What is Bento?
Bento is a meal in a box. The traditional Japanese bento usually consists of rice and fish or meat with some vegetable. It is one of Japan's most famous contributions to global food culture.
Bento as Identity
Japan is very proud of its local food. In fact, every single province has its own specialty; this is evident in ekiben, the bento sold in major train stations. Each ekiben comprises dozens of beautifully presented distinct regional foods. There is a diverse range of ekiben on offer that it is not an exaggeration to say that many Japanese would struggle to name.
Here are some popular ekiben you might want to give a try. Among them is Matsusaka-gyuu Mootaro Bento, the sweet savory Matsusaka beef sukiyaki rice packed in a black cow head-shaped box. Matsusaka beef is a delicacy renowned worldwide made from cows raised in Matsusaka, Mie prefecture. If you are a chestnut fan, try Hanagasa Kokeshi Bento sold at Yamakata station. The bento consists of steamed rice topped with chestnut, shitake mushroom, scallop and mountain vegetables neatly presented in a Kokeshi (a traditional Japanese wooden doll) bento box.
In some regions, ekiben is only available in train stations with long distance trains going in and out, but in large cities you would find some in department stores or supermarkets. Also, there are hundreds of ekiben on offer at Tokyo station, you will be spoiled with choices.
Bento as Pleasure
Character bento (Charaben) is an elaborately and attractively presented bento. It is a type of bento associated with the kawaii culture. Before moving to the country, I used to believe that charaben is an example of Japanese mainstream like Russians drink Vodka. I learned later that actually making cute bento is sort of hobbies like knitting or painting; even the most dedicated moms don't do it on daily basis. Creating cute charaben does take time, especially for beginners. No kidding!
Bento in Everyday Life
On the contrary, making bento in everyday life requires a lot less effort and time. First, you will need a bento box. There are many kinds of bento box available in Japan, from elegant wooden box, colorful character featured plastic box, hand painted traditional box, sturdy aluminium box. They serve many different purposes. My favorite is cedar wood bento boxes. They are beautiful, light and the cedar wood help absorb excess moisture from steamed rice. So even eating at room temperature, the rice will be almost as good as freshly made.
Aside from the boxes, you will need some bento accessories. Japan is a paradise for hobbyists; you can find any bento gear from nori punchers, cookies cutters, rice molds, bento picks, craft knives, etc. While most are just for fun, I find paper/silicone cups, dividers and small sauce containers are necessary. They help separate the dry food from wet food and hold loose items like berries in one place. The dividers help separate one food from the other without mixing the flavors. Usually the cups and dividers come in bright colors, which help improving the overall bento presentation. The sauce containers helps you keep the sauce separately so that your food will stay dry until lunch time.
Here are some tips and guidelines that help you make a tasty and beautiful bento in no time.
1. Add colour - Food with vibrant color is not only good for your health but also make your bento "pop" naturally. Try to add some of the following.
- Red: tomato, red radish, bell pepper, apple, grapes, strawberries, plum, raspberries, etc.
- Yellow & Orange: corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, bell pepper, persimmon orange, lemon, pineapple, etc.
- Green: lettuce, cucumber, green onion, edamame, broccoli, spinach, okra, shiso, green peas, asparagus, parsley, bok choy, kiwi, etc.
- White: daikon radish, potato, onion, lotus root, enoki mushroom, white sesame seeds, etc.
- Black & Brown: blueberries, shiitake mushroom, burdock root, dried seaweed, black sesame seeds, etc.
2. Add texture - Try to add food with different texture. Or you can inject texture by sprinkling your food with some garnish e.g. parsley, sesame seeds, etc.
3. Flavor it well - When food gets cold, the taste gets weak, so strong taste works better. Remember that delicious bento is a combination, a symphony of taste, sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
4. Pack it tightly - It's best to pack everything just fit in the box, so the food doesn't get messy during transportation. Use small sauce containers or bento picks to fill the gap.
5. Reheat and cool down - If using leftover dinner or frozen food, you should reheat the food and let it cool down completely before packing your lunch box. Hot food creates steam that spoils the food easily.
Of all Japanese food culture, bento is definitely something can't be left out. Bento is not only a lunch box for small kids but also a meal feeding working adults, travelers, and a number of people in parties- for any occasion.