sabato 4 giugno 2011

A Few Bento Books for Your Consideration

I had purchased a few books in the last year or so either for creating bentos or actually “dissecting” them. One I found very useful the other a big let down.

501 Bento Box Lunches” p.359 by Grafitto Books was the let down. Although there is a nice intro explaining a bit about Bento Basics and how to divide up your box so as not to contaminate other ingredients, the rest of the book is mostly western style bentos. The ingredients are clearly western inspired as is the subject matter. I couldn't find that many bento lunch suggestions worth remembering or repeating here.

The book is divided up into such sections as “Colorful Bento” or “Stylish Bento”. There is one chapter dedicated to traditional bentos but even there it's mostly onigiri filled bentos or sushi and some recipes for omelette fillers. It would have made more sense to divide the book into primary ingredients(meat,fish,veg) and eventually have chapters for Cute Bento-as they did- or Chariben Bento with people and characters (plus explanations of how they were executed). They do end up including a chapter for special holiday or occasions bento. All I can say is that for years I have been looking for explanations on how to paint facial expressions on bento manga characters and no one has yet to include this in their book (altho I did find it in Japanese. Too bad I can't read kanji.)

Overall it's pretty useless as a bento reference book. You would need tons of bookmarks just to be able to find the recipes or bento you may want to repeat or use. Given that in fact there are 501 bentos it's pretty much stuffed with every type of ingredient you could possible try to use in a bento but with no real index so you cannot easily find what you need. If I am creating a bento I usually have a certain set of ingredients I would like to use. If I cannot find a bunch of bento suggestions based on the main ingredient then the book really isn't very useful to me. It's like a badly packed bento box.

At the back of the book they have listed the contributors who, out of 15 listed, only 2 possibly 3 names could be oriental or asian. I am not saying that westerners are unable to create good bento but I believe it is a cultural thing. You can spot a westerner's bento compared to one that is cooked and created by a Japanese mom hell bent(o) on her kid having the best looking and nutritious boxed lunch at school that day. Perhaps it's generalizing but I defer to the culture that has created and nurtured the bento for my inspiration and instruction.

The book I felt was more useful was “Kawaii Bento Boxes Cute and Convenient Japanese Meals on the Go” pag.81. Kawaii basically means cute. The first few pages are dedicated to the basics as usual but explaining it so even a child can understand. The Bento is divided into the Energy Source (carbs) Body Builder (meat fish or soy) and Body Tuner (veg). They even give a nice example of smart packing and suggest how to make the bento fun for kids. There are a lot of photos to explain each section so you can't mess up.

Most of the bento examples offered here are simple with simple ingredients – the only down side is that some of the bentos suggest the use of foods that may be considered less nutritious than others. Lots of ketchup for decorating or hot dogs as fillers or prepared fried foods. But anyone with issues can find substitutes easily.

What I liked most about this book is the explanations on how to prepare the food. They make ample use of the microwave oven and plastic wrap. Both these kitchen tools are essential when making a bento in the morning before going to work. The plastic wrap stuffed in the rice mold facilitates removal of the form without loosing the overall look. When making “sushi” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, white bread substitutes the nori, it becomes easier to roll and cut them into the pieces and place them in the box. You just throw away the plastic once you are ready to eat.

The book is divided into sections like “Bento for Cold Weather” or “Bread Bento” which is much easier to understand and to choose the ingredients you prefer. There are a ton of suggestions to make each bento special. And each type has some easy to follow recipes at the bottom of the page (one was for Mac And Cheese to be made in the microwave so super fast and doable in the morning) and the quantities for each recipe are perfect for one.

The last sections of the book are dedicated to methods such as “Rolled Meat Variations” or Omelette variations and Accents with instructions on how to cut some of the fruit and veg used to decorate the bento. There is also a section on ingredients and their recipes divided by color so you can even plan your bento – for example cheesy spinach for green (instead of just steamed or boiled spinach) or quick quiche in a muffin foil for yellow – based on what's in your fridge.

The book may not have over 500 bentos but I found it infinitely more useful than the one that did.

mercoledì 18 maggio 2011

No, I'm not dead. Just unemployed.

Well it has been a while since I have returned here to post something. My bento boxes have been neglected since I stopped working. I no longer have the need to prepare them in the morning for my lunch time pleasure. But before I stopped working, I did make one final bento box purchase from my favorite site Bento & Co.

The box is called Ojue and is around the size of a school text book.

It has three compartments so you can prepare more or less food depending on what you're preparing for the day. I like the fact that it slides easily inside a book bag or handbag. The dimensions are slim and stylish (only 5.5cm deep) yet 16cm x 16cm in length and height. So you can fit 740ml of food in it. That's even enough for a guy! In fact, the color selection is great with white or black for men perhaps and green and pink for the more feminine.

I like the explaination of the creator, Chiaki Murata, of the box:

Every day we carry books, files and cellphones in our bags vertically. Why not the same for a bento box? The Ojue lunch box can be carried easily in a vertical manner. It has a small footprint, and the independent compartments can be used and arranged in many ways, using the 'vertical flexibility' concept.

The elastic bento belt actually is adjustable to fit the box in case you prefer to only use two out of the three compartments. There is also a built in chopstick holder and a pair of chopsticks which match the color of the box. At around USD 25.00 it is a bargain considering the quality and design factor - and it's actually on sale now! This is no Hello Kitty bento box! This is stuff for serious eaters and aficionados of the bento!! Enjoy !

martedì 18 agosto 2009

The Manga Cookbook

I purchased this book as a gift for my friend's daughter who is in love with all things manga and wants to learn to cook some Japanese food. It is called The Manga Cookbook by the Manga University Culinary Institute (if that actually exists) 158 pages and before I gave it to her, I'd figure I'd post some info about it here.
Honestly, I am tempted to keep it but since many of the recipes I already know quite well, I will not. There are a few tips which I did not know about so it was a pleasure to read.

The book is quite cute being presented in comic book form. The beginning pages have colored fotos and then the book becomes a comic paperback book format. Very effective.
There are recipes for preparing fruit and even how to hold and use chopsticks. They have even included a glossary at the beginning so you can understand the ingredients.
The recipe lists includes everything from setting the table, appetizers, and second course dishes like chicken Teriyaki and Yakitori. There is even a recipe and full explaination on how to make sweet bean paste, sushi and miso soup. There is also a section on how to make and pack two different bentos - with full info on how to cut the food to shapes to form a little train and a garden.
I was surprised to find an actual recipe and instructions on how to make your own Udon noodles.

I like the suggestion to put the dough in a baggy and "remove your shoes...and step on it softly for 15 minutes". Cute way of kneading noodle dough.

It makes lots of safety suggestions for young people learning how to use kitchen knives.
Overall the price is very much worth it. I picked it up on a discount from an Italian Internet book store but cover price is $14.95. As usual, on Amazon, it's discounted and you can actually check out the content of the book. It makes a nice gift for a young person who wants to try something new. And it's not so bad for someone older who thought they knew all the tricks.

mercoledì 5 agosto 2009

Medieval Food

My sister Karen bought me a book a while ago during one of our visits to a museum here in Florence. The book is by Christopher Hibbert and called The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici which can be found on Amazon for a decent price.

I have yet to finish the book since it is not quite as fun as many historical novels but it is interesting especially if you have been to Florence or know any Florentine vernacular. It is great fun to finally understand where alot of strange customs were born and why some survive today. It's like reading a "hidden Florence" book that explains so many cultural differences not just between Italians and non but between Florentines and non.

In any case, there is an excerpt about food that was amazing since today's Florentine cooking doesn't at all reflect the creativity that the Medicis enjoyed.

"...evening meal of garlic-flavoured pasta, ravioli in broth, liver sausage or black pudding, goat's milk cheese, fruit and wine, with occasional pigeon or a piece of meat, usually lamb, on a Sunday. For the richer merchants, of course, there was more exotic fare. Excessive indulgence was forbidden by sumptuary laws; but, as with clothes, the laws were flagrantly disregarding and the most was made of every loophole. If the main course was to consist of no more than "roast with pie", well then, everything that could possibly be desired was tossed into the pie, from pork and ham to eggs, dates and almonds. An honoured guest of a well-to-do citizen might be offered first of all a melon, then ravioli, tortellini or lasagne, then a berlingozzo, a cake made of flour, eggs and surgar, then a few slices of boiled capon, roast chicken and guinea fowl, followed by spiced veal, or pork jelly, thruses, tench, pike, eel or trout, boiled kid, pigeon, partridge, turtle-dove or peacock. For vegetables there was usually a choice of broad beans, onions, spinach, carrots, leeks, peas and beetroot. Finally there might be rice cooked in milk of almonds and served with sugar and honey, or pinocchiato, a pudding made out of pine kernals, or little jellies made of almond-milk, coloured with saffron and modelled in the shape of animals or human figres. Everything was strongly flavoured. A chicken minestra would be spiced with ginger and pounded almonds, as well as cinnamon and cloves, and sprinkled with cheese or even sugar. Into a fish pie would go olive oil, orange and lemon juice, pepper, salt, cloves, parsley, nutmegs, saffron, dates, raisins, powdered bay leaves and marjoram. The red sauce known as savore sanguino contained not only meat, wine, raisins, cinnamon and sandal, but also sumac which is now used only for tanning."

The amazing thing is that if you ask about many recipes, they have been lost through the ages.
I know of one book published by a chef who actually has a restaurant here and cooks renaissance and medieval florentine. It's called the Pentola D'Oro and his book is called the same although I think it would be difficult to find outside of Italy. I went there a long time ago and Chef Alessi served up tagliatelle al raffano - meaning pasta with horse-radish !! I had never even seen a horse-radish let alone think about using it in a pasta sauce. It was almost impossibile to eat. But really nice.

It's too bad that so much of this cooking has been lost on modern day florentines. I guess some things, like the Medici, where destined to die out.

lunedì 20 luglio 2009

New Bento Purchase

I would like to direct everyone to a new site which I found while facebooking. It is called bento and co and even tho the site is in French, it is worth a look through even if you don't understand French.

The products come from Japan. I was interested mostly because the prices are given in Euros (which is easier for me) and the transport costs are more than reasonable. For shipping to Europe, the usual insurance is suggested either using EMS or FEDEX. In the case of FEDEX, be careful as they will charge you extra for paying custom's and duty upon receipt of a package (it's considered a sort of COD or cash on delivery even tho it's a bit of a stretch in my book and technically stealing. But hey...)

Here is the bento I purchased.
It can be found under "les sets" and is really nice because so many colors are offered and co-ordinated with the little cotton bag and chop sticks in their case. The chop-sticks are really high quality - something most don't offer.

They also have some amazing little accessories like panda food sticks and bottles as well as unique food cups that can be re-used. The also have really nice onigiri containers - for putting your rice cakes in and keep them fresh.

What caught my eye though was the soup bento. I had been looking for a solution to keeping a portion of soup hot but not using a giant thermos or something. Well, I found it here and in a variety of colors. The nice thing is that it is quite compact and holds a serving of soup and is very very chic. It even has its own little folding spoon. The quality is excellent. No cheap or fragile plastic.

The site changes often since I had purchased not even a week ago my products (which arrived as promised within 4 days) and already I see new products up on the site. Some are very special made of bamboo and if I understand correctly especially for Bento&Co.

Prices can be quite high for the more crafted products but I have never really seen anything like them. Well worth the price I believe.

Browse the site and purchase as they are quite serious and the products really are lovely.
And to keep in theme, make sure you check out their face book page and their blog. They're full of recipes too.

martedì 7 aprile 2009

Easter Eggs

Ok, I know that decorating Easter eggs has nothing to do with bentos but since they are food and since this can be considered "beyond" normal food treatment, I might as well post this.
There are many ways of decorating eggs but I found that "Pysanky" or Ukrainian Easter eggs are probably the most fun and elaborate. The method is basically layering colors on top of colors and blotting out sections of the design using wax (usually beeswax) which has been heated with a candle. A small funnel shaped wax applicator is needed and can be found in most specialised crafts shops along with all the egg dye colors. Otherwise, you can purchase a ton of materials right on the internet.
The reasoning behind the egg decorating seems to be religious. The symbols used in most traditional Pysanky are based in the Christian faith. If you're interested in knowing more visit Learn Pysanky where they explain alot of the symbology as well as giving hints for making your eggs.

Step one would be to prepare your eggs and your colors. Since the colors should be cool before working, prepare them beforehand. I used mason jars since the opening is large enough to fit the egg (which should not be emptied yet) and a spoon to fish it out. The color preparation is clearly explained on the packets of color. Hot water and vinegar is needed.

Your eggs can be cleaned with a little vinegar to remove any marks or stamped dates. White eggs obviously work better.
Colors, egg, wax applicators and pencil

After choosing your design (books are available or go on the internet where designs are provided free), you pencil it out carefully.

Here I have penciled in the design and added wax over the areas I want to keep white. Meaning that the wax will now block the area from being dyed any color at all. I then dipped my egg in the yellow dye. Generally you work from lightest less intense colors to darker colors.

Here is the egg after dipping and drying and another egg penciled out and ready for dipping. Here I am working on some eggs.

And so on. Each time you apply wax you will maintain the color under the wax.
Green and blue....
and red...
And here is the egg with the varnish partially removed. There are a few ways you can do this since, if you remember, the egg has not been emptied yet and the last thing you want to do is break it while removing the wax. You can use oil based products (like cornoil heated up a bit) but traditionally it's just a small tea candle, tissues (without the softner in them) and patience. Do not place the egg directly over the candle as it will burst. Just heat the wax until it shines a bit and wipe off. You'll be amazed as the finish design emerges from the black wax.

The design finally can be seen !

Here are some eggs emptied and waiting their varnishing. Traditionally you're not supposed to empty the egg. They have a special meaning if they still have their innards. But to let them stay intact, you have to rotate your eggs everyday until the insides basically mummify. I have done it so it does work. I also put some eggs in the fridge and didn't touch them for a year and they stayed fine. No smell, no rotting. Otherwise, make a tiny opening at both ends with a needle, twirl the needle inside to break up the yolk, cover the end you're going to blow into with some plastic wrap (otherwise some of the dye may come off on your mouth!) and blow. Course, you can buy an egg blower too but that would remove alot of the fun.

Varnish your eggs with a high gloss varnish. A few coats will do. And let them dry well.

And that's it ! Ok, seems complicated but it isn't really. And the finally results are fantastic.

Here are the finished eggs. And here are some eggs which I presented in frames or in little environments.

Happy decorating.

martedì 21 ottobre 2008

Face Food - Christopher D Salyers

"Face Food - The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes" 80 pages by Christopher D Salyers is as cute in size and presentation as the bentos are themselves.

This is the first book I found that deals with the actual philosphy and modern use of making lunch boxes. The book is a testimonial of many Moms (and one Dad) who prepare their kids some kind of lunch at least twice a week. It shows their work (and artwork) but more importantly it asks the real questions of why they make these fab lunches for their children.

I read for the first time the term "charaben" which refers to using manga or other characters in creating the bentos. There is no real explaination of technique but lots of images that give you a fantastic idea of the dedication and creativity behind the bentos. One mom even said her kid had become critical of her bentos when she makes some slight mistakes in the character representation. Another Mom described making the charaben for her kid as " A communication tool between my child and I and between my child and his classmates." It's not just an expression of love but also an attempt to improve the status of the child in school. There is actually competition between children for who would have the best o-bento. And strangely enough, according to the author, the moms are not competative. They actually have get togethers where they exchange methods and secrets on creating and executing the best charaben possible.

The author has his own blog spot as well ( which I suggest you check out as he is constantly on the look out for face food as well as reviews of his book. Overall, I enjoyed the book but I do have a few points on where the author could have improved it. For example, the format is great (quite small) and the actual material of the cover gives a feeling of an old household recipe book. But the pages are printed on some kind of paper which does not render justice to the intricate photos they present. It seems like recycled paper but I was unable to find anywhere which mentions if it is. (ok, I admit, if it were recycled then I guess it's ok that the images are grainy...) The typeset works fairly well (altho at times difficult to read) yet it gives the impression of reading someone's diary entries or their kitchen journal where they document their bentos. The ingredients lists for each bento are not accurate as far as I can guess. But that may be due to the fact that each Mom who filled out some kind of form had to summarise overall ingredients or the translation fell short.

Anyway, without a doubt, for a person who is just getting into charaben and bentos it's definately a book to check out. After reading this one you can probably convince yourself that making a bento is not just fun but possible.