Times Food Editor

Packing up a portable meal, whether for school, work, dietary reasons or simply because you would like to eat outdoors for a change, is anything but new. In Japan, for instance, the practice dates back at least as far as the Nara period (AD 710-784 ), so it is no wonder the Japanese have refined packaging delicious tidbits for a light meal into a highly stylized art form. Called obento which means ‘boxed meal,’ their version of brown-bagging bears little resemblance to the haphazardly wrapped peanut butter sandwich tucked casually into a rumpled brown paper sack most of us know so well. Instead, one who dines from an obento is likely to find such scrumptious nibbles as sushi in various forms, kamaboko (fish cake), beautifully carved raw vegetables and other delicate Japanese finger foods. Not always, however. Sometimes an obento will provide a surprise or two. And that’s just what will happen to those who attend a reception at the Temporary Contemporary, the Little Tokyo branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art next Tuesday.

Somewhat offbeat is what it promises to be. There’s really no other way to describe the reception planned Tuesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles. Planned as an embellishment for the museum’s current exhibition, “Tokyo: Form and Spirit,” the evening will offer a fascinating look at ancient and contemporary cultural aspects of Los Angeles’ Japanese-American community.

A group of young Japanese-American professionals who have banded together as the Century II Associates in support of the Japan American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo are hoping the reception will provide those in attendance with a deeper awareness of the roots and cultural heritage of the local Japanese-American community.

Obviously, they also decided that despite the more or less serious content and historical value of the exhibit, a little contemporary fun would not be out of place. So they contacted restaurants and chefs throughout the Los Angeles area and arranged for them to provide foods for the evening to be packed obento for ease of serving and dining. The obento will be served wrapped in the traditional manner in a furoshiki, especially designed for the occasion by the center’s graphics director, Qris Yamashita. A furoshiki is a large square scarf used for wrapping packages in Japan.


What makes the dining portion of the event interesting is that Century II members contacted not only Japan-trained chefs, like Nobuo Saga of the Thousand Cranes restaurant in the New Otani Hotel, who are totally familiar with obento, but they also branched out and persuaded chefs at restaurants like Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles, Cafe Jacoulet in Pasadena and Ohana Catering in Van Nuys to take on the task of filling obento with some of their specialties.

Young chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of City and Border Grill restaurants, whose trendy menus point up their interest in spicy ethnic foods, elected to fill their obento with foods that reflect both Tex-Mex and Thai flavors. Roy Yamaguchi of restaurant row’s 385 North, although of Japanese ancestry, also broke away from the traditional and came up with a boxful of interesting nibbles that include a mixture of saffron rice, lime-flavored strips of rare beef, slivered vegetables and prawns.

Other restaurants that will be supplying traditional and anything-but-traditional foods for the evening’s obento include Antoine in the Newport Beach Hotel Meridien, Calisia in the Raddison Plaza Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan Beach and Minami Restaurant in the Los Angeles Hilton, Restaurant Katsu, L.A. Nicola, La Petite Chaya, Pastel and Mitsuru Grill, all of Los Angeles.

Entertainment during the evening will feature the Kinnara Taiko group, which is affiliated with the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Southwest Los Angeles, the Moonlight Orchestra jazz band and a traditional classical buyo dance by Sumako Azuma II.


Tickets for the reception are available at $15 per person through the center, Suite 505, 244 S. San Pedro St, Los Angeles; (213) 628-2725. No tickets will be available at the door.

For those who’d like to try their hands at preparing some of the foods reception guests will find tucked away in the obento, several of the chefs involved have shared some of their recipes.


3 cloves garlic, pureed


2 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar

1/4 cup nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

1/4 cup lemon juice

10 serrano chiles


1/3 cup dried shrimp

1 tablespoon chopped kaffir lime leaves

3/4 cup roasted salted peanuts

6 cups chilled melon cubes, cut into 1/2-inch squares (2 cups each of 3 colorful melons, honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, etc.)


1/4 cup cilantro leaves

Mix garlic, sugar, nam pla and lemon juice in bowl. Chop stems from chiles and cut into thin crosswise slices. Add to garlic mixture. Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Chop shrimp, lime leaves and peanuts and add to dressing. Set aside 30 minutes.

Arrange melons in alternating rows in shallow dish or platter. Pour dressing over melons. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve as appetizer or side dish. Makes 10 servings.

Note: This is extremely hot dish. If less spicy version preferred, begin with 2 chiles and add more to taste. Palm sugar, nam pla, dried shrimp and lime leaves are available at Thai, Vietnamese or other Oriental food stores.



2 cups sugar

2 medium yams or sweet potatoes

1 teaspoon vanilla


1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups milk


2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk

10 eggs, lightly beaten

Brush inside of heavy saucepan with pastry brush dipped in cold water. Place sugar in pan over low heat and bring to boil. (Do not stir.) Boil until sugar turns deep brown and there is strong caramel aroma.

Pour into 9x2-inch round cake pan. Tilt pan in all directions to evenly coat bottom and sides with caramel. Pour excess caramel back into original saucepan. Set cake pan aside for caramel to firm.


Add 1 cup water to caramel in saucepan and bring to boil. Stir caramel and water over low heat until thoroughly mixed, then pour into different pan or bowl to cool. Mixture will thicken slightly when cool. Set aside.

Bake yams at 350 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour or until soft throughout. Cool and remove skins. Puree yams in blender or food processor and measure 1 cup into bowl. (Reserve any remaining yam puree for other use.) Add vanilla, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, milk, condensed milk and eggs and mix thoroughly. Do not over beat.

Pour mixture into caramelized cake pan. Place flan pan in shallow pan large enough to hold it easily and pour boiling water in shallow pan to depth of about 1/2 inch. Bake at 325 degrees 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes or until flan tests done. To test for doneness, jiggle pan. Flan should appear solid in center. If it begins to puff up, it is overcooking. Chill 6 hours or overnight. To serve, cut into thin wedges and serve with caramel sauce on side. Makes about 16 servings.



9 ounces feta cheese (preferably Bulgarian), at room temperature

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

6 medium sweet red peppers

12 basil leaves


Place feta in bowl and pour 1 cup olive oil over. Set aside. Char peppers on all sides under broiler, being careful not to char too much so that flesh becomes dry. Immediately place charred peppers in paper bag and tightly close. Let stand until cool and skin can be removed easily. Rinse any remaining seeds or skin.

Cut each pepper in half lengthwise. Place 6 pepper halves, skin side down, on serving platter and cover with half of basil leaves. Spoon feta over basil-topped pepper halves and cover with remaining basil. Top with remaining pepper halves, skin side up, and pat into shape so layers are aligned. Coat each top with 1 teaspoon olive oil and serve. Makes 12 servings.




10 ears corn

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon salt


1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground

1/2 cup hominy grits

1/2 teaspoon baking power


Sour cream


Remove corn husks carefully, keeping them in large pieces. Place largest husks in pot and cover with hot water to soak husks while preparing tamale dough. Run sharp knife down center of each row of kernels on corn and scrape over bowl with dull side of knife.

Melt butter in skillet. Add corn and juices, cream, salt, sugar and white pepper. Simmer over medium heat 5 to 8 minutes or until mixture thickens and some of liquid has evaporated. Cool. Stir in hominy grits and baking powder.


Drain corn husks and pat dry. To make tamales, overlap few husks and place about 3 tablespoons corn filling down center. Fold sides over filling, then fold in ends. Use string to tie each tamale into small package.

Place extra corn husks in bottom of top part of steamer. Place tied tamales on corn-husk bed. Fill bottom of steamer with boiling water to within 1 inch of top part. Steam 1 hour over low heat. Remove tamales and allow to rest at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve with sour cream and Salsa. Makes 10 to 12 small tamales.

Note: If fresh corn husks are not usable, soaked dried corn husks may be substituted.



1 bunch cilantro

3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

1 to 2 jalepeno chiles, stemmed, seeded and diced

1 small onion, finely diced


1 tablespoon lime juice

Salt, pepper

Wash and dry cilantro and roughly chop leaves only. Combine cilantro, tomatoes, cilantro, jalepenos, onion and lime juice, mixing well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill until ready to serve. Makes 2 cups.



(Abalone Cooked in Sake)

3 pounds abalone in shell

8 cups water

2 cups sake


1 pound daikon radish, cubed

1/2 cup sugar

Soy sauce

1/2 cup mirin (sweet sake)


Wasabi or hot mustard

Run hot water over abalone for a few minutes to loosen abalone meat from shell. With large wooden spoon, scoop out meat.

Remove head and stomach and rinse abalone thoroughly under cool water. Bring water, sake, radish and abalone to boil in heavy saucepan. Reduce heat, skim residue off top, cover and simmer 2 hours.

Add sugar, 1/2 cup soy sauce and mirin. Cook 3 hours longer. Remove abalone and let cool. To serve, slice abalone thinly at angle and serve with additional soy sauce and wasabi as dip. Makes 10 to 12 servings.



(Marinated Beef)

1 1/2 teaspoons grated ginger root

3/4 teaspoon grated garlic


1/2 cup dark soy sauce

1 bunch chiso (ooba leaf), julienned

1/4 cup lime juice

14 ounces culotte or New York steak



2 tablespoons peanut oil

Green onions, sliced

Combine ginger, garlic, soy sauce, chiso and lime juice in flat glass dish just large enough to hold steak. Set aside.


Trim steak to remove excess fat and season to taste with pepper on top and bottom. Sear beef quickly in hot peanut oil on all sides over high heat. Cook to rare stage only.

Place in dish with marinade and turn to coat well. Refrigerate, turning occasionally, at least 1 hour. Steak should be very cold and firm before slicing. To serve, thinly slice diagonally. Sprinkle steak slices with thinly sliced green onions cut on bias and spoon small amount of marinade over, or serve on bed of julienned carrots, Chinese pea pods or other thinly sliced vegetable, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Note : Chiso or ooba leaf is available in Oriental markets.