I'm sure that you've heard of bento, the Japanese boxed lunches that you see in Facebook posts and sometimes in Japanese restaurants. The pictures that usually fly around the internet are of cleverly arranged bento, the food looking like animals, flowers, or (in my favorite examples) Hayao Miyazaki characters. They're fun and playful, but good heavens they look like a lot of work.
Well, those sorts of bentos are oekakiben (picture bento) and kyaraben (character bento). Though they are wonderful and creative, it is not required to make your bento look like a shadow box. Bento simply means a Japanese packed lunch, usually split into parts, such as rice, meat, vegetable, and pickles.
The tradition of bento started as far back as to the late Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), a time in Japanese history marked for the emergence of the Samurai and feudalism. Isn't it wonderful to picture a samurai, dressed in his ō-yoroi armor and enjoying a packed lunch? (It's even funnier if you make it a kyaraben bento.)
Today in Japan you can buy bento in convenience stores, train stations and even special bento shops called bentō-ya. Better yet, if you have someone at home who is willing to make you one, you could be headed off to work with a personal bento. From school children to company executives, they all eat bento.
One of my very first Japanese food experiments was delving into the world of bento. It was about four years ago and I wanted to start learning how to cook Japanese food and thought I might as well start with lunch. I bought Makiko Itoh's cookbook, Just Bento. It's a wonderful book that breaks down the whole bento process into chunks that you can complete in twenty minutes. This makes it easy to make a fresh and delicious bento before leaving for work without having to wake up at the crack of dawn.
I spent a week making bento everyday for me and my sister. It was a fantastic exorcise and I really learned a lot about Japanese cooking. However, life got in the way and though I have occasionally made the odd bento since then, I hadn't nailed myself down to the habit.
That changed when I moved back to the family farm a few months ago and decided to dedicate myself to the Washoku Project. I have officially become the family cook and as part of my duties I have to make sure that every one has a healthy and delicious lunch to take to work. Healthy and delicious? Sounds like a job for Bento!
I dusted off Just Bento and another book I had acquired, but not used yet, Ten Minute Bento by Megumi Fujii. I spent a few days getting back into the swing of things, then prepared a week of bentos to present to you, my loyal readers.
Where does a week of bento start? It starts with going through the cook books and making a menu for the week. As suggested by Makiko Itoh, I used a chart to break each bento into a protein, a carb, and a vegetable.
Planning is one thing, cooking is another. However, thanks to the easy recipes I was able to get up at seven and have cooked both a healthy Japanese breakfast (more on that in a later post) and four bentos for me and my family, and be done by the time everyone was leaving for work. I had lots of fun cooking the food and packing the lunches, but even more fun eating them later.
Packing the bento is an art all to itself, and many people use special bento dividers and cups. I do not have anything like that, so I use my master skills to keep everything packed in nicely. The bento box can be just as important as the meal to some. If you're interested in finding out more about bento boxes, check out my kitchen page. The boxes I use are pyrex 3 cup storage containers, which work perfectly.
All in all, my bento week went wonderfully and I intend to carry on with them indefinitely. I promise that in the future I will try my hand at kyaraben and oekakiben for you.