Bento boxes contain a healthy and balanced meal
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Bento designs are often cute, to help tempt picky children!
Credit: gamene https://www.flickr.com/photos/gamene/4099831108
Decorative cutting of food gives amazing results!
Credit: vingt_deux https://www.flickr.com/photos/photoschizo/2537021165/in/photostream/
A stand offering ekiben, for lunch on the train
Credit: Alfonso Jimenez https://www.flickr.com/photos/68458516@N00/2781125088
Kawaii (cute) characters are common in a good bento box
Credit: gamene https://www.flickr.com/photos/gamene/4643351850
Box of art
Compact, attractive, and healthy, the bento is an essential part of a successful Japanese lunch. These boxes containing a balanced meal can sometimes be real works of art!
In Japan, the bento is much more than a lunchbox. As the sun rises, many mothers are already busy in the kitchen carefully preparing the lunch their little angel will take to school. First, the box itself is chosen. Its size depends on the nutritional needs of the person, so a boy and a girl of the same age will each have their own particular bento. In addition to quality, the right quantity is one of the essential criteria for making a good bento.
What's in a bento?
Traditionally, a bento should contain 40% starch (rice for example), 30% protein (fish, meat or egg), 20% vegetables and finally some tsukemono (pickled vegetables) or fruit for dessert. It's a full meal, balanced and appetising, that will delight children on their lunch break. And if the dietary side doesn't dazzle them, they will still enjoy the appearance. Because a bento is first eaten with the eyes, cooks often compete to make the most creatively presented bento for their child.
To make the meal more fun, the food isn't simply packed in the box. Once opened, you'll discover a world populated by cartoon characters, laughing animals, or messages of love and encouragement. The food is carved, decorated, and cut carefully to make a whole tableau. To do this, several methods are used. One of them is called kazari-giri, meaning 'decoration cutting'. In this way, a slice of carrot can become a pretty flower, and piece of radish a fish, or a star.
Tools of the trade
This practice also helps to bring to life the famous charaben, small characters that bring even the dullest of bento to life! Special tools make this easy: for example, to make the eyes in a charaben, sheets of nori seaweed can be cut with a special kind of hole punch before being arranged with forceps. As for eggs, special molds are used - a cooked and shelled hard-boiled egg is placed in a mold and then immersed in cold water. A few moments later, the egg is transformed into a car, cat, or chick. The art of the bento is taken to the last detail. To complete the meal, leaf-shaped food separators, animal-headed picks and fish-shaped sauce containers add the perfect finishing touches.
To each his own bento
If many bento are kawaii, or cute, in appearance, some are less childish. Men who prepare their own bento are called bento danshi, and their lunches often lack the popular characters so common in bento for children. This male tendency to make lunch has only really caught on in the last few years, and shows that the preparation of a bento is no longer necessarily a female affair...
At the konbini or station
It's not uncommon today to buy a bento at a konbini, the local supermarket, or at the train station before a long trip. These ekiben (eki = station; ben short for bento) are often less sophisticated than those prepared at home, but the presentation of the meal is no less careful and the quality is high, on a par with Japanese restaurants.
Read more about the ekiben.