A Tokyo chef brings traditional Japanese culinary spirit to Oregon shores
By Angela Sanders
Photos by Aubrie LeGault
At a long-established seafood wholesaler that supplies many Portland restaurants, Chef Naoko Tamura casts a gimlet eye toward the display case. Whole trout stare through clouded eyes. Fillets of cod, sole, salmon and halibut glisten in piles. Tamura shakes her head. “Is no good,” she says, and starts for the door.
At the second fish store, a Chinese market with tubs of live fish, Tamura points approvingly at the cod’s flesh still streaked with red, and she even buys some small blue crabs to take home to steam. But she raises an eyebrow at the cloudy tank of tilapia. “Very hungry fish,” she says. “In there they eat their own…you know.”
At last we arrive at Ocean Beauty, the fish wholesaler that supplies Tamura’s restaurant, Chef Naoko’s Bento Café. Here, a smiling Tamura prances from tote to tote. “So beautiful!” she says. She gazes like a love-struck teen at ivory halibut fillets. She marvels at whole salmon and yellowtail tuna. “Everything is so fresh and beautiful.”
Tamura, 44, knows what she’s talking about. She’s prepared organic, seasonal Japanese food professionally since she was old enough to work and is ruthless about the quality of her ingredients. For instance, to source chicken, she visited half a dozen local chicken farms and asked for a raw liver to sample at each.
“When I wanted to eat a second liver, I knew I had the right one.” She also insists that food — including fish — be sustainably raised. “Clean food for the next generation,” she says. She won’t hesitate to return to a supplier with a box of their product, a few pointed comments about its insufficiency, and the demand of a refund.
Tamura, an ebullient whirlwind of energy, grew up in Japan eating local organic food. When she was young, she was diagnosed with a heart ailment.
“My grandfather said, ‘The doctor will take care of her heart, but we will take care of her body.’” Although it was unusual at the time, Tamura’s mother, Masayo Tamura, began preparing only chemical-free food and sent her daughter to school with lunches made with food she’d raised or grown herself, or sourced from people she knew and farms she trusted.
By the mid-1970s, Tamura’s mother was busy making and selling organic bento boxes to other parents, too. To supply her new business, in 1976 she joined ten families in seeking out farmers on the outskirts of Tokyo who would commit to providing pure, chemical-free food, joining in the ground floor of Japan’s Community Supported Agriculture movement. Besides running a restaurant and catering business, today Tamura’s mother consults at corporations such as Hewlett-Packard to ensure healthy, organic cafeteria fare.
Tamura moved to Portland in 2006, determined to open her own restaurant serving organic bento. A tour of Portland’s bento restaurants convinced her she had the market to herself.
“Chicken with rice is not bento,” she says firmly.
First, she had to find suppliers. At the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, she stumbled across daikon and burdock at the Ayers Creek Farm booth. She visited the farm, crumbled its soil in her hand and talked to the owners. Ayers Creek now provides her with chickpeas, beans and Japanese sweet potatoes. The farm even planted edamame at Tamura’s request.
Encouraged, she sought out other farmers at Portland and Beaverton farmers’ markets and forged strong relationships with Gathering Together Farm, Springwater Farm and Spring Hill Organic Farm. Besides finding growers for traditional Japanese produce, she discovered local grains and vegetables, including frikeh, chard and hazelnuts, to experiment with.
But not everything was so easily settled as produce. Which brings us back to fish. Tamura explains that Japan is a small, mountainous island, and rainwater is absorbed in its soil—rocky and alkaline here, rich and loamy there—and expelled to the ocean, affecting the plankton fish eat and the currents they swim against. A good Japanese chef can identify by taste in which sea a fish was caught.
Japanese fishing methods are different, too. Unlike in the United States, where fishermen generally fill plastic totes as deep as 30 inches, Japanese fishermen will only layer fish two or three deep to avoid compressing their flesh. They handle the fish as little as possible to avoid raising its temperature, and buyers can pay extra for fish that are killed with a slash to the gill rather than left to die on the line. At the market, a fish fillet should only touch another fillet flesh to flesh, or skin to skin, and Tamura says the Japanese have special paper to layer between fillets.
That said, Tamura has been able to find fish that meets her high standards. She says odor is the first indicator of a fish’s freshness. Fish should not smell “fishy,” but should smell like the ocean. For whole fish, she examines their eyes. They should not be sunken or cloudy.
Gills should be bright red and free of bacteria-breeding slime. For fillets, the flesh should show a hint of translucence and still be moist at the edge. When the flesh is lightly pressed, it should spring back. Some fish, such as cod, should have red streaks near the bones.
In the end, examining the fish can only get you so far. You have to taste it. As Tamura says, “Taste is honest.”
BUILDING AN OREGON BENTO
“Japanese cooking is basically very simple,” says Tamura. “The best quality ingredients make the best food.” She sees a sinuous connection from earth to farmer to chef to eater, which makes the health of the soil, the original source of flavor, of utmost importance.
Since arriving in Oregon, she has sought out—and sometimes requested—Japanese ingredients that are grown or crafted locally. Here are components you might find in a wintertime bento at Chef Naoko’s Bento Café.
Willapa Bay Oysters
To find local oysters, Tamura looked at the map to see which small, swift rivers travel from high elevations to the ocean. She insists that when these rivers have deciduous trees along their banks, they create the best plankton, which means that the oysters are eating better and, in turn, becoming tastier. Her research led Tamura to the Willapa Bay Oyster Company, which grows fresh Kumamoto and Pacific oysters. During the winter, she drives to the farm to handpick her oysters.
In Japan, every community has a tofu shop that makes tofu fresh daily. “Tofu is soul food in Japan,” Tamura reflects. For her, feeling at home in Portland hinged on the existence of one particular business: Ota Tofu, which has been making fresh tofu in the most traditional Japanese style every day since 1911.
Ayers Creek Farm Chickpeas
“The flavor is beautiful!” Tamura says of the Ayers Creek chickpeas. Because beans spend such a long time growing, they are one of the cleanest transmitters of the flavor of soil, Tamura believes. And Ayers Creek Farm, she says, has some of the healthiest soil. Tamura met farmers Anthony and Carol Boutard at the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market when she first arrived, and credits them with helping her to discover that she could make Japanese food with Oregon ingredients.
Currently, Tamura makes her own chickpea miso, and also boils and marinates the beans to top the seasonal green alad she includes with every bento.
Springwater Farm Shitake and Maitake Mushrooms
Tamura has a close friendship with mushroom man Roger Konka, who stashes his nicest mushrooms under the table of his farmers’ market booth every week, saving them for when she arrives. Springwater Farm grows many Japanese mushroom varieties, including the shitake and maitake mushrooms that Tamura often makes into a rich sauce to top steamed or grilled fish.
Find Ayers Creek Farm and Springwater Farm this winter at the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, which runs every other Sunday.
JAPANESE NEW YEAR
In Japan, a tradition beginning as early as the nation’s Heian period (794 to 1185) holds that to give housewives and servants a break, no housework—including cooking—may take place the first three days of the New Year. To prepare, servants made osechi-ryōri, bento boxes full of delicacies to be consumed over the three days.
Today, families may make their own New Year bento boxes or purchase them anywhere from high-end caterers to 7-Elevens.
The flavors in the New Year bento boxes are often sharply sweet or sour, reflecting the relishes and spices used to preserve the food without refrigeration. Many of the bento box’s offerings symbolize the household’s hopes for the coming year—for instance, black soybeans for health and seaweed for joy.
The food is packaged in a three-tiered box, with one box for each day. Sometimes the boxes are simple cedar or plastic with compartments, but often they are family heirlooms of intricately ornamented lacquer.
Chef Naoko makes a limited number of New Year bento boxes for two or four people ($150 and $300, respectively). Call her bento café to order yours. 503-227-4136
Angela Sanders writes about food and Pacific Northwest culture and history.
Chef Naoko Bento Café
1237 SW Jefferson St.
Portland, OR 97201