Today marks International Sushi Day and to celebrate, we’ve been chatting to queen of bento boxes Sara Kiyo Popowa a.k.a Shiso Delicious. We discover what ‘sushi’ actually means, how to build the perfect bento box and what it takes to release your very own bento cookbook.

Sara’s first cookbook, Bento Power, Brilliantly Balanced Lunchbox Recipes, will be published September 2018 by Kyle Books (Hachette).

Hit it Sara!

Hi, I’m Sara and I’m an artist, photographer and recipe-creator with a passion for making colourful, plant-celebrating bento lunch boxes on Instagram as @shisodelicious.

I created Shiso Delicious to inspire beauty, sustainability and appreciation on every level in life through food and lifestyle. I hold bento workshops in the UK and abroad, create recipes, photography and sponsored content for clients (including Tesco’s vegan Wicked Kitchen range, Waitrose, Huawei and Monbento), and offer Instagram and food photography consultation and mentoring.

I grew up in Sweden with a Bulgarian-Japanese heritage and spent a few years studying in Japan, then travelling, before settling in London. Before Shiso Delicious, I worked in the health food industry, first in retail, then as a graphic designer, and as a visual performance/dance artist.

What does ‘sushi’ actually mean? 

Many think that raw fish is ‘sushi’, but it is actually a way of preparing rice – tossing freshly cooked, Japanese rice in a vinegar/salt/sugar seasoning liquid which both flavours and preserves it. Sushi was developed pre-fridge times, so preparing it like this meant that both the rice and the raw fish put on top (or inside it) would keep fresh for longer.

Nori (the thin seaweed sushi rolls are wrapped in) also has a preserving effect – it’s an edible super-barrier that makes it harder for bad stuff to get to the rice, while keeping the rice moist for longer, too.

Once the sushi rice is seasoned it’s shaped in different ways to fit with different types of toppings or fillings.

These can be everything from raw fish to freshly cut aloe vera (one of the more experimental toppings I’ve seen)!

The most well-known sushi outside of Japan is nigiri sushi (the little pillow with a topping) and maki-sushi (the rolls) but you can also use sushi rice to make a chirashi-sushi, sushi bowl, where the the toppings are beautifully arranged on top, or oshi-sushi where rice and fillings are pressed together in a box, then cut into pieces.

What’s your favourite type of sushi?

My favourite type of sushi is probably the kind where I sit at a high counter, watching a skilled sushi chef do their dance to create beautiful little morsels of deliciousness that’s put in front of me one by one. This is a rare, but amazing treat!

If we were to have a peek at a typical Shiso Delicious lunchbox what would we find?

A typical Shiso Delicious lunch box has foods that I love for their taste, visual appearance and nutritional properties. They have to be practical too, easy to source and make.

Most of my bento (lunch boxes) are made for my cycle-commuting husband, meaning they’ll always have a good amount of grains/carbs, with leafy greens, some type of protein, fresh fruit and veg and some seasoning/nutrient sprinkles. I use a lot of Japanese and East-Asian flavours in my bento, not just because I love them, but because they work in dishes that keep well, and are delicious eaten cold which is essential in a bento.

Examples are:

  • A mix-grain rice (eg Japanese white rice + wholegrain rice and quinoa mixed)
  • A big handful of salad greens
  • A quick-pickled vegetable which adds tangy salty flavour and takes just minutes to make
  • An ‘overnight egg’ (‘cooked’ overnight on residual heat to save time), and/or a few slices of smoked tofu
  • fresh or dried fruit
  • a handful of toasted seasoned nuts and seeds
  • probably a scatter of sesame or pomegranate seeds because I’m obsessed with them!

What is a bento box?

Bento originates in Japan, where it is a neatly boxed-up portion of an everyday meal. It’s often prepared at home (often by the mother of the house), and taken to work or school (or bought ready-made on your way to work). A typical Japanese meal is made up of lots of small dishes eaten with a bowl of rice, so a bento is similar; it almost always has a portion of rice, with a number of small dishes packed neatly and often prettily in a bento box. You’ll bring your own boxed up chopsticks too, and pack it all up in a small bag to take in your school or work bag.

What inspired you to start creating your own bento boxes?

I wanted to rescue my now husband Andy from his sad office lunches! I’ve been into healthy eating for a long time and when he and I first met, I noticed that even though he enjoyed healthy food, he’d still be eating out, or in the (brown-food-filled) work canteen every day. I was familiar with bento from having lived in Japan as a student (with a host family, who made bento for me every day) and during our first trip to Japan together, we both fell in love with the bento concept and brought a few boxes home to London.

A year later I started uploading photos of them to Instagram and that was how Shiso Delicious started!

What are your tips for creating the perfect bento box?

Find a box that fits your portion size (or the person you’re making it for), where you can arrange the food snug so that it doesn’t move around in transit. The visual is important (so you can have that ‘bento ritual’ moment when you open your box!) so try to group your ingredients together, even if they are just simply cut veggies. Then you can choose whether to pick from each dish when you eat (the Japanese way) or mix it all up as a big salad at lunch time.

What can we expect to find in your upcoming book Bento Power?

All my tips, tricks, recipes and gathered experience of making my own style of bento for the past years, and my interpretations of the traditional Japanese ways. Lots of beautiful photography (if I may say so myself, I took it!), awesome graphic design by the talented Before Breakfast and hopefully lots of inspiration to start making your own bento, or to add something new to your existing bento or lunch box routine.

Any advice for someone keen to write their own book?

Be very clear about what it is you want to write about – it is a crazy amount of work creating a book so you want to be sure it is something you burn for! Make sure you have a unique angle to what you want to write about, make it into something exciting that only you can do.

Be connected. For me it was instrumental to have an Instagram following and to be part of strong community. A publisher will look at those things (however it’s not essential to have a following, but you do need to somehow be an expert in your field).

Get help doing the bits someone else is better at.

I worked on my book proposal for ages, on my own. I was then lucky to start working with a literary agent, who helped immensely not only in making my proposal ‘industry standard’, but also in being connected in the publishing world. He helped me get a deal I am very happy with, and handled all the legal stuff too.

 

Sara’s first cookbook, Bento Power, Brilliantly Balanced Lunchbox Recipes, will be published September 2018 by Kyle Books (Hachette).

For more from Sara, see her website or find her on Instagram @shisodelicious and @bentoparty