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Just Hungry, Just Bento

by Ken Ishii

The kitchen has long been used as a portal to distant places and times, and Just Hungry and Just Bento are two blogs by Makiko Itoh that put all the wonders of Japanese cuisine within a cutting-board’s reach. For Makiko, cooking has been a way to re-create comfort foods from Japan while living abroad in the U.S. and Switzerland. Just Hungry features traditional and contemporary versions of staple dishes such as sukiyaki and omuraisu (rice omelet) and are highlighted in one of several of the blog’s expansive lists called 100 Japanese foods to try. For those eating on the run, Just Bento is dedicated to the ubiquitous Japanese lunch in a box and provides a wide range of recipes, instructions and detailed nutritional guidelines. Whether expanding one’s culinary horizon or longing for a taste of home, Just Hungry and Just Bento are quick tickets to kitchens of the not-so-far East.

On your site you talk about living in several countries. Could you describe your background and where you consider your home today?

My father was a typical kaigai chuuzaiin (overseas salaryman), sent overseas by his company to develop business. So when I was growing up, we lived in several places in England, the U.S. and Japan. The family moved back to the U.S. from Japan when I was 17. I later moved to Switzerland as an adult. Presently my home is still in Switzerland, but right now we are considering a move to France!

What do you think defines a bento? How would you describe its place in Japanese food culture and the Japanese lifestyle?

A bento is a neatly packaged meal, essentially. Japanese people generally love tidiness and order (even when they don’t achieve it), so I think that bento meals fit the Japanese aesthetic perfectly. Bentos are also associated with fuzzy warm memories of growing up in most Japanese people’s minds.

You comment on different kinds of bento boxes and promote the use of everyday household items. What are your favorite examples of bento boxes? How many do you own?

Any reasonably leakproof box is perfectly serviceable as a bento box. But I do think that something you use every day like a bento box should be attractive to look at as well as being practical. I don’t own a lot of bento boxes — about a dozen, but I mostly use two or three of them.

Your bento recipes are kept healthy by incorporating caloric values and ratios of carbs, proteins and vegetables. How do bentos you make today differ from ones you grew up with?

My mother was a very busy woman, with three kids and a full-time job. In middle school I was active in the kendo club and was always hungry, so my bentos were delicious and very hearty, but sometimes a bit odd. I remember bentos that had things like just 12 gyoza dumplings and cabbage (no rice), or two whole uncooked tarako (salted cod roe) lying unadorned on top of the rice. I still loved them though! My current bentos are a bit more balanced, I think.

Comparing eating habits in the countries you have lived in, do you feel Japanese people are as health conscious as many people tend to think?

Yes and no. Some Japanese people are very health conscious, while others are definitely not, especially teenagers. I think that some people who only know Japan from the outside tend to think that Japanese people are health conscious because traditional Japanese cuisine is quite healthy. But, of course, there are tons of fast-food outlets, pastry shops, convenience stores full of junk food and what have you in Japan.

You recently organized a blog event called “Get Started Bento Challenge.” Can you tell us more about this? What were the difficulties of putting the event together?

The “Get Started Bento Challenge” was a 5-week sprint of sorts to get people into the bento-making habit. We had a lot of participants from around the world, and also started a discussion forum on Justbento.com. I think the Challenge was very successful, judging from the feedback I’ve gotten — and the forum is still very active even after the Challenge.

You occasionally include food stories in the news, like the restaurant that attempted to use breast milk as an ingredient. What other shocking food stories have you encountered in the news?

The type of food news I find most disturbing these days is becoming so common it’s not shocking anymore — the contamination of industrially produced food. It’s happening all over the world, and we should be worried about it.

What other blogs, if any, do you collaborate or communicate with? Any role models among food writers, regardless of whether they blog or not?

I don’t really collaborate with other blogs regularly, but I do communicate a lot with other bloggers, especially via Twitter. My favorite food writer in English is M.F.K. Fisher. My favorite food writer in Japanese is Katsuyo Kobayashi.

Japan, particularly, has a large collection of food-related films. On your blog, you’ve said that “Tampopo” is one of your favorite food movies. What other food movies would you recommend?

I also love “Supermarket Woman” (“Suupaa no Onna”), by Juzo Itami, who also directed “Tampopo.” “Seagull Diner” (“Kamome Shokudo”) is another favorite. Of non-Japanese food related movies: “Babette’s Feast,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Big Night.”

You run multiple blogs about food, your personal life and language, provide user feedback, organize blog events, contribute to charities, host giveaways and are active on Twitter. I’m assuming that you’re doing this on top of a day job . . . Do you think you would ever shift to full-time blogging? What would it require?

I’m fortunate in that I have the type of job that I can do anywhere with a computer and an Internet connection, which allows me to organize my day to suit my needs. However, there’s no denying that the blogging is a very time-intensive hobby, or part-time job, depending on the way you look at it. I’m not sure I’d ever shift to full-time blogging, but for that to happen I’d have to be able to make a full time income from my blogging activities of course. I’m not there yet!

Do you have any intention of moving back to Japan? Would it make your blogging easier or do you find that distance helps?

I don’t see myself moving back to Japan full time anytime soon, though I do plan to spend more and longer chunks of time there. If I were living in Japan, or even living in New York (my former stomping grounds), or anywhere with a large Japanese expat community, I’m not sure I would have ever started my food blogs. It was because I was living in a city (Zurich) with a very small Japanese community, and limited sources for Japanese food, and I started making my own tofu and things like that, which lead to a deepening interest in Japanese cooking.

I do feel that distance gives me a different, perhaps detached, perspective on Japanese culture, as does the necessity of speaking languages other than Japanese most of the time in my everyday life.

Health consciousness aside, what are your guilty indulgences when it comes to food? If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?

Maybe too obvious, but really good, fresh sushi and sashimi — which aren’t that easy to get in Europe!