It started on a whim.
As two professional chefs living in New York City, it’s not surprising that Sawako “Sawa” Okochi and Aaron Israel initially connected over food. They’d cook for each other and explore new restaurants together often, and one night they went to a fancy kaiseki-style Japanese restaurant for dinner. When the rice dish topped with salmon arrived at the end of the meal, the fish was “disappointingly overcooked,” Aaron said. The pair started talking about how the dish might be improved with raw or lightly cooked salmon instead. Aaron, who grew up in a Jewish family on Long Island, quickly dismissed the idea of using lox, but Sawa pushed him to be open to it.
The next morning when they woke up in his Cobble Hill apartment, Aaron ran to an appetizing store while Sawa cooked rice and sliced up an avocado.
“That was the first lox bowl that we made together,” Aaron said. “Later we would make this sort of lox bowl dish a lot on lazy Sunday mornings, back when we had those.”
Later, Sawa and Aaron opened Brooklyn’s treasured Shalom Japan, with the lox bowl on the menu from Day One. Now it’s on the cover of their new cookbook, Love Japan: Recipes from Our Japanese American Kitchen.
“For us, it’s an important dish because it symbolizes two cultures and a dialogue between two people about it,” Aaron said.
It makes sense that this lox bowl would be foundational for the duo, who are now married with kids. The two dishes Sawa most associates with her childhood and comfort food are miso soup and soft rice. For Aaron, it’s lox and matzoh ball soup.
“The smell of rice being cooked makes me so hungry and happy,” said Sawa, who moved to the U.S. from her native Hiroshima to attend the University of North Texas, and later to New York for culinary school. “I always liked cooking with my mom. When I first moved to America, I was just shocked that I couldn’t get any Japanese food. I just craved it so much that I started cooking.”
Around the same age, Aaron saw cooking more as a way to explore cultures beyond his own. He got his hands on a VHS of renowned chef Masaharu Morimoto making sushi, and after acquiring his driver’s license, he drove two towns over for ingredients like nori and frozen crab sticks and then “destroyed the kitchen and dirtied every pot.”
He’s improved over the years, particularly thanks to Sawa, who used to work at a sushi place. Now the lox bowl is both a symbol of their relationship and a cornerstone of their restaurant.
“This recipe is a marriage of our sensibilities, a sort of freeform sushi with Ashkenazi flare,” they write in Love Japan.
At Shalom Japan, diners find a range of dishes that explore the interplay of Japanese and Jewish foods, like an okonomiyaki with wagyu pastrami and sauerkraut, a famed matzoh ball ramen, and of course the lox bowl, which includes Japanese pickles, fried capers, ikura (salmon caviar), and chile mayo. Their cookbook also features Jewish-inflected Japanese food, including a couple recipes modified from the restaurant. Both are inspired by history, heritage, and tradition, but not bound by them.
“Japanese food has evolved over centuries in one location with a finite land mass,” Aaron said. “Jewish food is the complete opposite. It’s been decentralized for millennia. It’s the product of wherever the Jewish people ended up, which is all over the world.”
Fifty years ago, what was considered “Jewish” food is considerably different from today. And in another 50, it will have shifted even more, Aaron said. That’s part of the joy they derive from cooking together.
“For me and my idea of Jewish food, it’s not complete in any sense,” Aaron said. “It’s a constantly evolving and changing and morphing thing.”