by kelly goode
Several years ago, I started college, full time – for the first time. I was studying graphic design, art history and Japanese language. I have always been interested in Japanese culture, so taking on this difficult language was a very rewarding challenge. Although I had no immediate plans to visit Japan, I knew someday I would get there. In the meantime though, I was interested in immersing myself in some of the culture I was learning about. As much as I may have wanted to, I wasn't going to start wearing kimono, so I watched Japanese films and I tried my hand at cooking Japanese food. It was the food part that led me to Bento, more specifically it was Japanese pickles and onigiri (rice balls filled with seasoned meat or veggies) that led me to Bento.
とても おいしいい ですね！
For much of my life, I knew Bento as big red and black lacquered boxes, with sections for rice, meat, and salad – a big-ordeal type of lunch. I discovered that type of restaurant Bento is not the same type of Bento many Japanese consume on an everyday basis in Japan. Bento is to-go; it is a packed lunch. Bento is convenience. This is especially true for Densha Bento (train Bento, bought at train stations for long rides).
Other Bento styles can be super-involved when it comes to preparation; Kyaraben, is a type of Bento which involves a lot of time and tools to create cartoon characters out of food. Competitions are held for creating Kyaraben, and there are numerous blogs devoted to documentation and instruction of creating special Kyaraben. While it is entertaining and impressive to explore this type of Bento, I was after a more approachable entree to Bento.
That said, this in no way means that I didn't want my Bentos to be beautiful. If you are going to "brown bag" it day after day, your food should look beautiful and be packaged beautifully as well. If you are incorporating leftovers in your Bento, this tenet elevates your leftovers to something far beyond boring leftovers.
Here are some tips and supplies I used to get started:
A Bento box - I've collected several different sizes to accommodate different types of food
Smaller containers to use for sauces and to separate portions within the box - silicon cupcake liners work great!
At the beginning of the week, I cook enough food to create two or three Bentos - this way I can take the same care in my Bento planning and creation without the heavy time commitment of daily Bento preparation
My first real foray into Bento was onigiri, handheld salted rice balls filled with meat or pickled vegetables. There are endless onigiri combinations. It took a while to get my rice just right, but once I did, I found onigiri to be the perfect midday snack or side to a salad. Onigiri works well as the centerpiece of a Bento too.
One of my favorite combinations is spicy canned tuna or salmon and capers mixed with mayonnaise, tucked inside a triangle-shaped onigiri.
Another great addition to onigiri is furikake, which is seasoning that you can sprinkle on the outside of a riceball, or mix it into the rice before you form the shape. Onigiri is best when it is fresh, so typically I only make as many as I know I will eat within a two day period.
Bentos are typically eaten cold, but I often bring Bentos that are better re-heated. Sometimes I will bring a Bento with a separate component, such as soup to go with a sandwich, or rice to alongside my salad. There aren't any specific rules about what should go in a Bento. There are traditional Japanese Bento components, and almost any Western food can be in a Bento. What makes it a Bento as opposed to leftovers in a container is that a Bento is well-balanced; it has multi-color foods, and is arranged in a very pleasing and appetizing way.
So what is my typical Bento?
Meat: Most often, I will buy four or five chicken thighs and marinate or brine them overnight. Then I will bake them off and use three for Bento and freeze the others to put in Bentos later in the week or the week following. Every week I will use different spices or marinade so that I have a variety of chicken to choose from in the freezer.
Vegetables: Since vegetables don't keep as well as meat, I get most of the variety in my Bentos from the vegetables I use. I go for seasonal veggies with good color and texture. For this time of year, I am using yams and squashes; greens such as kale and collards; Brussels sprouts, broccoli and carrots.
Rice: Usually I have rice in some way; whether as onigiri or as a side in my Bento. An alternative I often choose is soba noodles. Soba noodles are great because they are so fast to cook and they are really good cold with a little sesame oil and a little sprinkling of furikake or small slivers of nori and toasted sesame seeds.
Finally, my preferred method for carrying my Bento is Furoshiki. Furoshiki is Japanese fabric wrapping. It is used for wrapping all kinds of things; it is very practical because the knot one ties becomes a handle. Furoshiki can be bought or can be made from fabric scraps, there are so many beautiful prints and fabrics. Furoshiki is a great way to coordinate your Bento to the season by wrapping it in appropriate prints and colors This is a very Japanese thing to do, as seasons play a huge part in aesthetics where fabric and color are concerned.
I think Bento is a perfect encapsulation of specific aspects of Japanese Culture; the importance of seasonally appropriate food prepared with thoughtfulness and attention to aesthetics; the unassuming size of a Bento and the small details perfectly accounted for; the practical, beautiful and seasonally appropriate furoshiki packaging – all working together to make a packed lunch something wholly other and much more special than typical leftovers. Living Bento Life, to me, means taking care and consideration in your meal preparation, living healthfully and economically, with aesthetic intention.
photos by kelly goode (unless otherwise noted)