On Japanese food culture and creations

It’s more than sushi! When Tonami van den Driesen moved to Vancouver from Japan in 2000, she quickly realized something was missing from her palate. The miso paste here in Vancouver didn’t quite have the authentic flavour she was looking for. So, one auspicious day, van den Driesen decided to make her own.

Now the founder of Vankoji foods, van den Driesen makes and markets Japanese flavour enhancers like Shio-koji, a traditional and natural Japanese seasoning for miso paste. “I like to introduce great seasoning to not only Japanese people but to Canadians here as well, and that’s my goal,” says van den Driesen. “I care about taste and the ingredients and what people use, I like to use local ingredients as much as possible and to understand what’s inside what I’m eating,” she says.

Although van den Driesen doesn’t have any formal training in cooking, upon her immigration to Vancouver she began studying Japanese food. That’s how she learned about Shio-koji.

Lost in culture

I began making homemade miso paste and found Shio-koji which is an enhancer, used for essential cooking, I started introducing it to my friends and they loved it and so I turned it into a business,” she explains.

Shio-koji is a natural seasoning made from rice-koji, sea salt and water; Koji itself is a type of fungus that grows on rice, she explains.

As the twentieth century brought a need for convenience in cooking, the Japanese culture lost interest in Shio-koji and forgot about this traditional seasoning.

“It is an important key ingredient in Japanese culture foods; decades ago, people used to make it on their own, but eventually life got too busy and it got lost in Japanese history,” says van den Driesen.

Not even van den Driesen’s mother and grandmother had ever seen the seasoning in person before Shio-koji got rediscovered in 2007.

Van den Driesen says Kome-koji  (a filamentous fungus) is used for making things like sake, miso paste, soy sauce, vinegars and koji seasonings.

“You can use Shio-koji in most dishes, such as stir fry, soup, salad dressing, and dipping sauce. Anywhere you use salt you can use Shio-koji instead,” she says.

I tell my kids about Shio-koji, and want it to be passed down for generations to come, so we don’t lose this again; that’s my passion,” says van den Driesen.

Celebrating a season

Some of the recipes van den Driesen shares can be used for a picnic on a day out.

Although there isn’t a specific day the Japanese go out for picnics, van den Driesen says when the cherry blossoms bloom, people go out when they can celebrate with friends, family and food.

“[Cherry blossoms] teach people that life is not too long; it’s short and you should celebrate and appreciate the time you have and what you have in your life,” says van den Driesen.

Shio-koji is a natural Japanese seasoning.

Today you’ll see families and friends celebrating the cherry blossoms while enjoying food as they embrace Japanese culture.

Traditionally, some of the dishes you’ll find at a Japanese picnic include Ojyu which is layers of bento boxes where there are three to five layers of food such as fish, salad, rice, a Japanese omelet or cooked vegetables, says van den Driesen.

“People put several kinds of foods into Ojyu (bento boxes) and bring it out to celebrate the season,” she explains.

Anything you put into a bento box, can be enhanced by using Shio-koji or Koji- seasonings, says van den Driesen.

And something sweet

While van den Driesen is rediscovering seasonings for traditional Japanese food, Kayoko Hamamoto, the co-founder of Vancouver chocolate shop Coconama, is adding traditional Japanese seasonings to a new food, chocolate.

“For our product we usually use Japanese seasonings like Wasabi, Sake, Matcha or a Japanese lemon called Yuzu to add flavour; because we’re Japanese we want people to know about Japanese culture as well,” she says.

Hamamoto and her husband Takanori Chiwata opened Coconama in 2010, after moving to Vancouver from Japan.

“Coco means from cocoa and Nama means fresh in Japanese,” says Hamamoto.

Their signature product “Nama Chocolate” (meaning fresh chocolate) is very popular in Japan.

“It’s different than regular chocolate; it has [a] soft and creamy texture and our product is square and cubic which is very popular in Japan,” explains Hamamoto.

They also make more traditional chocolates like salted caramel.

For Hamamoto, she personally feels the colourful presentation of the chocolate, which is all natural, is what makes customers love them.

“Vancouver doesn’t have nice weather in autumn and winter, so our colourful chocolate makes [customers] happy,” she says.

A life changing experience

We had a stable life in Japan, but a life changing experience happened to me when I visited [a cocoa farm in] Vietnam,” she says.

Both Hamamoto and her husband majored in biochemistry in Japan and since they shared a love of food, they got jobs as researchers at a confectionery company. Hamamoto was assigned to the cocoa section of the company.

“So, I didn’t choose [chocolate], but was given a route to enter chocolate,” she says.

However, Hamamoto didn’t know how chocolate was made until her visit to the cocoa farm. There, she saw firsthand how hard the farmers worked and what went into making chocolate.

“The first time I met them, I was very impressed by the cocoa farm and the farmers; thanks to them we can enjoy chocolate.”

Wanting to connect people with chocolate and tell the story of how it’s made, they started hosting workshops where people can learn about chocolate and make some of their own.

“[We] do chocolate workshops where you make chocolate from raw cocoa beans [and see] how hard [farmers] work for cocoa beans,” says Hamamoto.