In the second part of our conversation about Lucky Peach, we discuss authenticity, the magazine’s recipes and talk about what we’d like to see in the next edition.
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Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook
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
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.
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.)
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.
Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners
Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.
Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.
The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).
From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.
“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”
Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.
The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)
Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).
The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.
Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.
Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More
by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen
What’s new in Japan’s food magazines? Marcus Lovitt conducts a whirlwind tour of Japan’s culinary rags. This month: dancyu, ELLE à table, Syokuraku and Ryori Tsushin.
Foreign visitors to Japan frequently complain about the limited number of western breakfast options available. And let’s face it: pre-dawn sushi at Tsukiji or a bowl of soba at a train station aren’t for everyone, especially if you have young children in tow.
For those not enamored of chain coffee shops (Excelsior, Starbucks or the ever-smokey Dotour) the only options appear to be expensive hotel restaurants or to pick something up at a local bakery.
It’s an unfortunate fact that Tokyo lags behind other major cities when it comes to breakfast options. While there are plenty of great independently-owned cafes, few open before 10 or 11 am. Why? Most Japanese eat at home, or skip the meal altogether in the rush to catch that train to work.
Things may be changing, however. Much has been made of Australian chef Bill Granger’s latest venture, bills in Yokohama. Renowned for his Australian-style breakfasts, Granger has attracted a lot of attention for his focus on Aussie staples such as Eggs Benedict and buttery pancakes.
Acknowledging the western predilection for a morning dose of cholesterol, this month’s dancyu (860 yen) is all eggs, done every which way. The magazine introduces restaurants offering classic egg dishes (boiled, scrambled, fried) as well as some of their recipes (eggs Benedict, egg sandwiches, huevos a la flamenca and puddings).
Another of dancyu‘s themes is seasonal vegetables – spring cabbage, spring onion, asparagus, green peas, and tomato fruit. The magazine includes seven recipes which make the most of what’s now available in Japan’s grocery stores.
ELLE à table (720 yen), meanwhile, looks at the latest French restaurants to open in Tokyo. The editors write that since the end of 2009 Tokyoites have enjoyed an increasing number of reasonably-priced French establishments. Rents have decreased because of the recession and young chefs are finding it easier to open their own places. ELLE writes about eight casual French dining options. They also focus on 3 locations: Nishi Azabu; what ELLE calls the ‘Art East Area’ (the area around Bakurocho and Asakusabashi) and ‘Ura Ginza’ (Higashi Ginza and Shintomicho). Finally, the magazine profiles seven new restaurants renowned for the quality of their food.
Syokuraku (860 yen) fills much of its May edition with those delectable dumplings, gyoza. The editors recommend gyoza restaurants based on five categories: fried gyoza, large gyoza, crispy gyoza, boiled gyoza and gyoza served on a frying pan. The magazine also visits Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu, two Japanese cities which are famous for the dish.
Finally, this month’s Ryori tsushin (980 yen) examines ‘sake for wine lovers’. The magazine explains how to approach sake by showing a comparison between sake and wine. They also suggest restaurants which provide a high-quality sake line up as well as food. Elsewhere in the magazine is devoted to dashi. Based on the notion that dashi is one of the key elements of Japanese cooking, the editors explain how to cook this combination of konbu (kelp), katsuobushi and water. They also present six dashi-based recipes.
Otoriyose, the practice of ordering regional specialties online via sites such as Rakuten, is currently a major trend. All of this month’s magazines go out of their way to list websites where readers can purchase items such as gyoza (Syokuraku) and pâté (ELLE à table). The latter magazine even introduces a bar in Ginza (named chikappa) focused on otoriyose from Kyushu.
This month three of Japan’s top culinary magazines focus their attention on things Italian. Also, Dancyu tells aging ramen lovers it’s time to go back to basics and Otona no shumatsu presents yet another lengthy best-of list. Its all here in this month’s magazine roundup.
When Hollywood studios simultaneously release similar films (think Deep Impact vs Armageddon) its difficult not to suspect nervous producers spy on each other in search of original film ideas. Similarly, when three of the major Japanese food magazines decide to feature Italian cuisine on their April covers, one has to wonder if it’s more than a coincidence.
This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) features what the editors describe as “Italian food and restaurants from a man’s perspective”. They posit that Italian restaurants are not just places for dates and quiet conversation, but can be places for guys to get together and hang out. Our advice: ignore the cultural analysis and enjoy the food porn.
Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) also stretches the bounds of thematic credibility with an edition focusing on the role flour plays in Italian food. Put differently, the magazine’s editors want to discuss pasta and pizza, and to hell with that other stuff.
April’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) is the last in our trio, the magazine exploring “the Italian mode”. More cultural background than recipes, this issue covers luxury brands as well as restaurants. The editors also ask where Italian cuisine is headed.
Ramen nerds rejoice! Dancyu (850 yen) has you in its sights. The April edition of the magazine is a veritable cornucopia of ramen, specifically aimed at self-appointed ramen experts in their 40s and 50s. April’s issue features 14 ramen shops – 12 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka and 1 in Kobe. Urging readers to go back to basics, the magazine also discusses Tokyo’s trademark soy-sauce ramen and recommends 10 restaurants in which to sample the dish.
And where would we be without another best-of list? Otona no shumatsu (580 yen) lists the magazine’s “best 102 restaurants in the past 5 years”. The editors claim to have visited some 18, 000 restaurants in the past 5 years, and to have introduced 3600 in the magazine. Of these, they write, 350 were rated highly . After what must have been much soul-searching at the Kodansha offices, they finally whittled this list down to a (curiously unrounded) 102. All were tested in secret and come recommended for taste, price and great service. They are in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.
Nakameguro is Tokyo’s version of Little Italy? So say our friends at Shokuraku. They map 25 Italian restaurants within walking distance of Nakameguro Station. Worryingly, this figure includes the local Saizeriya. What do you think? Is Nakameguro Tokyo’s answer to Mulberry Street? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.
Sake, seafood and… sumo? It’s time once again to take a look at the month’s food and drink magazines.
Another month, another ambitious ‘best of list’. This time it’s Syokuraku (860 yen) with their “42 best restaurants in Tokyo”. Dividing restaurants into 7 categories (yakitori, Japanese cuisine, tempura, shabushabu, rice bowls, tonkatsu and okonomiyaki) the magazine’s editors award marks for “the quality of food, cost performance and service”.
Syokuraku takes a more radical approach toward ranking sake, doing so by comparing various types of rice wine to sumo rikishi (come on… what could be more obvious!) It’s east versus west, with the sake divided into yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira and jyuyo. The magazine also features 10 Tokyo restaurants which make creative use of nihonshu.
This month’s dancyu (860 yen) continues the sake theme. The magazine introduces upcoming sake breweries in places such as Akita, Tochigi, Hiroshima and Saga. And for those who love seafood but also think cooking fish is difficult, dancyu offers a selection of quick and easy seafood recipes. Dishes include Japanese, Western and Chinese otsumami.
Coffee is flavour of the month in Cafe-Sweets (1300 yen), the editors noting that the cafe scene in Japan is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. In particular, they note that coffee schools are growing in popularity – students can take classes for beginners through to advanced. The March issue features a number of coffee schools, from industry giants Starbucks and Tully’s through to small privately-owned cafes such as Tokumitsu Coffee in Hokkaido and the mail order coffee beans shop Unir in Kyoto.
Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) meanwhile dedicates its March edition to what they are calling “The age of Women”. The editors introduce women who are active participants in the Japanese culinary scene. The magazine features restaurants where all meals and service are provided by women, those restaurants which are owned by women as well as female innovators in areas traditionally dominated by men – sausage and ham artisans, coffee roasters and pizza chefs.
The Wine Kingdom (1500 yen) offers a list of “The best 30 winter reds from Italy”. There’s also a special feature on Sauvigon Blanc and a pull-out section of the magazine introducing 50 brands of wines from Washington. The booklet has information about each winery, their products and personalities.
The March issue of dancyu sees the announcement of a sake tasting event to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary. 74 different sake breweries will present their wares at the Grand Prince Hotel, Shintakanawa on March 27th from 13:00 to 15:30. Tickets are 5000 yen per person. See the dancyu’s March issue for further details.
This month it’s all about winter warmers – ramen, cream stews, okonomiyaki and winter seafood dishes. Here’s our roundup of Japan’s food magazines for February 2010.
This month’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) focuses on seasonal seafood dishes. Japanese as well as international chefs explain how best to cook winter seafood using their own recipes. The magazine also interviews several Kyoto-based chefs and asks what inspires them.
Dancyu (860 yen) asks ‘where in Tokyo does one go to get the best beef or cream stew?’ The magazine’s February edition also looks at that perennial Japanese favorite, okonomiyaki. They introduce seven well-regarded okonomiyaki restaurants as well as recipes for their most popular dishes.
This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) focuses on ramen. They nominate the ‘ten best ramen restaurants in metropolitan Tokyo’ and then the ‘top ten restaurants for various types of ramen’ (tsukemen, thick soup, etc.). There’s also a ‘top ten ramen restaurants which serve great side dishes’ and (clearly concerned they had left someone out) a ‘top ten ramen restaurants serving great drinks’.
The magazine also devotes space to the humble nabe, and suggests where Tokyoites can sample regional versions of this seasonal dish.
Tokyo Calendar (680 yen) dusts off the crystal ball to predict the year’s dining trends in the Japanese capital. The magazine nominates bistros where one dining alone can eat at a counter, Nouvelle Chinois cuisine and Shitamachi restaurants as three major trends of 2010.
Finally, dessert arrives courtesy of Ryori Tsushin (980 yen), which dedicates its February issue to sweets. Using patisserie Aigre Douce (Mejiro) as an example, the magazine’s authors make the case for sweets to be made from only the finest ingredients. The magazine also looks at traditional German sweets, noting that German confections are growing in popularity.
Nikkei’s Otona no Off (680 yen) examines the basics of Japanese etiquette. Just how does one behave when eating kaiseki? What are the rules at a tea ceremony? There are even tips on how one opens fusuma (traditional sliding doors).
Sushi, tapas and chocolate cake. It’s all here in our monthly roundup of Japanese food magazines.
The January 2010 issue of ELLE à table (720 yen) runs with the theme “Let’s Party” and asks two caterers to produce a menu for 4 people that comes in under 5000 yen (p. 40). Dancyu (850 yen), meanwhile, dedicates much of it’s 210 pages to sushi and sashimi. Dancyu columnist Kundo Koyama also contributes an essay on “The five best dishes of 2009″.
Syokuraku (860 yen) follows the sushi theme, looking at which wines best match Japan’s favourite finger food. Cuisine Kingdom (980 yen) leads with a ‘special feature’ entitled “Bar, Bistro, Trattoria – the secret of their popularity”. This basically turns out to be an excuse to present some exquisite food porn from the likes of Barcelona and Paris, of which we wholly approve.
It seems there’s nothing Japanese gourmands enjoy more than the whiff of French sophistication. The cover of Ku:nel’s January issue (780 yen) entices Francophile readers with an offer of a map to “the pleasant face of Paris”. Ryori tsushin (980 yen), meanwhile, introduces several new French restaurants in Japan and offers readers a onetime deal on a “special course and glass of wine”.
In addition to their “French chocolat patisserie collection”, Cafe Sweets (1300 yen) begins 2010 with a whole lotta chocolate love. The magazine presents a number of chocolate cake recipes for readers to try.
January’s ELLE à table is the winner of Japan Eats’ coveted Bad English award, for their headline “I am big fun of Cheese”.