The Bento: the Japanese lunch box 弁当
The bento, the Japanese-style boxed meal
Compact, aesthetic, and healthy, the bento is the essential asset for a healthy and delicious lunch. The box containing a balanced meal can sometimes appear to be a real work of art.
What's a bento?
In Japan, the bento designates a meal to go, taken away from home, in a form of a box. This type of meal is a staple in Japan, to the point that the Japanese add the prefix "o", which marks respect. In Japan, the bento takes the place of the sandwich or a quick meal and is generally lunch for schoolchildren but also by employees at midday.
As the day breaks, the mothers are busy in the kitchen carefully preparing the lunch that their family members will bring to school or work. The choice of the box first. Its size varies according to the nutritional needs of each person. In addition to the quality, the quantity is one of the essential criteria in the preparation of the bento with bento boxes coming in different sizes, shapes, and designs.
The composition of the bento
Traditionally, it should contain 40% starch (rice), 30% protein (fish, meat, or soy-based), 20% vegetables, and finally a sprig of tsukemono, macerated vegetables, or fruit for dessert. A complete, balanced and appetizing meal! In addition to its nutritional content, the composition of the dishes, colors, and creativity is part of the appeal as bento is eaten with the eyes first, "to feast the eyes before reaching your pallet".
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Decorative meal in a box
To make the meal more fun, the food is not just randomly placed in the box. Most "kawaii" bento boxes are home to a whole universe populated with cartoon characters, animals, or messages of love and encouragement. To bring this world to life, the food is carefully carved, decorated, and cut to make the whole picture. To do this, several methods are practiced. One of them is called kazari-giri meaning the decoration cutout. Thus, the carrot slice will become a pretty flower, and the piece of radish will turn into a fish or a star.
This practice also makes it possible to give life to the famous charaben, small characters animating even the dullest of bento! This work is often facilitated by the use of suitable utensils for creativity in preparation.
To give the eggs a unique twist, the use of a mold is a great option. Once cooked and peeled, the hard-boiled egg is placed in the mold and immersed in cold water. A few moments later, your egg will be transformed into a car, a cat, or even a chick.
The box itself, too, has an important character. It is called the bento bakô (bento box) and is always compartmentalized. It is traditionally in lacquered wood, but can also be ceramic, synthetic resin, plastic, or aluminum. Home-prepared bento boxes are usually wrapped in a furoshiki, a piece of fabric surrounding the lunch box to keep it warm.
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The art of the bento is taken to the smallest detail. Thus, to complete the composition, food partitions in the form of leaves, picks with animal heads and sauce containers in the shape of fish add to the creativity and beauty of the bento box.
Where to buy your bento box?
It is not rare today to be able to buy your bento at the konbini, in the supermarket, or the train stations before a long trip. The stations welcoming shinkansen are home to many specialty shops that offer unique and delicious boxed meals to enjoy on the train. Ekiben (eki for the station; ben for bento ) are often less sophisticated than those prepared at home, but the presentation of the meal is nonetheless neat and high quality, as is often the case in Japanese restaurants.
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In addition, bento boxes and utensils are sold by hundreds of different models in department stores. If you want to bring your own bento box for your mid-day meals, you will undoubtedly find what you are looking for in stores such as Tokyu Hands, Loft, or Don Quijote (unbeatable prices), where bento boxes are available under many shapes, colors, sizes, patterns ... etc. Round, square, plastic, or wooden, animal-shaped, transparent, or colored ... there's something for everyone!
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