What is Bento?
A simple explanation would be that it is the Japanese word for lunchbox. But that would be a gross understatement.
If you are at all interested in Japanese food or culture, you have probably seen the word before on a Sushi bar's menu, or even saw it mentioned in one of the popular anime series around. But for the Japanese people, bento is much more than sushi arranged in a compartmented plate in a restaurant, or a quick lunch to take to school. In fact, making pretty boxed lunches is such an essential skill in Japan it is hard to find any woman that has not mastered it!
With Japanese culture becoming more popular in the Western world, bento making has started to become popular all over the world. There are communities for bentomaking springing up on the internet, one of which (http://bentolunch.livejournal.com) has drawn me in since last summer as well.
So what is so special about it?
One of the main points about bento boxes is that “the eye also eats” – meaning that apart from nourishing, the food should also be attractive on a visual basis.
I can relate to that very well myself – after all, I too have frustrated my mother all the way through ground school by refusing to eat the sandwiches she packed for me. Not because they tasted bad, mind you – but a sandwich in a bag or a box is just not all that attractive anymore after being rolled around in your school bag for a few hours. With making bento, I find that boxed lunches can be much more appealing and creative than a simple, quickly thrown-together sandwich or leftover pasta-with-sauce in my colleagues' lunchboxes! Bentos are little meals in and of themselves, pleasing to the eye and interesting to the palate.
It is also a rather budget hobby – I often find myself using up leftovers that I would have otherwise thrown away as unappealing in new, creative ways that make the food much more appetizing to me.
And finally – who can resist actually getting commended for what is, in essence, playing with your food?
So it is just a glorified lunchbox?
You could call it that – but the idea behind it is also of a very balanced, healthy meal.
Generally, Japanese bento boxes are a little smaller than western lunch boxes – 550ml seems to be the average volume of a one- or two-tiered box. For full-grown Europeans or Americans, this may seem tiny, unless you are a good breakfaster or on a diet. However, there are ways to pack the boxes so small meals do become quite filling!
Traditionally, bento boxes call for a 4:3:2:1 ratio of starch (rice), protein (meat/vegetarian equivalent), vegetables and desserts/condiments. This is not to be seen as an iron rule, but it does promote healthy eating and makes sure the meal is balanced and filling. It also means that as opposed to leftovers-boxes or sandwich lunches, it is a real meal, with different dishes and a complete spectrum of nutritients.
Is Bento only about Japanese food?
Not at all! While many of us incorporate Japanese or other Asian dishes in our boxes, there are few limits to what you can put in your boxes.
The main things you want to avoid are food that spoils easily and food that relies on liquid sauces that cannot be reinstated by adding water later. Many bento makers will also not rewarm their food but eat it at room temperature – in that case you should make sure that the food you pack can be eaten cold or use a thermal lunch jar if you don't have the possibility to use a microwave. I also have a special lunchbox for bringing soup, but I would NOT recommend those for children in any case.
Another important point in packing is to keep food from becoming soggy in the box. If you don't have a box with compartments like the laptop lunch, you may want to use foil cups or dividers if you can't avoid wet and dry food touching otherwise. If you are bringing a sauce or liquid condiments such as ketchup, use a small bottle or sealable cup for it – there are many budget options if you don't want to go all-out on bento-specific gear.
Show us your box!
I have been debating with myself which one of my boxes to showcase for my first column here – a traditional Japanese dish, or a European one for a simpler intro. In the end, I decided against the traditional Japanese food, on the grounds that while I like the food, this article is about presentation and making healthier food attractive to your children as much as it is about the boxes themselves. There will be plenty of time to introduce traditional Japanese lunchbox items and recipes in the following articles.
This lunchbox contains:
- Vegetarian tortellini with homemade tomatosauce:
The tortellini are storebought, but of an organic wholemeal variant, and filled with ricotta and spinach. It is a good idea to look out for wholemeal food in your boxes, as it is both more filling and healthier, especially if we're talking about premade food.
The tomato sauce is one of my 5-minutes-in-the-morning recipes that become the staple of every bento-er's boxes: finely diced vegetables and olives, roasted in a dash of olive oil and simmered with some crushed tomatoes. It is very low on fat and tastes much fresher than generic pasta sauces!
- Cucumber and apple star cutouts:
Both the cucumbers and apples are simply sliced, dipped in a little lemon water to prevent browning and cut into shapes with ordinary cookie cutters. Cookie cutters are the pillars of cute lunchboxes! Japanese cooking catalogues have pages upon pages of interesting, elaborate shapes to cut your vegetables, but this simple christmas cookie set I have is a good start.
- Wholemeal bread rollups with banana, lemon curd and peanut butter and little clock faces made of Thai basil:
Rolling flat bread up and slicing it is a great way of presentation that I took over from sushi. This way breadrolls also make tasty finger food for snacking on!
Thai basil is a herb mostly used in Thai kitchen that looks like basil when it grows, but has a very different taste that reminds me a little of liqorice. It fits with curries as well as in sweet and savory food and looks great as decoration. Another green leaf that's great for decoration of sweet food and fruit is mint, of course.
I eat vegetarian most of the time, though I do eat fish and seafood on occasion to up my protein intake. Because of this, my lunches are usually a little more starch-heavy (and of course, limited in protein) than traditional boxes. Fresh fish is not a very good idea to bring if you haven't got a fridge or are eating it right away!
More lunches to come,