The homey Art of Bento in Shizuoka Prefecture!
All the bentoes are from the Missus’ archives!
Preparing a bento is an act of love.
Or an apprenticeship to love for single people!
As expats, although its notion has been ingrained in our gastronomic brains for more than half a century (not accounting for the Army ration packs of older generations), a lunch box simply cannot be compared to a Japanese bento!
After all, Western lunch boxes were a bit of a misnomer when you consider their very basic contents piled into an artless tin box.
On the other hand, why has bento grown so popular abroad (i.e. out of Japan)?
You just have to browse the Internet or Home Cooking Magazines to realize it has progressed far beyond a mere fad. The concept is here to stay and spread all over the World eventually.
Bento officionados usually agree on the following as the reasons for its popularity:
-Health: a real bento combining all the ingredients of a normal meal (and even more!) is bound to make up for a better-balanced repast than any lunch you would hurriedly buy at a baker’s, fast food joint or supermarket before wolfing it down at your office or workplace.
-Practicality: bento is conceived to be carried in vessels taking a minimum amount of space in your luggage. As it is usually wrapped with chopsticks (or fork and spoon) inside a tablecloth or large handkerchief one only needs to untie it, leave it atop its wrapping, open it and enjoy it at leisure on your office desk, at the company cafeteria or in a nearby park.
-Aesthetics: you just have to open a well-conceived bento box to have your friends or colleagues peer into it with envy and wonder. How many times have people witnessed others taking photographs of each other’s creation for further reference? Good friends will actually venture as far as exchanging some of their better morsels!
The idea that a bento is a woman’s or wife’s (or girlfriend’s) work has slowly but steadily become obsolete.
In Japan they even show (single) men preparing their lunch box alone in the kitchen on prime time TV shows.
Choosing your box or vessel:
Although traditional cedar wood boxes make for an exquisite gastronomic experience, one does not have to lavish money on extravagant bento boxes.
Such boxes may be of all shapes and material.
Many young Japanese men go as far as designing their own boxes into metal and plastic encased sets that look more than space shuttle contraptions than anything else.
A hard round plastic Tupperware can make for an appropriate bento box if you use plenty of dry curry over rice (don’t forget to decorate with crumbled boiled egg and a few sprigs of green!).
A rectangular bamboo fiber case very commonly found to pack souvenir treats will do well for sushi rolls where they can stand their cross section up.
Do not discard any reusable box that can be easily transformed into a practical vessel for your lunch.
Now, if you want to invest some money into a true Japanese bento box you basically have the choice between a compartmented box (round, square or rectangular) and a single-tiered or double-tiered bean-shaped box. The former usually comes lacquered while the latter can be made of cedar tree sheets bound with cherry tree bark.
I must confess that I have a special fondness for the latter because one can separate his/her lunch into two distinct “dishes” one can pick from in turns.
Do not forget your chopsticks, or fork or spoon. Choose the former to last long enough for the sake of ecology!
-But I have no time to prepare a bento before going to work in the morning!
True to say, a good bento requires some planning and organization.
But the more you put into it, the more contented (or proud) you, your partner or family member will feel.
Actually bento is no less than the epitome of slow food disguised into fast food if I may afford the apparent contradiction:
A bento bought at a convenience store is fast food. A lunch concocted with love and passion is slow food. But you eat it like fast food!
Organization should not be that complicated.
First of all decide on your staple the night before: rice, bread (yes!), potato (why not?). Keep in mind this will form at least a good third of your lunch.
Next check your fridge for meat or fish for the main “partner” of your staple. That is, if you are not vegetarian. Talking of vegetarianism (or veganism), this is not an obstacle at all!
Alright, you have decided on your staple and its partner. You still have to think of how you are going to accommodate your meat or fish. Fried? Sauteed? Steamed? Broiled? And their seasoning!
Next, think of dietary balance and decorative value.
This is where you have to think of the vegetables and fruit (no biscuits, or junk food, please! Keep it healthy!). Are you going to serve them raw (don’t forget you need dressing including oil for good digestion of raw vegetables!), grilled, fried, or steamed? Keep it in mind to strike a good balance between all ingredients. The key is not to prepare them all in the same fashion!
You will find out quickly that colors are a good guide when considering the nutritious value of your bento!
Right, you have struck the right balance and proportions!
Now it is up to your artistic sense!
I’m sure you will be able to emulate the picture(s) in this article and even better after some practice!
Because bento is an act of love!