Sara Kiyo Popowa of Shiso Delicious creates Japanese influenced bento boxes with whole, raw and plant based foods. Sara and her husband Andy, moved to South Tottenham three years ago and she runs her business out of their home.
Sara started posting pictures of her bento lunch box creations on Instagram when she first moved to Tottenham and has built up a huge following from all over the world. We love her focus on simplicity, colour, nutrition and practicality.
When she first met her husband, she was surprised to see what he was eating for lunch. Although he was quite healthy and sporty she realised that he would often be eating take-away foods that were available near to his office. As Sara had always worked with food or had been self employed this was something she had only had to deal with for a few weeks at a time. ‘I was shocked at what people were eating… day in day out. There’s no life in that food – no real nutritional value.’ This got her thinking, ‘how can I subtly get him to eat better for his lunch?’
The answer came when they went on a trip to Japan four years ago. Sara had memories of the food from when she had studied there a few years earlier, but when visiting Yakushima, a small island in the south they discovered a place making delicious, handmade bento to take on their day trips. She thought, ‘this is the way to have lunch. Pack your food in a stylish box that isn’t going to be embarrassing to bring to work. That’s what I’m going to offer.’
As a vegetarian of 20 years, it’s really important to her that her food has a high nutritional value but also focuses on practicality. She tries to do it in a way that is achievable and can make you feel good on daily basis.
‘I would love people to eat healthier and also think about how they live effects the world we live in now and in the future.’
Shiso Delicious started on Instagram. Previously, Sara was a visual performance artist, a freelance graphic designer for food companies, worked in health food shops and sold her own clothes range at Spitalfields and Portobello markets. She’s always been interested in food and has always cooked a lot. She was living in Brighton as a performer, and after meeting her husband she moved to London to focus on her graphic design, but found that she missed her own creative expression.
‘When I started putting images on Instagram that was suddenly a creative outlet. A daily art practice. It’s also an exhibition space, I think as an artist you want your work to be seen and you want to connect to other people.’ As she had a very specific area of interest, she found it gave her the ability to connect with other like-minded people who were very skilled in what they were doing and felt she had something to add to it as well. ‘I found myself in a tight knit community with creative people from all over the world. That’s extremely motivating.’
‘Anything that I do now is influenced by it. Instagram gave me confidence and helped me to carve out what I want to do and what I want to give to the world right now.’
In April 2017 Sara began to run bento workshops. She ran 12 including one in Amsterdam and found that things really started to take off.
‘What I really love about workshops is the sense of creating a community and strengthening a network.’
Sara explained that her bento boxes aren’t particularly Japanese but she uses a lot of Japanese methods, techniques and ingredients and a lot of her classic dishes are based around rice, much like those used in the bento boxes of Japan.
She runs two workshops, bento intro and bento meal prep where you can make a slightly bigger volume to have over several days. In the bento intro she covers the basics like how to cook rice so that it’s tasty, quick pickling, and using certain seaweeds, nuts, seeds and seasoning mixes to enrich flavour and nutritional value. One workshop participant described Sara’s food as ‘so simple but so delicious.’
This year she plans to run workshops with focus on photography and styling for social media as well as making bento.
‘Some of my best stylings have happened very simply. Most of the time I’m trying to keep things realistic… How would I practically want to eat this… I should just lay it out like that rather than just make it look fancy.’
Sara feels that it’s important to respect your ingredients and aims to work out how they can be put together in the fastest possible way. ‘I’m always trying to reduce the number of steps that I use but still get lots of flavour and lots of nutrition.’
‘With bentos you’re working with a lot of restrictions; it can’t be too runny, it has to be tasty after five hours of being cold, you want to put something filling in there but you can’t spend half an hour cooking up a stew. I like working with restrictions; that really motivates and inspires me and I will come up with new ideas when I’m pushed into something.’
As time has gone on Sara realised that performance and visual art is very connected to what she does now. ‘Something I leant by doing performances, was paying attention to space. Now my space has just changed…I’m using the square of a photograph and my new performers are my different props – different food, the ingredients, the plates or my hands. Everything that I do now… is very influenced by that background. I am very aware of how timing works and how space works.’
Sara is gradually moving towards a more vegan diet and has been doing a lot of experimenting with non egg omelettes. ‘I’m using lentils and certain seeds – things that could be cooked quite easily… that will fill me up and have a similar nutritional profile to egg – it’s not just about flavour.’
She also loves pulled eryngii (king oyster) mushrooms, having learnt the technique from her good friend, Derek Sarno of Wicked Healthy, who is a vegan chef and innovator. ‘You season it with tamari soy sauce, ginger juice, and chilli and it gets this incredible texture.’
Sara’s first cook book, Bento Power, is available to buy on Amazon.
This article first appeared in the Food & Drink issue of Discovering Tottenham which came out in March 2018.