Bento boxes are one of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese food culture. They are completely different from what most Americans think of as lunch, and instead represent something that is distinctly Japanese!
What Are Bentos? (弁当は何ですか？)
When most Americans look at an unfilled Bento box their first response is something like “There is no way you could fit enough food in there.” That is because most Americans are associate lunch time with larger foods such as sandwiches and chips. I work with mostly blue collar southern men and the first time I ever brought my お握りto work I was told that they looked like “horse biscuits.” Many of them count lunch as a combo from a local fast food restaurant or a large plate of southern style cooking from a local restaurant. I however however prefer the fresh food and compact packing of a bento box. A bento is a Japanese style meal that is nutritionally balanced, visually appealing and densely packed in a box. These bento boxes can be prepared at home or bought for convenience from stores. Traditional bentos are commonly made up of rice, meat and one or more vegetables.
Bento Boxes (弁当箱)
One of the best parts of Bentos is getting to shop around and pick out your favorite bento box! Bento boxes range in both size and cost. There is not a standard bento box size, but instead box size corresponds to the user. Lunch In A Box has an awesome article on choosing the right size bento that is based off a popular Japanese website. For me, a 23 yr old adult male, I would need a 900ml bento box, however I find that I personally do not need that much food for lunch so I settled on a 700ml box that suits me better. Some of the nicer and pricer boxes are made from real wood, while the cheaper ones are plastic. Of course you can get some very 可愛い boxes as well.
Packing a Bento
I like bento boxes, because they personally appeal to my organized nature. Packing a bento can be an art form if you want it to be, but the most important part is that you must pack it without gaps. When packing a bento box it is generally a rule of thumb that your food should be 3 parts carbohydrates (I prefer rice!), 2 parts fruits and vegetables and 1 part protein (as a vegetarian I either use meat substitutes or tofu). When a bento box is packed using this ratio without spaces then the calories should correspond to the size of the box (700ml box = 700 Cal.). Packing a bento box is all about balance, a bento box should be both nutritionally balanced as well as visually appealing. Make sure to use a variety of colors and textures in your lunch. Also you want to make sure that you are conscious of the food arrangement. Because you need to pack everything so compactly, it is a good idea to use either edible separators (cucumber, lettuce, etc.) or make the investment in re-usable ones, like silicone baking cups.
Overall, one of my favorite parts about bento boxes is the portion control that comes inherent in the bento box packing system. By packing in the bento you will always know you are packing the right amount of food. Additionally, by using the bento box you can cut down on waste generated from using plastic bags and disposable containers.
Bento As Art
Of course, I can’t write this entire post and not talk about the many different examples of bento packing as an art form. As I mentioned before, bento boxes are meant to be visually appealing. You can buy different accessories to help achieve the visual appeal that you may be wanting. Such items include vegetable cutters, small tooth pick like flourishes and many other items to set your box off. For many though it is not just about the food, but really is an art form. You can find some of the most amazing works of food art in bento form, do a bit of googling and be prepared to be amazed! (Note: The Totoro bento is by this artist: http://www.annathered.com/)
Lunch In A Box <- This is my absolute favorite bento blog, the author has some amazing tips accompanied by wonderful photographs. Look here for lots of tips, recipes and tutorials on bentoing.
Do you have any special bento recipes? Tricks? Etc? Let me know in the comments!