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22 April 2012 @ 12:39 pm
Food as Art: Bento 101  

What is Bento?

Bento is the Japanese version of a packed lunch, usually taken to work and school by adults and schoolchildren alike, as a convenient and nutritious meal. Traditionally, it is a meal divided into two parts: one half of the box will be filled with rice, and the other half will be filled with a variety of accompanying foods, such as vegetables, fish, eggs, or meat. A well balanced bento will consist of rice to side dishes in a 1:1 ratio, and within the side dishes a 1:2 ratio of fish/meat to vegetables.

What kind of foods should I include my Bento?

Anything you heart desires can be included in your bento of course, but here are some traditional foods used in bento making:
▪ Tamagoyaki - Omelette strips (or squares) cooked with salt and sugar
▪ Fried, boiled or scrambled eggs
▪ Sausages
▪ Sushi
▪ Fava beans
▪ Seafood - fish, octopus, eel, Kishu fish soaked in vinegar, shrimp, prawns
▪ Sushi rice
▪ Lotus root
▪ Boiled burdock, wrapped in a slice of anago (sea eel)
▪ Bamboo shoots
▪ Steamed, boiled or pickled vegetables
▪ Umeboshi - A pickled apricot, a long-standing traditional bento box-dweller, considered to keep the rice from going bad.

What do I need to make a Bento?

Originally, bento was wrapped, not boxed, in natural materials such as oak, magnolia and bamboo leaves. Later, it became more practical (and perhaps more fashionable) to use wooden boxes as containers. In some regions, fancy boxes were made out of weaved thin strips of bamboo or willow, or by bending wood into shapes. These methods are still used today, and then sold as examples of traditional handiwork.

Today bento boxes come in many shapes, sizes & materials. You can get pretty much any design you can think of on a bento box. Some popular designs include Sanrio characters such as Hello Kitty, Disney characters & many other animated characters.

The most common bento box shapes include:
▪ Hangetsu (half-moon) - This shape was reputedly favoured by Sen No Rikyu who established the art of the tea ceremony in the Momoyama period (1573-1603). The shape is said to be designed to contribute to the meal, so the eater can experience the bento with all five senses.
▪ Chabako (tea box) - Chabako is used to hold the apparatus used for open air ceremonies.
▪ Shokado - These were inspired by the partitioned paint boxes that early Edo period monk and painter, Shokado Shojo used. They usually consist of a box divided into four equally sized compartments.

Because bento is a dish that is eaten a considerable amount of time after it is cooked, any food that is used in the meal is chosen and prepared carefully. Perishable foods that do not store well or go bad easily, are never used, and any excess liquid is eliminated from what is used. Raw fish is not included, unless previously soaked in vinegar. Most foods are boiled, grilled or deep fried and when stored, cut up into small pieces to make eating it in public a little easier, where social graces come into the process of eating a lot more than they do at home.

A feature of bento that separates Japanese culture from Western culture, is the ideal of aesthetics. Food presentation is considered extremely important as part of the meal. So, to ensure a good impression when the box is opened, the visuals of the food used are chosen carefully: using bright colours, and arranging them in an attractive manner. Bamboo leaves are used to separate different foods, so the tastes don't blend, and the box is packed as full as possible, so that the food doesn't get damaged in transit.

Where can I buy Bento boxes & accessories?

There are many great online stores that sell bento suupplies. Some of my favorites are:
Bento-Obento - an excellent eBay store!
Ichiban Kan - insanely cheap & cute stuff here!
JBox - has the cutest & most unique bento I have seen!
Tokyo Gift - another wonderful eBay establishment!

There are tons of other eBay sellers with great bento supplies, but be careful, some sellers are trying to pass off items picked up at Dollar Tree & other discount stores as authentic bento items for a much higher price. Which brings me to my last suggestion, search everywhere! Be creative, take what you have learned about bento & use it to find your own unique supplies. I have found numerous adorable things at my local Dollar Tree.

What are some good sites to learn more?

As with everything on the internet, there are tons of places to get informations about bento. But these are a few of my favorites:

Bento Box - great site with bento staples, how-tos & pictures!
Lunch in a Box - amazing site filled with recipes & tips as well as a bento store locator!
Cooking Cute - this site has pretty much everything you can think of about bento!
Just Bento - a site full of bento recipes & wonderful healthy ones at that!
Bento Business - another great site filled with recipes & other great information!
Bento on Flickr - amazing, beautiful, artistic & fun bento photos galore!


photo credit: Bento Business on Flickr