Bento Boxes: Not Another Brown-bagged Lunch
While traditional Japanese bento boxes simply consisted of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetable, creativity has taken a much larger role in the making of this takeaway lunch. You may have seen a surge of the colorful boxed foods on popular food blogs recently, but bento boxes have actually been dated back around a thousand years. In Japan today, mothers are known for spending a great deal of time on the aesthetic value of these culinary capsules, creating figures, faces, and elaborate scenes for their kids' lunches. There are even numerous bento contests held in Japan each year, focusing on the detailed making of characters called charaben or kyaraben.
The aesthetic side of bentos could leave you gawking at google images for hours, but the bento fad has actually been touted in the U.S more for its practical purposes. Because bento boxes are focused on variety, health conscious parents are able to create more well-rounded meals for their kids with a bento-style lunch. Rather than sending students off with the typical bagged sandwich, many mothers have started using bentos to improve upon the variety of their child's to-go lunches. Feeling left out? Bento is certainly not only for kids. Packing yourself a bento-inspired lunch can save you a lot of money at work, not to mention extra fast-food calories.
Aside from cute and elaborate sculptures, the main appeal of the bento box is the variety that they allow. A simple American version of a bento box could include grilled shrimp, steamed vegetables, and a few pieces of fruit for a healthy dessert, and a more traditional Japanese bento might include sweet rice, pieces of sashimi and fresh edamame. If you are looking for the aesthetic variety, the inside of your box will likely have smiling sweet rice balls, or even a scene from a cartoon.
Interested in getting your bento on?
A wide variety of bento recipes can also be found on Foodgawker's bento page. The best part about looking for recipes on this website is that you see the picture first, which can be a big part of bento making.
If you are looking for more inspiration JustBento.com by Makiko Itoh is a great resource for bento-beginners. The site includes recipes, bento basics, a shop, and a forum for bento lovers to communicate and share experiences. Itoh is a seasoned bento maker from Tokyo, and she even has a book out called The Just Bento Cookbook.
For those looking for more of an artistic challenge, try Crystal Watanabe's blog, aibento.net, or Lia Chen's blog at mybentolicious.com. Both offer how-to's on holiday themed rice faces, extravagant food caricatures, as well as tips on bento making, tool suggestions, and blog and book references.
While there are food boxes made specifically for bento with separated compartments, a small tupperware will certainly do the trick if you want to give bento a try. If you do start with tupperware, though, try packing the food tightly in order to stop it from sliding and mixing. Remember, the beauty of a basic bento is that pretty much anything goes, so make what you like and you're bound to have fun!