Please note: The translations may have been edited or truncated for clarity / length reasons. Some additional background information has also been added to give context to certain statements. All edits have been reviewed and approved by the interviewee, Mrs. Akiko Sugawara or BentoYa Cooking’s management. Translation and editing in English by Kavish Weerawardane

J-Wave Radio

Vegan & Vegetarian Cooking Classes for Foreigners

“BentoYa Cooking”

Today on the show we will introduce a unique company that provides Japanese style cooking classes for foreigners, “BentoYa Cooking”. They specialize in teaching students how to make Japanese dishes using only plant based ingredients.

We interviewed Mrs. Akiko Sugawara, who is the managing director of the Japan Vegan/Vegetarian Japanese Food Cooking Class Association, as well as a chef / instructor at “BentoYa Cooking”.

First, we asked her about how the idea for BentoYa Cooking came about.

A.Sugawara:

As you know, the number of foreigners visiting Japan has been steadily increasing, especially in light of the upcoming 2020 Olympics. This means that the diversity of food-choices available for both visitors and residents has become an issue that needs to be addressed rather urgently. I feel like I can do my part to help this issue by sharing delicious Japanese [style] food options that almost everyone can eat, regardless of their preferred diet. The original idea for BentoYa spun out of a Japanese food catering company that I ran while in Canada. At the time, I realised that there were a number of people who chose to eschew animal products to varying degrees for health, animal rights, ethical or religious reasons. After returning to Japan, I came up with an idea to cater to these individuals as well, who were rapidly growing in number. After all, while authentic Japanese cuisine can easily be made plant-based, a majority of commercially produced Japanese food includes “hidden” animal derived ingredients such as dried bonito (fish) flakes. So, we decided to pivot and focus on creating delicious Japanese dishes out of purely plant-based ingredients.

What’s usually on the menu at BentoYa Cooking’s lessons?

A. Sugawara:

Our classes primarily focus on teaching students recipes that can easily be made at home. For example, we recently taught a lesson on Japanese style katsu curry (cutlet curry). In this particular dish, we substituted the meat with soy-meat, derived from dried soybeans. Soy is often a quintessential ingredient in our dishes which traditionally require fried meat, as it is easy to find in solid bite-sized form that works really well as a replacement for deep-fried karaage (chicken) and katsu (cutlets). Additionally, we substitute the egg used in the outer layer of the cutlet with a mix of yam and stir-fried onions, which work really well together with the usual combination of starch and bread crumbs.

Our other popular dishes include Japanese style karaage (deep fried chicken), chara ben (character bentos) and dessert dishes such as cheese cake, pudding and muffins. Our most popular lesson menu consists of two very well-known Japanese staples- ramen and gyoza (dumplings), which we often teach as a set.

Can you explain in detail how to make gyoza and ramen for vegans?

A. Sugawara:

Sure! Let’s start with the gyoza filling. While soy meat is an acceptable alternative to the meat, we generally use a combination of tofu and quinoa, in order to make the texture as authentic as possible. Much of the commercially available (think: supermarket, grocery stores etc.) gyoza outer skins do not use any eggs or animal products, so you could easily use those to save some time (do check the ingredients though!).

As for the ramen, we conventionally start with commercially available noodles (most of which are vegan) found in any Japanese supermarket. While it is entirely possible to make the noodles from scratch, we generally have to teach students how to make both ramen and gyoza in a cooking class that runs around 2 hours, making this a bit of a tall order. Additionally, teaching both the noodles and the broth together in such a short period of time has the potential to prove overwhelming for students, and we definitely prioritize the student being able to confidently recreate these dishes at home. Moving on to the broth, we generally make this by stir-frying and cooking kelp, shiitake mushrooms and onions until they become fragrant and slightly brown. We then add miso paste and soy milk to make a delicious tantanmen-style (a unique and commonly found Japanese take on Sichuan style Chinese cuisine) ramen. Finally, in areas where ramen noodles are hard to find, we recommend boiling spaghetti by adding 1 teaspoon of baking soda to 1 litre of water, which provides a rather good simulation of authentic ramen noodles. Based on the client’s location, we often provide instructions for such substitutions, based on ingredient availability.

A lot of our clients actually send us photos showing us that they managed to cook these recipes in their own kitchens!

As a parting comment, Mrs. Sugawara had this to say:

BentoYa Cooking is more than just a cooking class. We are trying to make it into an experience that promotes the understanding of new global perspectives. Since we use purely plant based ingredients, this an opportunity to understand more about global environmental issues, and the viewpoints of people who follow particular diets due to various personal reasons and beliefs. In addition, we are currently doing CSR charity cooking classes in tandem with animal welfare organizations and associations engaged in providing support to children stricken by poverty in Japan. We want to show the world that it is easy to make delicious and authentic Japanese dishes using simple, plant-based ingredients that are readily available. Fortunately, a lot of our clientele, both Japanese and foreigners alike (many of them who are not even vegetarian) seem to agree with us! In fact, we often get comments that the food made during our lessons was the best Japanese food they have tasted in a long time.

Join us today to create some truly delectable Japanese dishes the BentoYa way!

Visit www.bentoyacooking.com for more information.