O-bento (bento) foods are artfully arranged in unique compartmentalized containers. Half of the meal usually consists of cooked white rice and the remainder is made up of okazu or side dishes of fish, meat, cooked eggs, vegetables and pieces of fruit. The variety of okazu is endless, arranged in infinite ways within the lunch box. The variety and creativity of bento foods rests with the bento maker, usually the (female) homemaker.
The bento is more than just a quick meal. It represents Japanese aesthetics and the country’s view on food, which means it should always be attractive, artfully arranged and delicious. The foods must contrast harmoniously in color, texture, flavor and design.
The earliest form of bento was a rice ball wrapped in a bamboo leaf, carried by farmers and soliders going to work. The most basic bento is still probably a seaweed-wrapped rice ball, served plain or perhaps stuffed with a salted umeboshi (pickled plum). It might be skillfully wrapped and tied in an attractive piece of fabric or furoshiki that can be spread out like a picnic cloth. From this point, the creativity scale can fly off the chart, especially when it comes to school bentos.
Bento meals for children are especially creative and tasty. They differ from the typical American school lunch, which might consist of a brown bag filled with a bologna or peanut butter sandwich, a carton of juice, a cookie or piece of fruit.
Many Japanese mamas are quite determined to create the most delicious, attractive lunch they possible can for their child to proudly carry to school each day. School-bentos begin when the child is in preschool and becomes a long-term commitment of motherly love. Some schools even have certain expectations for the construction of the child’s bento. The food should be attractive, delicious, cut in bite-size pieces, well-liked by the child and easy to eat. School PTA’s hold meetings on bento preparation; hundreds of magazines and cookbooks provide detailed instructions and photos on the art of bento preparation.
The morning ritual begins at the crack of dawn when fresh rice, fish and vegetables are prepared. Some of the okazu may be leftover (or planned-over) from the family meal the night before. Bento foods must keep well and not spoil easily. If time is in short supply, a few bento foods might be picked up at the local market then transferred to the child’s lunch containers. But most of the lunch will be homemade, even if mother works. She is also serious about creating healthy lunches for her child that are nutritionally balanced.
Containers are made from clear hard plastic, anodized aluminum, woven bamboo, sturdy paper, wood, soft tupperware-like plastic or lacquered wood. There are many designer-style bento boxes available in pop culture designs such as Hello Kitty.
Some of the smaller lunch containers are without dividers – rice is spooned over the bottom then topped with a simple okazu (side dish). Rice always goes into the largest section of a bento lunch box since it is traditionally the most important food. Some boxes have two tiers and are stacked.
Many mothers spare no detail in designing a child’s lunch. Rice shaped with Hello Kitty molds will be decorated with intricate black seaweed whiskers; sturdy balls of rice are turned into sports balls. Bento lunch boxes are often filled with foods that resemble tiny pandas, puppies, octopus, bunnies, monkeys, chicks, frogs and flowers.
Bento paraphernalia includes small colorful paper and foil containers, tiny plastic leaf dividers and miniature plastic soy sauce containers shaped like fish, animals and flowers. Small plastic or wooden molds and special cutting tools are used to coax the rice and vegetables into whimsical shapes resembling characters, animals and flowers. Small ice packs shaped like animals, butterflys or flowers and vegetable-shaped, lidded food cups keep foods fresh and intact. Many stores have sections that feature all the equipment needed to produce award-winning bentos.
All of this effort can create a subtle but friendly rivalry among the mamas to produce the cutest, most delicious bento for their children. Imagine the smiles on your child’s face as his (or her) friends gather round to discover the treasures hidden under the lunchbox lid!
Bento meals can be purchased throughout Japan in grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants and even from roadside stands. Eki-ben is a special genre of bento that is eaten on the bullet train. Purchasing a bento at a station is one of the special features of Japanese train travel. Serving containers and foods vary from train station to train station- and region to region. I have a treasured collection of bento containers gathered from various trips throughout Japan. Eki-ben containers can be very artistic. I have seen them shaped like the head of a steer, a boat, a child’s traditional toy and a doll’s-face with a lid shaped like a hat.
My bento-making skills have dramatically improved since my first adventure in Japan in the early 70’s. My early efforts were pretty basic when it came to preparing my young son’s lunches when he attended an International School. Fortunately the school had amazing hot lunches, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
As a occasional treat, we picked up a favorite prepared bento from a neighborhood market. It contained cooked white rice, crispy fried fish fillet (with panko), tasty braised watercress and daikon pickles. I decided to spend my free time learning to prepare Japanese cuisine and those delicious bentos.
A few years later, the cover of my first cookbook (Japanese Cooking, HP Books) featured a special O-bento meal. I arranged the food in an elegant, square, black lacquered box called a ‘shokado‘ bento. Partitioned in four compartments, the shape of the box was inspired by the paint boxes used by artist Shokado Shojo – an Edo monk. ( See accompanying photo)
Later I prepared and served special shokado bento lunch boxes for magazine/newspapers food editors and writers visiting the Japanese consulate in Washington DC. A true labor of love.
Bento meals are becoming more popular in America, even with American chefs who are adapting the tradition for their restaurants. It is one of my favorite ways to entertain guests. The boxed meals are fun to make and serve, delicious to eat and sure to impress your family and friends.