sabato 27 settembre 2008

What exactly is a "Bento" ?

What exactly is a bento box? It is the Japanese name for lunch box and basically all the preparation that goes with it. Preparing a bento lunch box in the morning can be a complicated ritual. Most Japanese Mom's get into unspoken contests to see who can actually prepare the most tasty and eye-catching meals. Since many Moms also work, this every-day habit is slowly disappearing. But still there is something to be said for preparing lunches for ourselves and the people we care about.
I'm sure most of us would equate our Mom's lunch preparation with something from Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch where Mom parepared everything to pack up in a brown sack or Superman metal lunch box (wonder how much one of those would be worth today?) We'd get the usual P&J sandwhich, some kind of fruit (an apple maybe?) and some cheesey crackers. But basically it was a sandwich of some kind. And milk money. I remember that I always brought some kind of brown bagged lunch and milk money – and I still remember sipping out of those mini milk cartons with a straw.
The Japanese version of the bagged lunch has always been a little more complicated. They probably didn't have P&J sandwhiches, they had little stuffed rice sandwhiches (onigiri) wrapped with seaweed (nori) and accompanied by some kind of protein (teriyaki fish) and fruit. The entire lunch would be nutritionally complete and would be presented in some kind of creative way. For example, cutting hot dogs so that they look like little sea creatures. Or having carrots cut into flower shapes. Since the Japanese believe that digestion begins with the eyes, the actual presentation and combinations of colors has as much to do with the meal as the nutritional content.
I have always been intrigued by Japanese culture. The art of printmaking – one of my majors in university – was always stimulating since it involves various steps and processes to achieve the correct final result. Cooking for me is also a series of processes. Living in Italy I have learned to cook well since Italians have an instinct and respect for the "raw materials" used in food preparation. Fresh is always best so meals are planned around seasonal products. Japanese cooking is no less different. Sushi (preparation and presentation of raw fish) for example requires decades of training before someone can achieve the title of "Sushi Chef". And for anyone who has actually visited a sushi bar, you can appreciate why. So, for me, the preparation of my own Bento Box is a great challenge and a lot of fun. And tasty too !
First and foremost, a decent Bento box is required if we are going to make a bento lunch. They have never been easy to locate in America or Europe but now that Ebay exists, you can easily locate sellers who will furnish you with dozens of style boxes and containers. The box should be big enough to contain all the food for the meal being prepared. For example, I can get away with a small two-tier box but my husband would require a larger box to fit a larger amount of food. Some come with their own utensils and carrying bag whereas others are just the decorative container. Most are not dish-washer or microwave safe. This is not necessarily a disadvantage since it adds to the challenge of preparing foods which taste good cold or lukewarm.
In addition to a nice box and a way to carry it, it's a good idea to locate small condiment holders. If you like soy sauce or hot sauces, it's always best to flavor the food when you are ready to eat it so as not to end up with soggy rice or mushy foods that have been sitting in soy sauce since the morning when you made the meal. Having little containers is a great advantage and they can easily fit inside the box next to the food. Or having little mustard and ketchup packets (take extra ones when you are buying fast food next time). Another good source for mini condiments is the next time you take a trip somewhere by plane! Most people throw away the little bottles and salt and pepper packets. I actually got hold of a tiny bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Cool. You can find all kinds of little accessories on Ebay too.
The meals that get prepared definitely do NOT have to be of Japanese origin. You can prepare anything in a bento box. The little boxes can hold an incredible amount of food. You could prepare the night before some grilled chicken breast. Once grilled just cover it and leave it in a cool place (it doesn't necessarily have to go in the fridge – as long as your house isn't super over heated, then you can leave it wrapped tightly in foil after it's cooled down). The next morning, get up ten minutes earlier and spread the bottom of your box with fresh small leafed salad, cut the chicken into bit-sized strips and carefully position them so they look like they are a whole chicken breast. Prepare some instant rice, strain and put that in the other part of your box. Be sure to let it cool a bit. In the meantime, whisk up a lemon vinigrette to put on your chicken and transfer it to a little bottle dispenser. Put that in with the chicken. Transfer a bit of soy sauce into another bottle and put that in with your rice. Close it all up and there you are. It's not super creative in looks but it will taste good when you pull it out at lunch. And it's good for you! Nothing fattening there !
I have been preparing bentos now for only a few weeks. I purchased a few off Ebay and now with my new work hours I will have to prepare my lunches daily. So, this blog is to give you some ideas and tips on making some interesting food that hopefully is also interesting to look at. You can check out and which are two great sites for ideas and info and more links. Enjoy.
(The above bento is not mine. Wish it was. But certainly we can finds lots of inspiration on the internet!)

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