"Kyara-Ben", the Character Bento
June 20, 2016
In Japan, packing a lunch goes beyond cellophane-wrapped peanut butter sandwiches and an apple hastily thrown in a brown paper bag. Instead, a lot of time and thought goes into creating a healthy, aesthetically pleasing bento box. Many are so artfully designed that they're drawing attention all over the world. With a few basic skills and some practice, you too can also try your hand at designing your own.
Getting Started: Bento Basics
A good bento starts with the box: after all, lifting the lid to a colorful and delicious assortment of dishes is perhaps the most exciting part. Back in the Edo period, bento were packed in simple bamboo leaves but, nowadays, you can choose from a variety of boxes: lacquered, wooden, metal, or plastic, not to mention all the different sizes and shapes, and multi-leveled options.
As for the contents of the box, there's plenty of freedom in what you decide to put in. However, a well-balanced bento contains fresh, seasonal ingredients and presents various colors of side dishes along with rice, noodles, or bread. A good rule of thumb is to fill half of the bento with rice and half with side dishes. Any gap should be filled so everything is kept together tightly and doesn't shift in a bag on the way to school or the office. In other words, form and function are as important as nutritional value.
Bento are a staple of Japanese daily life, and a very important part of traditional celebrations as well. For example, during hanami (cherry blossom viewing season), Japanese friends and families pack (or buy!) beautiful bento boxes to be shared, picnic-style, under the pink petals. Another special treat is the ekiben, a packaged bento travelers can purchase at a station before hopping on the Shinkansen (bullet train).
Typical bento fillings range from onigiri (rice balls), kara-age (Japanese fried chicken) and broiled fish, to mini tomatoes, broccoli florets and tamago-yaki (omelet). Sound complicated? The key is to be prepared in advance: you can use leftovers, or freeze large quantities for the following week.