This post was first published on The Daily Tiffin.
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 English-language communities for bentomaking springing up all over the internet (check out the Livejournal community, or the Flickr group, or the Facebook group for it!).
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.
What’s in your box?
Just read the blog and you will see :)
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!
ALL MY VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN BOXES ARE CLEARLY TAGGED AS SUCH – use the categories on the sidebar to see only vegetarian food.
I also try to follow the rule of colours in every bento I make: Red, yellow, green, light and dark. This is not something that I do because I feel bentos should be done according to strict rules – I was doing this long before I ever read that such a rule existed! Coming from a (hobby) graphic artist background, I like contrasts and use them – you will find that even in bentos that strive to be monochrome, the creator uses contrasts artfully to make the bento visually appealing.
These techniques do not only ensure a pretty to look at bento, but also force me to balance the lunch with healthy fresh vegetables and fruit! Doesn’t fresh fruit have the best colours you can think of?
If I find that my bento is complete in ingredients but still needs another touch of colour, I use minicontainers or add a piece of fruit or candy as dessert to balance out the colors. But I always find that the best colours are found in nature!
Sorted by colour, you can mix and match a lot of ingredients:
Red/Orange: Bell peppers, carrots, radishes, red apples, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, cranberries… take your pick!
Yellow: Bell peppers, yellow carrots, yellow squash sorts, pickled radish, egg yellow/tamagoyaki, apples and pears…
Green: Again, bell peppers (can you see a pattern?), all kinds of leaf vegetables, cucumbers and zucchini, leeks/chives/spring onions, green grapes, green apples and pears, gooseberries…
Light: This is traditionally the domain of starch: Rice, pasta, noodles, potatoes (if you don’t count them as yellow). But also egg white, white sesame seeds, parmesan or chopped leek as contrast on meaty or saucy dishes.
Dark: Traditionally you think of nori. But dark bread, any kind of meat that is prepared with a brown sauce like teriyaki, and a lot of fruit (purple grapes, blackberries, plums…) fall in that category… be creative!
There aren’t many foods that are naturally blue, and because of that, the human mind will often find blue-colored food unappetizing. There are however several types of fruit and vegetable called “blue” which you will find are really purple: blue potatoes, blueberries, “blue” cabbage…