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September 11, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | 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

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