Think outside the bento box
By Mariko Sanchanta
Published: May 16 2009 02:39 | Last updated: May 16 2009 02:39
As a half-Japanese child in the suburbs of Washington DC, my mother forced me to spend my Saturdays resentfully stuck at Japanese school, while my schoolfriends frolicked in the sun.
The single highlight of Japanese school was lunchtime. All of the students, most of whom were the sons and daughters of Japanese diplomats, would gather in a massive dining room. Then, one by one, they would unwrap and open their bento – those exquisitely packed and presented compartmentalised Japanese lunch boxes.
Bento boxes had humble beginnings. They became popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867), when travellers would carry onigiri – rice balls – in bamboo boxes. Fans of Noh and Kabuki theatre would also munch on their creations during the numerous intervals. During the Meiji restoration in the 1880s, the first ekiben – or bento one could buy at train stations – were born. Ekiben have since become a staple of rail travel in Japan, and even the tiniest stations proudly feature the best of their local produce, all bundled up neatly in a small box, for less than £5.
But at my Saturday school, each bento box was more intricately constructed than the last. The Japanese mums rose at dawn to get started on their miniature masterpieces: slicing vegetables into tiny shreds; coaxing rice into heart and star shapes; piecing together components to create an arresting visual effect that would inspire envy in the other children.
These lunch boxes were so beautiful it was a crime to eat them. One girl’s mother lovingly created a panda’s face out of rice, with a pink umeboshi pickled plum perched on top as the nose. Boys’ boxes contained edible cars, aircraft, and manga characters.
As I half-heartedly bit into my sad sandwich, I looked on in horror as the Japanese children jabbed their chopsticks into their amazing concoctions, destroying in minutes what had taken hours to prepare.
More than two decades later, bentos have gained a cult following, appearing on fancy restaurant menus that stray far from the idea that bento boxes should be relatively cheap (Japanese workers buy them for £5 and eat at their desks). In London, upscale restaurant Sake No Hana features £25 bento boxes for lunch.
Photo-sharing and social networking sites have helped home-bento enthusiasts share their creations, creating a cultish fan base for their art and aesthetics. Gemma Cox, 26, launched her blog – www.bentobusiness.co.uk – two years ago. Her site – which features quirky and colourful pictures, recipes, a glossary and links – has an international following. “I think, thanks to the recession, people are looking out for ways to maintain their quality of life whilst cutting back on their expenditure,” says Cox, who has noticed a spike in site traffic over the past few months. “Gardening, cooking and crafts have all become trendy again, instead of being rather old-fashioned. In many ways, bento- making is a combination of cuisine and crafts, because making the finished dishes is only half of the work.”
It was out of this phenomenon that 500 Bento Box Lunches: 500 Unique Recipes for Brilliant Bento (Graffito Books) was born. The book, published this week, has been largely compiled by contacting women who had their own bento blogs. “We were interested in the way that bento recipes are evolving – cooks at home are adapting the original Japanese idea of a healthy balanced meal in a portable box and these recipes now include western cooking styles, from pasta, salad, chicken, curry and are a great way of using leftovers,” says Eleanor Mathieson, creative director for Graffito. “We wanted to reflect the variety of bento being made by people at home: from traditionally inspired recipes to western variations.”
As I look at the pictures in 500 Bento, I feel a pang of nostalgia for those horrible Saturdays of my youth.
Mariko Sanchanta is the Europe editor for the FT’s international companies newsdesk
1 cup long-grain white rice, cooked and tinted sky-blue (1-drop blue food colour)
1 cup cooled couscous
1 yellow “pear cherry” tomato
4 Baby Bella portabello mushrooms
⅓ cup apple or pear sauce
1 generous handful green beans, ends trimmed
black decorating gel
1 sheet nori
4 uncooked yam soba noodles
flexible plastic toothpicks
1-tier bento box
Using a rice paddle, press blue rice into upper half of bento tier; fill in bottom half with cooked couscous. Tint apple or pear sauce with two drops of blue food colour. Stir well and spread over most of couscous, leaving a narrow shoreline. This is the pond.
Split green beans lengthwise to form marsh grasses. Arrange around sides and bottom of the pond. Break soba noodles into short sticks; arrange them among green beans as reeds.
Work with contours and shading of mushrooms to carve bodies, wings and tails of geese. Assemble geese on cutting board then move on to rice. Wings of the flying goose are formed from cuts of mushroom, one draped over the goose’s side and another stuck, in a perpendicular manner, into rice.
Use nail scissors to cut necks and heads of geese from nori. Add to box. Use scraps of white mushroom flesh as white feather-flashes on heads. With toothpicks, paint dabs of black gel over the nori to form eyes and beaks. Slice end off the cherry tomato and position cut-side down to serve as the sun.
Created by Amorette Dye, from ‘500 Bento Box Lunches’, Graffito £9.99
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009