I have no problem admitting that I am a bit of a Japanophile. I've liked anime and manga for quite some time, appreciate the ritual and care taken when donning a kimono, and adore the tiny little nuggets of goodness known as sushi. I don't know as much about Japanese culture as I'd like, but recently I have taken on the task of learning about and making bento lunches.
A bento, for the sake of this blog, is the Japanese version of a homemade lunch. While we Americans might throw a sandwich and some chips into a brown paper bag or pack a salad-filled Rubbermaid container into a lunch bag or box, the people of Japan have brought lunch time to another level. Bentos are aesthetically pleasing, healthy lunches that run the gambit of streamlined and simple to elaborate and time consuming edible works of art.
This elaborate bento features Sailor Pluto from my favorite manga/anime, Sailor Moon. (I first saw a bento lunch while watching Sailor Moon, though I didn't know it at the time.) This amazing creation is completely edible. Pretty insane, right? This type of bento, known as charaben, which means "character bento" or "cute bento," is impractical for most of us, though it is fun to look at! Charaben has become a very popular hobby in Japan, and photos of these bentos can be found all over the internet. Sadly, most of these bentos feature instructions in Japanese only, leaving us English-speaking types to simply sit and stare at the craftsmanship. Other types of bentos include makunouchi bento (elaborate, formal meals served at the table in beautiful lacquered boxes) and kouraku bento (picnic style bento meant for more than one person), but the most common bento is simple and practical. I'm liking it already.
I've had a couple of dry runs with bento lunches, and while there are tons of recipes from Just Bento and its sister site Just Hungry that I'm dying to try (both Japanese and otherwise), the easiest, least time-consuming, and cost-efficient way for me to enjoy this little piece of Japanese culture is to bring...
(My apologies for the slightly out-of-focus-ness of this picture, but I think it still serves it's purpose.)
What you see here is a lunch made entirely of leftovers and fruit/veggies taken from the fridge. Super easy. Raw spinach leaves, leftover cooked baby carrots, and a tiny honeycrisp apple make up the top tier while leftover tikka masala chicken and parmesan and broccoli pasta make up the bottom tier. A little piece of homemade (though not in my home - I bought it at Possum Hollow!) Amish friendship cake fit into the bowl part of my bento, and I included a sidecar of blackberries to round everything out. (It's actually a small canning jar. I've also been keeping baby food jars for the same purpose. I love finding new uses for things!) Again, does it get any easier than this? I don't think so!
Bento-ing fits into my meal schedule very well. I usually make something in the slow cooker for Monday and Wednesday, take leftovers to school in my bento on Tuesday and Thursday, and there's still enough food leftover for us to eat for dinner on my school nights, too! Does it get a little repetitive? Yes, but that's where I get to play around with the fruits and veggies that accompany the main dish. And fruits and veggies really are a big part of having a healthy bento. You could fit pizza bagel bites, chips, and cookies into a bento, but it wouldn't really be a bento in the true sense of the word.
You don't have to invest in a cute-sy bento like I did. (But come on, can you blame me? Look at it!) I've seen containers at my local Kroger that would make great bento boxes, and they're pretty inexpensive at that. Just remember that the box needs to have a good seal so that liquid won't leak out. (Or, for something like soup, you could simply pack your dry items in a bento and put the soup into a thermos.) Of course, if you really want to get into the spirit of bento-ing, there are lots of online sites that ship to the US. I purchased my bento box from Bento&co in Kyoto, Japan. Other sites include Japan Centre and J-List. All of these sites have great products for affordable prices. I can't speak for shipping costs for the other sites, but shipping was only $4 from Bento&co using the cheapest plan, and it arrived in less than a week!
Also note the size of my bento. It's sitting next to a medium-sized coffee cup (or grande-sized, if you want to use Starbucks terms.) I will admit that I was expecting it to be a little bit bigger when I ordered it, but I quickly found that it's the perfect size for me. It really helps control my portion sizes, and forces me to pack the food in tightly, which keeps the food from shifting about and causing leaks. This particular bento only has a leak-proof lid between the bowl and upper tier, so I usually put rice or pasta in the bottom tier.
So there you have it! Bringing a bento lunch is fun, healthy, and can help you save a bit of money. All very good things in my book. I hope to make a more Japanese-esque bento in the near future; I was able to find several Japanese ingredients at a nearby Korean supermarket! (Go figure, right?)
- Mother Nature Mom