The Japanese Bento box is a thing of beauty. Essentially it’s just a lunchbox. But to compare a Bento to a common or garden lunchbox, with soggy sandwiches and a carton of juice, is like comparing a bullet train to a third hand Micro scooter with a dangerously wobbly front axle.
A Bento box can be a black lacquer box containing a set meal in a restaurant, a packed lunch made by your mother in a Micky Mouse box with little plastic compartments and ingeniously included chopsticks, or a takeaway meal in a prettily decorated cardboard box bought in a Combini (convenience store) or railway station complete with tiny packages of soy sauce, ginger and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Every Japanese railway station has their signature Bento box, with people travelling to particular stations to buy their favourites.
The filling of Bento boxes is an art over which great care must be taken. Each separate compartment will hold a tiny portion of food, delicately arranged and often looking like something else. Tomatoes become flowers, sheets of seaweed are cut into Hello Kitty faces and carrot slices become fish scales. Japanese supermarkets have aisles selling all the accompaniments needed for lunch boxes including plastic sheets of grass, Pokemon seaweed and sesame sprinkles and tiny soy sauce bottles in any shape you can imagine, with even tinier pipettes for refilling them. We have a set of vegetable bottles with a cherry pipette. The Japanese word for ‘cute’ is ‘kawaii’. It gets used a lot.
The central point of any Japanese meal is rice and the same is true of a Bento. In a restaurant, it will be a mound of rice in one of the little black lacquer compartments. In a home made Bento, it is likely to be an onigiri or rice ball. These are very easy to make at home, you simply cook sushi rice in a little more water than you’d use for long grain, until it’s nice and sticky. Wet your hands, then sprinkle a little salt on them and mold your rice balls, either with your hands, or much better, in plastic molds in the shape of hearts, teddy bears or stars (see above). If you like, you can make a little pocket for a teaspoon of tuna mayonnaise or a pickled plum. The last thing you need to do is wrap your rice ball in a strip of seaweed, or sprinkle with Pokemon fish flakes. Oishi*.
Shop bought Onigiri have an ingenious method for preventing soggy seaweed. The always triangular ball of rice is wrapped in a sheet of seaweed which is fully encased in protective plastic. At the top of the triangle, there’s a small tab that you pull, in the same way as you open a packet of digestives. By the power of magic and Japanese inventiveness, the wrapper comes away in two pieces, leaving the seaweed encasing the rice, without you having touched it.
Japanese meals usually also include pickles, some form of vegetable or salad and fish or other protein. If you are having boiled eggs, you will of course want to turn them into flowers or hearts, they taste better that way. Don’t let your three year old put the eggs in the pan. Cracked eggs do not make pretty hearts.
Despite being on a budget, our experience of food in Japan was overwhelmingly postitive, we rarely had a bad meal, and some were truly delicious. Our two most memorable Bento meals were very different. One was the ‘cheap’ option in a very expensive restaurant with a picture window onto a river view outside Kyoto. The box was beautiful and the food yummy. The only other diners were a middle aged man with his young, glamorous mistress (possibly), who giggled flirtatiously as course after course after course of beautifully presented food were brought to their table by kimono clad waitresses. Our other memorable Bento box was also eaten by a river, sitting on a log. The food was a little luridly coloured for my tastes, but the setting in a pine forest with a waterfall rushing in the distance couldn’t have been better.
If I have whetted your appetite for Bento boxes, check out the Flickr Bento Pool for some truly amazing examples of the finished article.