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Inside the Box: A New Way to Think about Lunch

Makiko Itoh shares her passion for this fun food culture with me.
Our bento took only minutes to construct.

Thanks to the Japanese we have an excuse to play with our food.  Bento boxes have long been a lunch time favorite in Japan, but now they’re here to provide a whole new outlook on the brown bag lunch.

Makiko Itoh, who shares the secrets of bento on her blog, has recently compiled a cookbook, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go (Kodansha International), with recipes and tips that make the compact meals accessible to hungry people everywhere.  The cookbook makes the lunch box construction process super simple.  Each recipe includes a timeline, diagram and tasty looking photos.  There is even a weekly bento planning chart.  With twenty-five recipes total, ranging from a traditional Japanese Tamagoyaki Bento to a Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento, vegetarians and meat eaters alike will find plenty of meal inspiration.  During her book signing at New York’s Kinokuniya Bookstore, I was lucky enough to receive some one on one instruction.

Color variation is a key element for bento for both nutritional and aesthetic reasons.

Before you begin your own bento, you’ll want to select the perfect compartment for storage.  Makiko and I worked with a very basic model with an adjustable rice tray, but the possibilities are endless.  There are slim, elegant models for office ladies, Pikachu shaped boxes for young children and traditional lacquered boxes for those who like to go old school.  Gadget lovers can find thermal bento boxes or some with ice pack inserts.  The internet is a good place to purchase boxes of all shapes and colors, but for those who can’t wait, there is a great selection in Kinokuniya’s basement.  Bento boxes usually range in price from $5-$50.

“A bento can be made from almost anything,” Makiko explained.  We began ours in the most traditional way with white, sticky rice.  What makes a bento box different from an ordinary packed lunch is the attention to detail.  Using paper cupcake tin liners, we arranged meatballs, boiled pumpkin, and kinpira (a traditional side dish made with sautéed burdock and carrot) into individual compartments.  By separating individual items into small compartments, we can keep items close without mixing flavors.  Makiko encouraged me to use some steamed broccoli to help provide a snug fit for the bento contents; this also provided an additional splash of color.  The final touch was a bunny shaped, carrot slice that I placed on top for a little added fun.

Bento boxes come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
There is one for every personality and budget.

Though bento works well with most types of cuisine, there are a few items Makiko cautions us to avoid.  Raw foods including: sushi, uncooked tofu and meats are strongly discouraged.  Homemade mayo or creamy dressing is another no-no as well as leftovers that are past their prime.  She also suggests making bento boxes in the morning as they always taste better than those made the night before.

At the signing Makiko also provided a few interesting cultural tidbits.  For example, spring time is bento season in Japan.  As cherry blossoms bloom, friends and family gather in parks to enjoy the scenery while snacking on boxed lunches.  Because it is also the beginning of the Japanese school year, “kyara-ben” (character bento) is in full swing; imagine opening your lunch to find your favorite cartoon character made from rice, vegetables and many other ingredients.  Bento boxes are traditionally made by women, but there is now a legion of men out there called “bento danshi” (male bento enthusiasts) that are also giving it a try.

A variety of cuisines from all over the world can be turned into bento.

Fun to make and eat, bento boxes are a way to shake up your average lunch and add some Japanese culture to your next meal.  Just Bento is the cookbook to get you started, but where you go from there is up to you.


—— Reported by Devon Brown