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Culinary tourism, anyone?

Japanese cooking classes bring tastes, culture of the Pacific
by: Chase Allgood Michael Miho, who operates Miho Izakaya restaurant in Portland, will present a Japanese cooking demonstration at SakéOne in Forest Grove this Saturday.

Throughout the centuries, food has been instrumental in the convergence of cultures, serving as a means for people from diverse backgrounds and cultural climates to extend olive branches and cultivate interest in traditions forged a world away through the universal language of taste.

In our modern society, we see examples of this culinary tourism everywhere we go in the form of restaurants representing a virtual culinary United Nations. By simply entering an eatery like Forest Grove's Izgara, patrons can be jettisoned, if only for the duration of the meal, to the Middle East, complete with elaborate table settings and the occasional belly dance performance.

But the restaurant experience can deceive with its exoticism, particularly in the realm of Japanese cooking, which evokes images of daredevil servers flipping entrées on a grill in front of patrons while performing feats of elaborate showmanship, or sushi chefs carving delicate fish with precision.

Everyday cooking

This Saturday, the Forest Grove Sister Cities Committee and SakéOne are hosting two events offering aspiring chefs opportunities to learn a completely different kind of Japanese cooking: the home-style variety that can easily be made in most any kitchen.

'I like to introduce the things you don't find in a fancy Japanese restaurant,' said Pacific University Japanese Studies professor and founder Kazuko Ikeda. 'It's everyday cooking. It's easy cooking. It's the core of Japanese home cooking.

'I introduce something you can cook at home, not a restaurant food, and give a little bit of Japanese culture.'

Ikeda on Saturday is hosting 'Japanese Cooking 101,' an introductory class and fundraiser for Forest Grove's Sister City relationship with Nyuzen, Japan. The class offers a lesson in cooking donburi, a popular rice-bowl dish that incorporates various ingredients, including meats and vegetables, into a simple family feast.

Ikeda - who moved to the U.S. from a Kobe suburb with her husband in 1978 - was asked to teach a small Japanese class at Pacific University by the consul-general of Japan, and eventually founded the school's Japanese program. She says the classes offer an excellent springboard for attendees to learn more about Japanese culture.

Bit of history

With each class she teaches, she also offers a bit of history about the dish, whether it's the connection to the post-World War II reconstruction or the evolution of well-known staples.

'I introduce history behind the food,' says Ikeda. 'For example, sushi has a long history but it only took the shape of present-day sushi in the Edo period. Before that, it didn't have rice. They called it sushi, but there was no rice like it has today.'

Along with fostering culinary ambassadorship by using tantalizing flavors to teach history, Ikeda was also instrumental in founding the Sister City relationship with Nyuzen, a program she says helps further understanding between the city and its across-the-globe counterpart.

'It's kind of a small window in the city of Forest Grove. It is hard to get to know people from a particular country,' says Ikeda. 'With the Sister City relationship we have exchange programs, we visit and send delegations and students. We receive people from Nyuzen. We learn how Japanese people live and what they're interested in at a grassroots level. It opens up intercultural communication for people who don't have the opportunity to live in other countries.'

Modeled after pub

In addition to 'Japanese Cooking 101,' award-winning saké brewery SakéOne is hosting its third annual International Saké Day event, which features premium saké flights, including samples of the Champion Nambu Toji award winner (retailing at $175).

But the main event is a cooking demonstration by Michael Miho, who operates the popular Miho Izakaya restaurant in Portland.

Miho's restaurant is a departure from high-production Japanese restaurants such as Benihana in that it is modeled after a Japanese pub, and as such offers much more home-style fare that can be replicated at home.

'Izakayas are fantastic because they're like the neighborhood pub of Japan,' says SakéOne tasting room manager Joann Takabayashi. 'The great thing about neighborhood pubs in Japan is it's actually a home, and it's more home cooking on small dishes so everybody can take a taste and enjoy it. It's always something fresh.'

During the demonstration, Miho will present two dishes: one made with saké, the other made to pair with saké. Attendees receive recipe cards so they can replicate the dishes in their own kitchens (the recipes will also be posted online), and Miho will also school viewers in the art of presentation, all while offering up bites of the fare.

'His food is amazing. It's home cooking, but with the greatest presentation,' says Takabayashi. 'Sometimes home cooking is not as pretty as it should be, and presentation makes it so much tastier.'

SakéOne has always stressed the value of pairing food with its premium rice wines. Like the popular vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, the product is intended to be enjoyed with a bevy of flavors from any culinary tradition. For International Saké Day, however, the brewery is sticking with Japanese cooking rather than its usual selection of cheeses, fruits and other local products.

'Incorporating food into our tastings is another way of us trying to get folks to realize that saké does pair well with all different types of food,' said Takabayashi. 'With Saké Day, we're going to keep it Japanese traditional. However, on all other occasions we try to do different cuisines. Japanese food is pretty much a given. And it's true, saké goes well with Japanese food. But we try to throw different cuisines in there.'

Both International Saké Day and 'Japanese Cooking 101' offer aspiring cooks opportunities to experience a more intimate side of Japanese cooking, and in turn help generate interest in the cultural culinary traditions that are increasingly finding their way onto plates in restaurants and in homes.

Tasty secrets

The most important aspect, though, according to Ikeda, is learning to have fun in the kitchen while simultaneously learning about everyday life at kitchen tables a world away - and the secrets that make the foods they bear so tasty.

'(Students) feel like they are making authentic Japanese. Lots of times we do things they don't have at restaurants, so they love it,' says Ikeda. 'The secret of Japanese cooking is keeping it simple. Simplicity is the key.'

Cooking at school, tasting at sakery

Cooking at School, Tasting at Sakery

'Japanese Cooking 101' takes place Saturday, Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. at Neil Armstrong Middle School, 1777 Mountain View Lane, Forest Grove. Registration is $25 for the general public and $22 for students. To register, call 503-357-3006.

n International Saké Day takes place Saturday, Oct. 1 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at SakéOne, 820 Elm St., Forest Grove. The cooking demonstration takes place from 1:30 to 3 p.m. To learn more, call 503-357-7056 or visit sakeone.com.