Asian Cuisine Concentration: A Little Taste of Shokado Bento

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During our first kitchen course, Advanced Cooking, we were given the opportunity to explore different cuisines scattered throughout Asia. The sections on Japan highlighted the significance of both “slow food” and traditional practices. Starting off, our class was fortunate enough to work alongside a phenomenal chef, Masayo Tamura, one of the first female chefs to work in the male-dominated kitchens of Japan.

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She is now eighty-one years old and still demonstrates her passion and culinary wisdom through her thoughtful movements and choices while preparing Bento. Chef Tamura sought to teach our small class both Bento box culture and techniques.

One of the first things were learned from her was to always respect and honor the produce you are work with. The sections that make up a Shokado Bento-style box are Osai (side dishes), Mukozuke (sashimi), Nimono (lightly simmered vegetables),  and Gohan (rice dish).

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When beginning the journey to build the Bento box, Tamura had a very interesting way of showing her respect for the ingredients. She would often talk to the inanimate items we used for the meal preparation—especially the fish she was preparing for the sashimi. We worked with a fish called Aji, and as she began her demonstration, she started off by asking the fish how he was feeling. This of course was meant metaphorically. What she really sought to understand was how the fish was treated. She could ascertain if the fish was roughly handled or respectfully caught, by carefully inspecting its organs, belly burn (if any), and the flesh. A similar instance occurred when we made a flavorful stock called dashi. Dashi is made using Kombu, seaweed or kelp that is extracted from the ocean and dried for its unique salty/briny taste. Tamura would often say, “He (the kombu) does not like to dance,” referencing the temperature of the water. In this case, if the water was too hot and boiling than the dashi was not being made properly. Time management is an important and useful skill when preparing this meal as many dishes take multiple days to put together and finish.

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Intricate details are an important factor for Bento culture. Throughout the year as the months change, the Bento boxes often change color schemes, flavor profiles, and structures. Typically, pink plates, green accents, and portraits of flowers indicate the beginning of spring weather and dishes will use cherry blossoms season for inspiration. The overall experience was so culturally intoxicating, being introduced to the idea of “slow food” in a tie of often very fast food was shocking and motivational.

By Briana Martin Smith

Learn more about our Asian Concentration here >