We’re kicking off the podcast with a conversation with Makiko Itoh, who's been writing online about Japanese food for over 15 years and writes the Japanese Kitchen column for the Japan Times. If you enjoy making bento or eating Japanese food, you're probably familiar with her wonderful blogs and best selling “Just Bento” cookbooks. If not, you're missing out!
Hear how Makiko decided to share her love of Japanese food online after experiencing burnout as a web developer and how her blog about bento inspired Thomas to start selling bento boxes online. We talk about sushi, Spaghetti Napolitan, the Japanese pear fairy Funassyi and more.
Listen to this episode here.
Welcome to the show.
Hello and Yookoso! Coming to you from Bento&co in Kyoto, Japan, this is Thomas
And this is Jeweliann. And you’re listening to Japanese Food, a podcast where we talk to chefs, food writers, creatives and other experts on Japanese food culture.
This week, we spoke with the blogger and cookbook author Makiko Itoh, who decided to share her love of Japanese food online after experiencing burnout as a web developer.
Hear how Makiko’s blog about bento inspired Thomas to start Bento&co and sell bento boxes online, and Makiko’s tips on what to eat when you’re in Japan.
All right, let's dive in.
Makiko Itoh writes the Japanese Kitchen column for the Japan Times, and is the author of the bestselling "The Just Bento Cookbook" and its sequel, "The Just Bento Cookbook 2." A Tokyo native, she runs two Japanese cooking blogs, JustHungry.com and JustBento.com.
Thank you so much for joining us today Makiko. So to kick things off, can you tell us, how did your food blogs justhungry.com and justbento.com come to be?
From Burnout to Bento.
Makiko Itoh 1:18
Well, the first one was justhungry.com. I started that right after I finished writing a book about web development. And I was totally burned out at the time. I was a web developer and I wanted to do something different. And I wanted to write about one of my loves, which was food and also, especially how to make Japanese food while living in a country, which was Switzerland, where you know, Japanese food was not that prevalent. Previously, I had lived in New York City where you could get Japanese food very easily, you know, but it wasn't that easy to buy it at all. And there are a couple of Japanese restaurants but it was pretty hard to make it at home. So my goal was to show people how to make Japanese food at home without easy access to all the Japanese ingredients. "Just Bento" came about a few years later in 2007 when I thought it was the right time to start it because I had seen some bentos online but they were all the KyaraBen, the cute bentos, and there was this preconception that a bento had to be this adorable thing with little bearheads and all decorated with flowers and stuff like that. And I wanted to show people that a bento was just a portable meal that you could use in your everyday life to eat healthier or save money or you know, it was just an everyday part of life in Japan. And so that's how that one started.
Thank you Makiko. Just Bento was really one of the inspirations I had to start Bento&co back in 2008. When I thought about selling bento boxes I looked online and I found a few bento blogs in French by women in France making bento every day for themselves or their kids and I found yours of course. On Just Bento I was really amazed to see that after each post you've got like 10s of comments of replies from people all over the world and I thought there's a thing here, like people are interested in bento. And I guess KyaraBen was a thing because it was before Facebook, before Instagram people were blogging right and in Japan blogging was a big thing from 2005. And so if you blog you want to show something and so showing some nice cute bento was the thing in Japan right. I guess people in America caught onto this kawaii bento and at that time, if you wanted to buy a bento box maybe you could find some on ebay but there were only the kitty ones and the cute ones right. Finding a normal bento box for adults was quite difficult, right?
Makiko Itoh 4:43
Yes I think because the cute Kyaraben are so visually striking that that's what got the attention online and people got the the idea that all bentos were like that. And my goal was to show that it wasn't that way at all, you know, that it could be an everyday thing that anyone could do at their own level,
instead of going out and buying lunch, which is quite expensive, in Switzerland, even in New York, and in Japan
Bento is a meal first and foremost not a craft project.
I liked what you wrote in your Just Bento cookbook. You said, a bento is a meal first and foremost, not a craft project. The type of tips and the recipes that you have are so practical and tasty looking and really good alternative I think for someone who is overwhelmed by this idea of creating something that has to be cute or beautiful. You focus on the basics, like, is it balanced and healthy? And is it tasty? And is it food that you like? You know, I think that's a really good place for people to start when they want to start making lunch for themselves.
Makiko Itoh 6:02
Right. And the Just Bento blog in particular got a lot of attention sometime around 2009. It was featured in The New York Times. I couldn't believe the amount of email I got from just that one article that it was like, the power of the press. And then a lot of other newspapers started to talk about it. And that led to the first Just Bento cookbook,
I think there was like this fascination for Japanese food. And the timing was right because of the financial crisis in 2008, a lot of people stopped spending money in a restaurant and prepared food in a bento box to save money.
Makiko Itoh 7:09
And all the general attention on Japanese culture or manga and anime and things like that and seeing the characters in anime eating rice bowls and asking what what is that? It all came together at that point.
When I was a kid, when I saw the rice ball, I didn't know it was rice. They didn't translate onigiri in French. I always thought it was kind of meringue with chocolate. It seemed delicious. I wanted to eat that.
Why has bento culture become so popular overseas?
Very sweet lunch! So bento culture became really popular then, that was mid 2000s. And it's still popular now.
Makiko Itoh 7:55
Yeah, even the word bento, it wasn't a thing back then. And now you say bento and people usually know what it means, you know, and you can find bento boxes all over the place. You can find them in regular department stores and things like that. So it's really become a thing in the last 15 years now.
And why do you think that is? Why do you think it's become so popular overseas?
Makiko Itoh 8:38
Hmm. Well, I think it's just the idea that a portable lunch doesn't just have to be sandwich in a brown bag. It can be something more, that if you take a little bit more time then you can bring something that suits your dietary needs or suits your tastes and save some money and have exactly what you need.
And it doesn't have to be Japanese food
Makiko Itoh 9:09
No, absolutely not. That's another thing that I wanted to emphasize, that a bento doesn't have to be all Japanese food. Although I do still remember one review I got on the French Amazon that this was a terrible book because it didn't show us enough about how to make Japanese food. But that was not my intention. Because I wanted to show that in the bento box you can have non Japanese food as well as Japanese food and it still is a bento. I mean, Japanese people don't always pack so called, you know, Japanese food in their bentos.
There's no sushi bento in your book.
Makiko Itoh 9:56
I think I had one sushi bento, though I'm not quite sure. Oh no, no raw fish! Absolutely not. Oh my god, no sashimi. I mean, I've seen some other bento books that had raw fish in their bento. It's like, oh, no, no, don't do that. I did make sure to include a lot about hygiene and food safety, and cooking your food through properly and cooling it down properly and things like that. Because that's very important.
What’s Special about Making Bento?
Yes, a lot of helpful information and tips that you've included in both of the cookbooks, so I highly recommend them to anyone listening. You have "make ahead bentos" and ideas for meal prep and ways you can use multiple ingredients in different ways. And like you said, there are some great Japanese recipes or Japanese inspired recipes in here, but also a lot of global cuisine ideas. So I think there's definitely something for everyone. And I actually I purchased them and I've used recipes from it!
Makiko Itoh 11:08
I think they have been successful because they're still in print I mean, which is quite a thing. They still bring me some royalties so there must still be an audience for them.
So what do you think is meaningful or special about making bento?
Makiko Itoh 11:28
Well, for me, it's all about the memories of my mother making bentos for us when we were growing up to go to school. I mean, you know, it's something special. You know, making a meal for someone is always something special. It's an everyday occurrence, but when you make a bento especially for someone it's a little bit of love for your family member or your child or something like that. You know, although my bentos are not the cute ones it's always fun to open up a box, you know, and see the food or the colorful food in there. I mean, my husband loves it when I make a bento for him and in the past when he's had to bring bento somewhere and open it up he's always got a lot of comments on it. You know, it's like a little bit of love in a box, you know?
Yeah, there's a whole YouTube genre of unboxing videos. It's kind of similar. I guess we just as humans want to know what's inside the box. There's a mystery, a drama
Makiko Itoh 12:34
Yes, even when you've packed it yourself. It's always fun to open a box.
a little present inside. So you've spent a lot of time living outside of Japan. Do you have some tips for cooking Japanese food when you're outside of Japan and you have to be creative with your ingredients?
Makiko Itoh 12:58
There are some core ingredients for Japanese food that you really need but you don't need a whole range of things. The core ingredients that are an absolute must are Japanese rice, some umami ingredients, which are things that make the stock like kombu seaweed or katsuobushi which is dried bonito flakes or the powdered soup stock. Those are the absolute must Okay, and soy sauce and miso. it's not that many ingredients that you really need but once you have those you can create Japanese flavors.
Katsuobushi and Kombu
you mentioned the rice first. For someone who's not familiar can you explain what is unique about Japanese rice?
Makiko Itoh 14:00
Well, it's called medium grain rice and it has a little stickiness. It's not very sticky like a lot of people think, it has a certain stickiness that the grain stick together and there's a cleanliness to the flavor. The newer the rice in Japan the better. You know every year in Japan they make a big deal about the new harvest rice in the fall, it's like Beaujolais Nouveau except it's for rice.
Yeah, Beaujolais Nouveau is just one day thing so
Makiko Itoh 14:38
well, I think that's why Japanese people make a big deal about Beaujolais Nouveau because they like new things, like the new sake of the season, the new rice of the season. So it makes sense that they like the new wine of the season
it's not exactly wine, but we should do another episode about that!
This podcast is brought to you by Bento&co. Based in beautiful Kyoto, Japan, Bento&co has been helping people around the world eat healthier, reduce their environmental impact and save money with authentic Japanese bento boxes since 2008. Discover bento boxes, cookware, food and more at en.bentoandco.com, or click the link in our show notes, and use code PODCAST for 10% off your first order.
Room-Temperature and Delicious!
And another thing about the rice is that it still tastes good at room temperature, which is one of the distinctives of bento culture, of eating food at room temperature, which for some people, they are not used to that, "room temperature cold food sounds so unappetizing!" but once you start and you get used to it, food can still tastes really good. And the rice is still nice.
Example of bento in a metal box meant to be eaten at room temperature.
Makiko Itoh 15:56
that's a question I get asked all the time. Like, how do I heat up my bento. And I always tell them that it's it's not necessary, because the food is meant to be eaten at room temperature and it's supposed to taste good at room temperature. And I think a lot of people have a hard time getting their heads around that concept. So that's why microwavable containers are always popular.
Common Misconceptions about Japanese Cuisine
In your many years working in the Japanese food world and sharing about Japanese culture, what are some common misconceptions you've encountered about Japanese food?
Makiko Itoh 16:43
Well, one of the ones would be that it's all about sushi, you know? And really only a very limited number of Japanese dishes are known even now. Like, you have, sushi tempura.
Yeah, even with ramen whatever is trendy at the moment becomes the only type of ramen and people don't know that there are so many different types of ramen in Japan. Like, I think the one that's more well known overseas right now is Tonkotsu, which is kind of the Kyushu Fukuoka style with the Milky pork bone broth, but there's so many different types of ramen. I think that that would be one misconception people have, if they've never been to Japan, or even if they've been to Japan and only sought out the food that they are already familiar with. Japanese food has a lot of variety. And the thing is that Japanese cuisine in Japan is constantly evolving. If I'm away for five years, already trends have changed, you know, and that's very exciting. Those are some of the misconceptions about Japanese cuisine -- that it's something static, that it's mainly fish based, which is not really that true. And that it's one thing or the other, but it's much more varied.
What Foods to Try in Japan.
For any visitors, foreigners visiting Japan, what would you recommend them to taste in Japan?
Makiko Itoh 18:39
Well, I would say you have to try the sushi. Which is ironic after I say Japanese cuisine is not just about sushi. But Sushi in Japan, except for certain cities maybe like in New York, for example, you could get very good sushi, all around in Japan. You can get excellent sushi that you cannot get in other places. I mean even, or I shouldn't even say even, but like the conveyor belt sushi places can be excellent and inexpensive. And the variety of fish that you get in Japan is absolutely amazing. Beyond that, I would say be adventurous and try regional cuisines. If you like ramen, try the different types of ramen. And just be adventurous and if something is moving on your plate, don't be afraid of it. It may be an exaggeration, but I think Japan is probably one of the best cuisine countries in the world, just for the variety and freshness and the adventuresness of the people and things like that. Because like, if you go to France, you can get excellent French cuisine. But can you get excellent other types of cuisine? That's the big question, maybe North American cuisine or something like that. But in Japan, you get all kinds of excellent cuisines. And recently, you can get more authentic Chinese food as well as Japanese Chinese food, so you can get almost anything you like.
So to anyone visiting Japan, don't eat Japanese food when you're here, eat the food of the other cuisines!
Makiko Itoh 20:38
(laughter) no, no, no, but I mean, maybe leave leave room for being adventurous and trying different foods. I mean, you can get excellent Korean food in Japan, for example, and you can get almost anything, especially in the big cities.
And the Yoshoku, we missed talking about it, but the Western stye? Well, yeah. how do you describe it?
Makiko Itoh 21:08
Japanese Western cuisine or Japanese European Cuisine. Yes, it's delicious. Yes I consider that to be Japanese food. I think recently, the most popular food among kids is not washoku but things like curry rice and hamburgers. You know, that's all Yoshoku food that's popular these days. But that's Japanese food to me.
Napolitan as well, right?
Makiko Itoh 21:50
Yeah, I'm not a big fan of spaghetti Napolitan but it is Japanese food. Pasta but Japanese food. But it's definitely not Italian. And definitely not from Napoli!
Japanese Spaghetti Napolitan
Japanese ketchup spaghetti, as it's often called. Doesn't sound that appetizing. But if you like your spaghetti, a bit sweet you might like it.
Makiko Itoh 22:13
Yeah. it's an acquired taste. Actually, it's a bit different than at the place where it was invented. It's not made with ketchup, I wrote a whole article about that a while ago,
Oh, interesting. So probably it was like a housewife hack to use ketchup or something and that's how it became the thing it is today?
Makiko Itoh 22:39
it was not a housewife, it was invented at a hotel in Yokohama. And the local restaurants picked it up, but they couldn't afford to use canned tomatoes, because it was too expensive. So they used ketchup instead. And that's how it evolves .
Who is Funassyi?
We can link to your article in the show notes of this episode if it's available! (Read Article Here). So switching gears a bit I noticed on your Instagram you have a picture of Funassyi! Can you share what is Funassyi for all those unfamiliar?
Makiko Itoh 23:25
Funassyi is what's called a Gotouchi Kyara or Yuru Kyara, a regional character that represents a certain region or city in Japan. Essentially, a guy decided to dress up in a suit and represent his city, which is Funabashi in Chiba prefecture unofficially back in 2012. He's supposed to be a pear fairy because Funabashi is known for their pears, Asian pears. He became a huge hit, because he's very funny. His big huge peak of popularity has died down, but he's still very popular. And he has his diehard core followers. And the reason why I like Funassyi so much is not because he's so crazy, but he's very wise. I mean, the things he says on Twitter or when he's on TV, he's a really wise pear fairy. And, and he has a great outlook on life. Even keeled, he's very intelligent. Actually he knows a lot about Japanese history. He collects Katana, the swords as a hobby, he's into the tea ceremony. This is a renaissance pear fairy! And he created himself as a response to the March 2011 earthquake, when people were really, really down and depressed, and especially in eastern Japan, to cheer people up. And he's still managing to cheer people up even now. And I really appreciate that. I've had a lot of health problems the last few years. I've been in and out of hospital quite a lot. Like last year actually, I was in hospital for about 10 months. And I've always had a Funassyi doll with me. And just looking at that slightly off--you know, he says he designed it by just drawing it in Microsoft Paint for his initial design. And just looking at that smiling face just cheers me up. And reading his words, it's like, words of wisdom all the time. Yeah, I'm a big fan.
That's amazing. Everyone should follow Funassyi on Twitter now. My main association was the low budget costume that he wears. And I mean, he likes to dance and it like jiggles around crazily when he moves. But little did I know that there was depth behind this jiggling body.
Makiko Itoh 26:47
Yeah. And every year on on the anniversary of the earthquake, he has a few words of wisdom, and they're always wonderful.
Makikoh's Dream Bento.
Amazing. So wrapping up our conversation and wanting to return to bento, we ask all of our guests this question about their dream bento. This can be a bento that you've had in the past, or it can be one that you would like to create in the future, what would be in it? What's the setting etc. So what is your dream bento Makiko?
Makiko Itoh 27:26
I think I would go back to the ones that my mother used to make for me when I was growing up. The base would be rice, of course, and it has to have the Tamagoyaki rolled omelet in it. Probably a piece of salted salmon, which goes so well with rice, some spinach or something like that to fill the corner. Just the simple basic bentos my mother used to make for me. I mean, my mother is still with us, but she's getting older. And those are the ones that bring me back to my childhood, that's my dream bento.
Beautiful. Like you said it's love in a box. Not just the food but the care and attention that is behind the food.. Well, thank you so much, Makiko.
Thank you Makiko.
How can listeners follow your writing? Can you let them know what's the best way to find you online?
Makiko Itoh 28:42
You can follow me on Facebook. You can just search for my name Makiko itoh, I have a public page and private page where you can follow me on either one. And you can follow me in The Japan Times where I have a column that appears about twice a month called Japanese Kitchen. And on Twitter, I'm not that active on Twitter, but my Twitter handle is Makiwi. So that's where you can go to follow me.
Well, we will link to your profile in the show notes for anyone interested and yes, your your Facebook account is really interesting to follow. You write about Japanese culture as well and what's happening nowadays. So that's really educational and entertaining, I recommend it for anyone. Thank you. This was really wonderful. Thank
Makiko Itoh 29:46
Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Japanese Food! This podcast is brought to you by Bento&co and is produced by Jeweliann Picardal and Thomas Bertrand. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please subscribe and leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. To stay up to date with the podcast, follow us on Instagram and Twitter @Japanesefoodpod.