Tomoko Yamane: Bento in Berlin

, 2010/03/26

Tomoko Yamane thoughtfully recalls growing up cooking with her grandmother in Nagoya. Since then, Tomoko has lived with her acquired techniques of cuisine and relocated to Berlin where she has set up her own catering company. Since May of 2009, Tomoko has been supplying Berlin’s artistic and creative community with a style of contemporary Japanese cuisine that is as traditional as her grandmother’s and evolving as it hybridizes in its new European surroundings. A few weeks ago, as Tomoko prepared samples from her 2010 Spring and Summer menu, Paper Sky listened to find out how Berlin came to feel as the logical choice for her next culinary venture.

Around five years ago, I relocated to Tokyo for art school and had started to work at a quaint French restaurant in Nakameguro. When I graduated, I was working as a print and graphic designer but felt I wanted to reconnect with cooking- something I had always done and felt separated from. As a creative practice, it seemed more hands on and, well, real to me. I didn’t put up much of a fight with those thoughts and switched back to cooking and started working at a restaurant, Combine ( and there I had some more freedom to get creative on the lunch and dinner menus.

It just so happened that Combine was frequented by a lot of Germans and we all started to become friends as I always seemed be preparing their lunches or dinners a several times a week. Becoming friends with all these familiar faces made communication a lot easier since I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time and well, zero German too. Since my younger years, I knew I had wanted to live abroad but I never really had the time or chance and the more I thought about visiting my friends in Berlin, I felt the time was right and it just seemed like a logical decision. I thought to myself, if I don’t go know, I would never go.

As I started to think about relocating more and more, my Japanese and German friends became more and more supportive and helped me embrace the idea. One of my German friends helped me make a websiteand another friend helped with taking pictures of the food I was planning to make. Another designer friend who had previously lived in Europe helped me think about a lot of different things like presentation, pricing as well as the European sensibility towards food in contrast and comparison to the Japanese. My other German got behind the idea and starting talking to their friends and clients to help me make some contacts- that helped a lot. When I arrived, things were moving along pretty well and Berliners were pretty receptive to the Japanese food I was preparing. For the most part, I think most Germans are interested in Japanese food and Japanese culture and I had some real pleasurable experiences of preparing my food for openings parties and events during the Fashion Week in Berlin. I also started talking about preparing food for events and performances by artists like Richie Hawtin or Carsten Nicolai.

One expectation that I couldn’t really gauge was what ingredients would actually be available in Berlin. On my last day in Tokyo, I went to the Tsukiji Market to stock up on particular seaweeds and spices I thought were essential to my recipes. I did the same on my last visit to Tokyo just a few weeks ago, I stocked up on some Japanese grains which I’m planning to work into the menu for next Spring. So in Berlin, of course the ingredients were different but I was surprised to find a variation of the Japanese sweet potato. When I went to a farmer’s market set in one of Berlin parks, it turned out to be a welcome breath of inspiration. I was taking in the sights of a lot of fresh vegetables as well as a different variety of meats. I was even inspired by how the market itself operated- there were a lot of Turkish people who were running vegetable shops and I was able to see, touch and smell another variety of ingredients and spices. It just gave me more of an international sense to the food I was making and how I looked at cuisine in general. Visiting the different markets throughout the week has not only been a joy but I’ve also been tempted by the selection of potatoes, with variations that aren’t as sweet as others. Some of them were so sweet, that it has led me to the idea of using apples in some of the creations of my next menu. In my personal cooking, I’ve taken to German food and been learning to make more German foods which use a lot of different potatoes and meats which has led me to do a lot more baking and boiling. It’s been a a bit of a different regimen but I’m really enjoying it.

Now that I’m back in Berlin, I will be making some more special bentos, in particular for Berliners on the go and I’m planning to collaborate with some other local cafes, restaurants and events. I think it’s the best part of my experience in Berlin so far- sharing my own Japanese-style lunch box with people in another environment and communicating and celebrating through food.

For more about Okawari, visit

Combine Books, Cafe & Restaurant is located at 1-10-23 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo. 03-3760-3939



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