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Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan

Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Destiny Kolheim and Keaton Ross check the temperatures to make sure that their gyoza is properly cooked. Press photo by Travis Fischer
By Travis Fischer, [email protected]

Charles City students got to learn about eastern cuisine as John Sugimura, a professional Japanese chef, spent three days this week teaching and cooking traditional Japanese meals for the school.

The visit was arranged by Taher Inc., which provides food service for the district. Sugimura is one of several professional chefs of varying specialties who demonstrates cultural cooking techniques to students. For two years now, Sugimura has been working for Taher, performing demonstrations in more than 125 schools to expose kids across the country to his ancestral food.

Meeting with the school’s culinary classes, Sugimura instructed them on how to prepare gyoza, a pork dumpling that is a popular snack in Japan. Having already prepared the pork filling and sauce, Sugimura taught the students the proper way to wrap and fold the gyoza before cooking up samples for them to try.

Served with a sprinkling of purple cabbage and Sugimura’s signature radish slice, the gyoza was a new experience for many of the students to try.

“Out of 100,000 plus kids, only three kids have been a hard ‘no,’” said Sugimura.

The cooking lesson included more than just recipes and techniques. While instructing the students on how to make gyoza, he shared the history of his family and their experience as Asian-Americans.

“This is personal,” said Sugimura. “Cooking for kids to expand their world is personal to me as a mixed-race kid.”

Sugimura didn’t just bring his food for the culinary class to enjoy. Following Tuesday’s demonstration, he stuck around to teach the school’s staff how to prepare a traditional Japanese meal for the Charles City Community School Board.

With the option of using chopsticks or a wooden fork, the board enjoyed a boxed meal of fruits, vegetables, gyoza, rice, and karaage-don (Japanese fried chicken).

“I thought it was very good,” said board member Dr. David Schrodt.

“I think it would be great to expose our kids to,” said board member Pat Rottinghaus.

The school board’s meal was a precursor to what the entire high school received on Thursday as Sugimura and the school’s staff prepared the karaage-don lunch for all the students.

Sugimura hopes that the experience will foster an appreciation for Japanese cooking and encourage the school to make the meal a semi-regular item on the menu rotation.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to try some international flavors,” said Superintendent Dr. Anne Lundquist.

Sugimura’s love of cooking originates with his grandmother, who ran a successful restaurant in Sacramento, California, in the 1930s before World War II broke out and his family lost everything during the Japanese internment.

After the war, Sugimura’s family migrated to Minnesota, where he was born. Growing up as an Asian-American, he said he experienced firsthand the isolation and bullying that comes with being a mixed-race kid in eighth grade.

Now, as an adult, Sugimura celebrates his Japanese heritage and endeavors to share it with the world.

He has studied overseas to become a nationally recognized Japanese chef and currently operates his own restaurants in larger cities, but it’s his work with Taher that allows him to bring Japanese cooking to rural parts of the country where there are limited opportunities for people to experience new foods.

“I set out to share my food,” said Sugimura. “This gives me the greatest opportunity to share my cooking and make my grandmother proud.”

Today, he said, seeing young people embrace his grandmother’s family recipes gives him a sense of validation that he was denied while growing up as a member of a minority population.

“At the end of the day, you just want to be accepted in the world,” said Sugimura.

Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Aden Kadner and Connor Dietz try their hand at chopsticks to eat their gyoza.
Press photo by Travis Fischer
Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Aden Kadner puts the finishing touches on his culinary class’ sample of gyoza (Japanese pork dumplings). Press photo by Travis Fischer
Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Professional chef John Sugimura demonstrated the proper way to fold gyoza to the Charles City culinary classes this week during his three day visit to the school. Press photo by Travis Fischer
Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Charles City students got to enjoy a karaage-don (Japanese fried chicken) boxed lunch Thursday prepared by professional chef John Sugimura as he visited the district to demonstrate his authentic Japanese cooking. Press photo by Travis Fischer
Charles City students enjoy the taste of Japan
Professional chef John Sugimura served up a karaage-don traditional Japanese dinner dinner to the Charles City School Board on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Press photo by Travis Fischer

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