

Intro/outro: “Aguamala” by Carne Cruda

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Japan Booze Blind: Kyushu (Part III)

In the third and final episode of JBB’s Kyushu series, Christopher Pellegrini tries Kirishima and Kuro Denen shochu

Convenience stores in southern Kyushu usually carry a wide selection of shochu. Unlike in Tokyo, much of what can be found in Miyazaki, Kagoshima and Kumamoto prefectures comes in small cans or bottles, similar to the so-called ‘one cup’ nihonshu found elsewhere in the country.

We stopped by a combini and picked up a couple that caught our eye. According to its label, Kirishima is from Miyazaki prefecture and is an imo jochu (potato shochu). It’s easily recognized by its very own gold-colored tasting cup. Kuro Denen, meanwhile, comes from Kagoshima prefecture and (we read with interest) is only 12 per cent by volume.

Once again, we sat beneath Kagoshima City’s cherry blossoms and familiarized ourselves with Kyushu’s favorite spirit.

Watch Part I.

Watch Part II.

Recipe: Salmon donburi

A quick and easy rice bowl

What is the best accompaniment for raw fish?

Most Japanese agree that when eating fish such as sashimi or sushi, blue fish should be eaten with ginger or perhaps ponzu. Other types of fish with wasabi or salt.

There are also various condiments which can be used alongside those flavors mentioned above. Aojiso (also known as ooba – green perilla), hojiso (spikes of shiso), chives, mioga, etc.

Salmon Donburi

Salmon donburi

For this donburi, wasabi would be the perfect compliment for the salmon. The fish is served with lots of daikon sprouts and sesame seeds. The sharpness of the daikon sprouts emphasizes the salmon’s sweetness and the sesame adds flavor.

And in case you’re wondering, in Japan this rice bowl is referred to as salmon-don (サーモン丼) and not sake-don (鮭丼) as one might expect.

Ingredients (makes 4 rice bowls)

Sumeshi

  • 3 cups of rice ( become 4 bowls of sumeshi)
  • 1/2 a cup of rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Topping

  • 200 g of salmon (sashimi)
  • 200 g of daikon sprouts (2 packages)
  • 2 table spoons of sesame seeds (roasted)
  • 2 tea spoons of sesame seeds (roasted)
  • 10 g of aojiso (green perilla – 20 sheets)

Method

First, you will need to prepare the sushi rice. Fill a bowl with cold water and add the rice. Stir it quickly and pour off the white liquid immediately. Pour the cold water into the bowl again, press the rice with the heal of your palm repeatedly and pour off the white liquid.

Repeat the procedure 3-4 times till the water becomes almost clear (it doesn’t necessarily have to be perfectly clear) and drain on a sieve for 30 mins.

Pour the rice into a rice cooker and add water according to the machines’ instructions. Cook the rice. Once the rice is done, allow it to rest in the machine for 10 minutes.

Pour the ingredients for the sushi vinegar into a small pan. Warm over a low heat so that the sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Turn off the gas and allow the liquid to cool.

When the rice is ready, open the rice cooker and transfer the rice into a wooden bowl moistened with water. Sprinkle the sushi vinegar over the rice, making sure that the liquid is spread evenly.

Toss the rice with downward cutting strokes until the rice cools. Add two tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, mixing them with the rice.

Now place approximately one cup of the cooked rice into a serving bowl. As you do this, bear in mind that both the flavor and texture of the dish come from the ingredients layered on top – don’t overdo the amount of rice.

Place a 1/4 of the daikon sprouts on top of the rice.

Slice the salmon into 3-4 mm slices by pulling the knife toward you. Place it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve the donburi.

Place 4 or 5 strips of salmon onto the bed of sprouts. When you do this, it looks better if you fold the slices into two.

Next, slice the aojiso into thin strips and place these gently on top of the salmon.

Finally sprinkle the 1/2 tea spoon of sesame seeds over the rice bowl. Serve with soy sauce and wasabi in a small dish.

Book Review: “Drinking Japan”

Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan

I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?

Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”

He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.

Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.

After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.

The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.

Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.

As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.

Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?

That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.

If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.

If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)

Drinking Japan
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.