It's a Saturday evening and Yoko Isassi takes two slender bottles out of her refrigerator. Inside are dark waves of kombu, or kelp, sitting in a faint greenish brown broth.
“This the dashi stock that I made,” she explains to the group of ten. We're in a modest studio in downtown Los Angeles and Isassi is hosting her weekly cooking workshop. A Japanese cooking teacher and consultant, her company is called Food Story — a reference to her mission to merge Japanese food with cultural and historical lessons.
Raised in the Japanese countryside of the Gifu prefecture, Isassi started cooking at a young age. “I lived right next to my grandmother and we always ate together,” she says. “I was always a hungry girl, so I helped my grandmother to cook.”
Her interest in Japanese history began with the tea ceremony. “It's an intellectual challenge to create a ceremony event,” Isassi says. “Japanese etiquette is very precise.”
Isassi says that the Japanese typically pick up their tableware when they eat. Tableware is usually flat and, according to Isassi, Japan is the only country that uses chopsticks exclusively. Forks and spoons were only introduced to Japanese households after the 20th century. They are rarely used, except in certain Westernized restaurants in the bigger cities.
“When I was little, my father had a trading business,” she says. “We always had other people from other countries visit our house and I was always explaining to them how to eat the food.”
Today, Isassi has transformed her love of storytelling into a business. Her workshops focus on the basics and most of her ingredients are made from scratch. At the cooking workshop, she showed off a bottle of the ponzu sauce that she'd kept bottled for months before it achieved the taste she wanted.
Isassi's classes are filled with regional and historical background, and she brings that same knowledge to her meals out. “This is Osaka udon,” Isassi explains during a meal at Tsurumaru Udon, a small hand-made udon specialist in the Little Tokyo Shopping Center. “There's another handmade udon restaurant [Marugame Monzo] in Little Toyko, but they specialize in Sannuki udon.” The difference? Sannuki udon is much more firmer and Osaka udon has a heavy bonito undertone.
Isassi is obsessed with food history and frequents Little Tokyo libraries every month to read up on the latest Japanese books and periodical magazines. An amateur historian, she's currently researching the history of sushi, and has plans for a book about the famous Japanese dish.
“I basically segmented the history of sushi to five generations. Sushi as we know it now,” Issasi says, “is fairly modern.” The process originated in China in the Yunnan region, where raw fish was preserved by packing it with salt and cured rice. Over time, as technology advanced, the preservation time was slowly shortened.
“People started eating it faster. When the capital of Japan moved from Kyoto to Edo, there was a fire and a lot of construction — you had to feed the labor workers faster, so street food began to develop. Soba was served on the street. Sushi too.” But the sushi, she says, was always cured.It wasn't until after the 20th century when refrigeration was invented that sushi began to resemble what we eat today.
“What we think is traditional is not really traditional,” Isassi says. “That's what fascinates me, and I love passing that down to others.”
Isassi holds weekend monthly cooking classes in her downtown L.A. studio. Prices range from $50 to $75. Private workshops and team building events are also available upon request.
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