Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Boxed Lunch: An Introduction
I take a traditional Japanese boxed lunch to work every day - a bento. I do this for a couple of reasons:
First, lunch meat and decent bread aren't exactly thick on the ground here, and when you do find them, they're usually quite expensive. A Japanese-style lunch is usually the most economical. I could buy a pre-made bento from any of the national conbini chains for a reasonable price, but I worry about the amount of packaging that is used, and the general non-recyclability of those materials. Also, the food in them tastes bad. If I make my own, it tastes delicious, and I can re-use the box and chopsticks over and over.
Eventually, when I'm on more stable financial ground, I can do what everyone other than myself and junior high students do, which is eat at any one of the thousands of really good restaurants surrounding - well- pretty much anywhere. Until then, my budget runs more to around 300 yen/lunch (compared to the 1,000 yen that a non-fast food lunch would cost) and bentos easily fall into that range.
The most important reason that I make bentos, however, is that they're filled with miniature food, and that means they're killer cute.
Bento-making is pretty much the bane of most regular Japanese people I talk to, because unlike sandwiches, which can be made the night before, bentos have to be prepared fresh from hot food in the morning, and cooled down in time to be packed into everyone's tote bags before they have to run for their train. Rice cookers with timers make it fairly easy to have fresh hot rice in the morning, but the rest of the box should be made up of some combination of veg and meat dishes. This means the 5 am bento call is a real bummer for most busy mums and dads.
There's a lot of thought that goes into the make-up of a bento. Boxes are sold in particular sizes matching a person's age and calorie requirements. When filled in the correct ratios, the bento is perfectly nutritiously balanced. Ideally, the bento should be visually attractive as well, featuring different colours, textures, and cooking techniques.
Some parents go completely overboard, and create what's known as the kyaraben, a character-themed bento, meant to look like popular children's cartoon characters. Who knows how they taste when they're finally opened at school, but I guess everyone needs a creative outlet. I attempted a fairly amateurish kyaraben myself, to help mark myself and my husband's visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka last year.
In case you don't recognize the character, it's Totoro, from My Neighbour Totoro.
I usually make two bento each day, one for me, and one for my husband. They're almost always the same, but sometimes I prepare slightly different things, depending on our tastes. What I generally try to do, since I'm as pressed for time as anyone, is try to plan my meals such that the main dish from the evening's meal can be remade into the next day's bento. This is fabulous, because not only do I prevent myself from either scraping the extra food into the garbage/eating it out of the pan and gaining weight; I also save money and time on buying and preparing separate things for lunch. Most recipes are meant to yield enough for four people; so the extra goes right into the bento, along with leftover rice (reheated in the microwave in the morning) and one or two vegetable dishes that I make and keep in the fridge as the week goes on.
I've learned most of what I know about making bento on-line, from such exhaustive sites as Lunch in a Box and Just Bento, please check them out if you're interested in making your own bento, they have lots of recipes and practical advice. You don't need a special box or accessories to make your own bento, and they can be adapted to western-style ingredients, as my friend Canadian Bento is so good at doing.
Coming up, I'll explain how a dish goes from dinner to bento.