Memories of Biodiversity

A conversation with chef Akiko Watanabe from Roku, Berlin
Culinary World Jul 17, 2020 Giovanni Giorgi
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Berlin-based private chef and artist Akiko Watanabe, founder of Roku catering and food pop-ups: we got to know a bit more about her culinary journey and food memories, including an inspiring message about biodiversity.

Chef Watanabe's Roku project was born in 2005 and headed in 2012 to Berlin from Tokyo. During the 2020 lockdown, she stopped her activity at Roku and started a local delivery service, and is now working hard to make her project grow.

How would you describe your cuisine for Roku?

A mixed type of cuisine. I mainly cook vegan or vegetarian recipes, but I’m not totally against eating meat, in general. I’m more against certain ways of producing meat and I tend not to buy meat, even when it’s organic.

When I’m lucky enough to get wild boar meat from hunters, of course, I want to try it on my recipes, but it’s not always easy for me to source this kind of meat. As for my recipes, I always try to make my dishes as umami as possible, and this became an everyday-experimentation for me. Also, I don’t use any plastic packaging.

What have you been cooking lately?

Just this morning, I finished a fermentation test with natto using three different starter cultures that I got from Japan. I was trying to see the differences amongst them under the same environmental conditions. I wanted to see which one would suit my taste and future recipes better. And they turned out completely different from each other, not just in taste, but also in the way they look, their stickiness, the smell.

Also, I’m experimenting with new recipes for my small delivery service. I basically lost my job during the pandemic. Before I was working at an art studio and some offices, doing events like birthday or wedding or club. Now I’m planning to organize pop-up events with Uferstudios in Wedding when things are going to start again soon in the next months.

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Is there any ingredient you had a hard time finding in Berlin?

Miso. I tend to source it from supermarkets closed to where I live in Kreuzberg, but it’s quite different— it’s darker and more similar to Hatcho Miso. I prefer mild types of miso for my daily recipes.

Do you serve traditional recipes only?

I like both traditional and experimental. I need to experiment in a very careful way to create the feeling that I want to get. My idea is: first, I need to try traditional (if I haven’t experienced it, I don’t know what it is, right?) and then I try to mix things, change ingredients. Sometimes I kind of have no other choice than experimenting with new raw ingredients. And in general, I want to avoid importing vegetables from far abroad.

Where do you source the ingredients for your events?

From organic supermarkets. I also maintain some connections with local farms as I’m doing CSA.

What is your dearest memory of Japanese food?

It is a bit of a sad story to me. When I was a kid, I used to spend my summers with my grandparents who used to live in the mountain area of Shizuoka, Japan– an area that is famous for green tea. It’s a very high-mountain place, where the water is simply perfect.

My grandfather moved there after living in the city and he used to do many things like haunting, farming, growing shiitake mushrooms— really, he got a prize of number 1 in Japan and had knowledge of wild mushrooms too. So, every summer I would go there and eat amazing wild foods. He was also growing sweet corn. It was a very special type and the taste was very similar to Grünkern, so German spelt. It also had a completely different texture and was a bit harder compared to organic corn that people buy at the supermarket here.

So, with this memory in mind, after my grandpa died I asked about this sweet corn. I asked my mom and she started looking for the seeds. She asked my grandparents’ neighbors and local farmers, plus, she is also doing research with some university doctors to find out about biodiversity. One day a teacher said to my mom that the seed is gone. My grandpa’s seeds were the last ones in the world. Every year I keep remembering this taste but can’t experience it anymore and I miss it so much.

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