How do you prepare bento for 150 people? With a lot of help!
Make twenty tamagoyaki (Japanese egg omelet) rolls cut each into 8 pieces!
With a sakura shaped vegetable cutter, stamp out 150 cherry blossom daikon flowers!
Take 40 pounds of soy sauce braised chicken thighs made for us by Ben Lin of B.Lin Catering, cut into pieces and set on skewers with asparagus!
Stuff 150 cocktail tomatoes with spicy tuna salad!
Bake and fill with sweet adzuki bean paste, 150 matcha mochi cupcakes.
Rinse and dry 150 salted cherry blossoms.
This is just a taste (ha!) of what we made for my March 20th workshop, “Bento-Japanese Culture in a Box,” for the Smithsonian Associates Lecture Series in Washington, DC. The program was held in the cafeteria of The National Museum of Natural History on Constitution Avenue.
I arrived in DC on March 19th with 3 pieces of luggage filled with sauces, bento boxes, chopsticks, paring knives and paper cherry blossoms! It was the first time when checking my luggage I had to answer in the affirmative to the question: Do you have anything liquid (Yes!) perishable (Yes!) or dangerous (Yes!!)? My bags were inspected by the TSA!
Before I left Boston for DC there was plenty of prep work done! My dear friend Elsa Tian, put Japanese paper covers on all the chopsticks and Chie Ehara, friend and employee
helped by making the sauces, packing the bento boxes in the suitcases and generally organizing me; no small feat.
I stayed at a great hotel, One Washington Square and my room with a kitchen was waiting for me.
Rebecca Roberts, my host picked me up and off we went marketing. Rebecca had offered me her kitchen for the next 2 days where we had a prepapalooza of epic proportions.
Two staff members, Amanda Chavenson and Kathy Fuller came in on Wednesday to start Phase 1 of the preparation. Amanda hollowed out the tomatoes, Kathy cut the daikon flowers, Rebecca mixed the tuna salad and I started making the egg rolls! Normally you make the tamagoyaki in a special rectangular pan, but for this event I baked the egg mixture of eggs, sugar, soy sauce and salt in 8-inch square foil pans, to make the process go faster. I needed 20 and I had finished 13 by the end of Day 1.
So that night in my hotel room kitchen, I did use my special pan and continued on.
The day of the event we continued at Rebecca’s, cutting, stuffing and arranging all the food in individual cups for the evening. We were joined by Smithsonian volunteer Leslie Boss
and the VOLUNTEER OF THE CENTURY Pat Tanumihardja, blogger and author of “The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook.” Pat, who lives in the DC suburbs, and I have been internet friends for several years, but hadn’t yet met. When she heard I was coming she volunteered to help.
She was invaluable and tireless and tweeting at the same time.
Little did she know what she was getting into!
We finally packed up Rebecca’s car with all the food and caravanned over to the museum (Pat following us) in late afternoon DC traffic. But first we had to pick up 24 pounds of cooked rice we ordered from the restaurant Sticky Rice for the participants to make onigiri (rice balls) for their bento boxes. It felt like a madcap movie.
Pat took over coordinating the 6 volunteers ( Carol Farris, Jeanne Everitt, Linda Hollenberg, Stella Lam, Debra Roane and Isabelle Zsoldos) who were waiting for us at the cafeteria. We had only one hour to set the tables and plate the food for the bentopalooza for 150! As Rebecca put it, Pat was heroic as were the volunteers. While I dressed and shimmied into Spanx in a bathroom stall, Pat orchestrated behind the scenes.
Including making a bento box, for demonstration purposes.
One of the volunteers set up a display table with bento boxes from my collection.
I gave a power point demonstration on Japanese cuisine, the cultural and mechanical aspects of making bento and did a comparison of American and Japanese children’s lunches.
Everyone had a chance to fill their own bento boxes – and eat them!
Unfortunately Pat was so busy she didn’t even have time to listen to the lecture and our picture taking was very limited. When it was over we were all exhausted but happy; the event was a success. “The audience was thrilled, as was I,” said Rebecca.
On Friday morning, before leaving for Boston I had been invited to see the exhibit Chigusa and the Art of Tea, at the Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler Museum of Asian Art. Chigusa is the name of the Chinese ceramic vessel that was brought to Japan hundreds of years ago for the storage of tea used in tea ceremony. Louise Cort, Curator for Ceramics, guided me through the exhibit and gave me a fascinating in-depth explanation of the objects.
I was struck by the continuity of the care and attention to detail given to the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in so many aspects of Japanese life. From a cloth wrapped around a humble bento box;
to intricate knots made from silk rope tied around a priceless ceramic urn.
Domo arigatou gozaimasu to the Smithsonian Institute for the opportunity to share my passion for Japanese cuisine and all things bento. Preparing for my next programs at Wellesley College for 30 and University of Nebraska for 40 will be a piece of cake!