Shaler Area students learn Japanese cooking as well as the language
December 31, 2015 12:00 AM
At least 30 students from J-LEAP, the Japanese Language Education Assistant Program at Shaler Area High School, assembled in the cafeteria after the school day to learn how to make okonomiyaki.
An okomomiyaki pancake, which the students in J-LEAP, the Japanese Language Education Assistant Program, made after the school day was finished at Shaler Area High School, is about finished. Okonomiyaki have a base of cabbage, held together with a batter, and are filled with ingredients such as shrimp, mochi (rice cakes) and, in this case, bacon.
Shunji Iwasaki, right, from Osaka, Japan, the co-teacher in Steve Balsomico's J-LEAP, Japanese language class at Shaler Area High School, shows Nick DeBortoli, 17, a senior, left, how to measure out the flour for the okonomiyaki.
Steve Balsomico, the teacher for J-LEAP, the Japanese Language Education Assistant Program at Shaler Area High School.
Shunji Iwasaki from Osaka, Japan, demonstrates how to grate a Japanese yam for okonomiyaki as students, from left, Anniston Bieri, 16, a senior; Sam Schaffer, 16, a junior, and Renni Rickman, 16, a junior, listen at one of the class' after school cooking sessions.
Ross Klein, 17, tries to help his friend Zach Hughes, 18, right, after he tasted a raw piece of a Japanese yam during an afternoon school cooking session. Zach, who along with Ross is a senior, found the raw yam to be very gooey as he chewed it.
Talha Lone, right, 15, a sophomore, reacts after one of his fellow students tasted a piece of a Japanese yam.
Shunji Iwasaki, from Osaka, Japan, demonstrates how the ingredients for okonomiyaki are mixed and ladled into an electric skillet.
Samantha Eklund, 15, left, and Claire Schreiber, 15, both sophomores, watch as Shunji Iwasaki tries to flip the okonomiyaki in an electric frying pan.
Samantha Eklund, 15, left, and Claire Schreiber, 15, both sophomores, react as Shunji Iwasaki tries to flip the okonomiyaki in an electric frying pan.
Evan Lysko prepares to taste the okomomiyaki. Evan is a 17-year-old junior.
By Rita Michel
Shaler Area High School students have an unusual opportunity to learn Japanese — and they also can get a taste of the country’s culture through cooking classes held each month at the school.
The voluntary classes in Japanese cooking are so popular that December’s lesson had to be moved from the family and consumer sciences classroom to the cafeteria.
Steven Bolsomico, an American social studies teacher who lived in Kyoto, Japan, for four years, teaches the cooking classes with Shunji Iwasaki, a native of Osaka, Japan.
Mr. Bolsomico met his wife, Yasuko, in Japan, and teaches most of the five levels of Japanese taken by about 100 students at Shaler Area High School. Mr. Iwasaki has been teaching Japanese in Shaler Area about a year and a half.
“It’s great here,” Mr. Iwasaki said. “The people are nice and the students taking Japanese are fun.”
At the December cooking class, Mr. Iwasaki, speaking mainly in Japanese, showed about 30 students the proper way to chop cabbage for a Japanese pancake called okonomiyaki.
Mr. Bolsomico told the students that the dish they were about to create can be found in only a few restaurants in the Pittsburgh area.
“Make it as thin as you possibly can. That’s the best texture for okonomiyaki,” he told the students. The cabbage is held together with flour, eggs and a gooey Japanese potato that Mr. Iwasaki bought at a specialty grocery store in Shadyside.
The students watched carefully, then took the cabbage to their work stations where groups of five or six set to work with cutting boards, measuring cups and mixing spoons.
“Once you mix your cabbage and dough together, come get your shrimp or bacon,” Mr. Bolsomico told them.
The cooking classes are taught in Japanese 90 percent of the time.
Most of the students in the cooking class are members of the Japanese Honor Society. The group sells sushi at Shaler Area homecoming and at lunchtime in the high school a couple of times a year, but the cooking class was open to any interested student at the high school.
Sophomores Samantha Eckland, 15, and Claire Schreiber, 15, said they liked learning the Japanese recipes. “I really like doing the after-school activities,” Samantha said.
Ashley Magahan, 16, a sophomore, said she didn’t like French, so she switched to Japanese. “It’s surprisingly easier.”
Tricia MaAfee, also a 16-year-old sophomore, agreed: “It’s easier than French or Spanish, and I’ve been learning Spanish since kindergarten.
Stephen Borgen, 16, a junior, disagreed with their assessment. “Other languages I have tried are easier than Japanese,” he said. “I like the challenge of it.”
His co-chef, Jacob Aluise, 16, came to the Shaler Area School District from St. Bonaventure Parish School in Shaler. “When I came to Shaler, I decided to take Japanese. It just seemed more interesting than Spanish.”
Many of the students said they liked learning about Japanese culture with the language.
And when part of that learning involves cooking and eating the food ... “It’s pretty good,” Jacob said. He added a sauce. “It’s really good.”
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