Per your request, I’m officially starting the ‘Japanisms’ posts. These are short posts that give you a glimpse into Japanese culture and life. It’s not about the right and wrong of the thing, but rather the differences in culture:) So, Enjoy the Japanisms Pt1 today, “Beautiful Bento!”
Before coming here, we’d heard the word ‘bento’ and just associated it with a Japanese food of some sort. Usually on an American menu it would say the Japanese ‘bento’ meal, which really just meant sushi,sashimi, miso soup and some tea. I had read a book at Powell’s Books in the food section a LONG time ago and remembered that bento actually meant ‘Japanese boxed lunch’ but still had no idea what that REALLY meant. Until now, that is.
Without getting into the history and origin of the bento, I thought I’d give you a snapshot of the simple idea of a bento. A bento is a take-out meal that traditionally contains rice, fish or meat, pickled or cooked veggies, and usually in a box shaped container. Each food item is separated from each other, often by a little thing that looks like muffin paper, and the rice is kept pure and white and especially separate from everything else.
Here’s a typical bento:
Being a teacher has its perks. You can get this bad boy for 450 yen. It’s super filling, super yummy, and super convenient. If you are a teacher, chances are there is some lady/dude that’s in charge of calling in the bento orders for the day. Here at the high school, there’s a list and a menu of the day’s bento. If you want a bento you just write your name, circle if you’ve paid, and that’s it. The person in charge of ordering takes the list at 9:30 AM and calls in all the bentos. VOILA! Your bento is ready at 12!
I took this a while back at a work enkai (work party). All the food is still separated. Here, they decided to use plates to separate their highlighted food. If you look at the cute lil box on the left, it has rice, sushi, scallops and other yums inside. When the lid was on it, I literally thought it was some sort of party favor/gift. Oh, and there’s miso there somewhere.
Now, time for the crazies!! Bentos are super popular with people of all ages. So, literally every non-working mom will make their young children CUTE bento boxes. I mean, they make their kids bento boxes all the way through high school too, but before high school they’ll REALLY go overboard to make their bento boxes cute.
Bento making kit:
So, when I first got here, I thought Japanese people must really like cupcakes. I always saw the little colorful paper things that are used to separate foods, and thought they were for baking. Oh how wrong I was! Basically you can find these plastic shapers at any store. The picks and little fork lookin things are to hold certain foods together. In the upper right-hand corner is what appears to be a hole puncher in the shape of a happy face and a teddy bear. In reality, you use it to punch shapes out of nori (seaweed sheets) in order to make your bentos have happy faces!
The ‘oekakiben’ (picture bento) is a bento that has food decorated like people, buildings, animals and stuff like that. While the ‘kyraben’ (character bento) has food that’s decorated like famous manga/anime/video game characters.
So basically, the Japanese bento is an art form. It’s a little bit cuckoo to me, but then again, I’m sure Japanese people feel like we’re jipping our kids with our PB&J’s.