Bento, or o-bento, refers to a packaged, single-portion, portable meal that is usually eaten at lunch, but also comes in larger sizes meant for use at picnics, dinner, and parties. A bento generally consists of rice or noodles and some form of protein (e.g., meat, poultry, fish, tofu) accompanied by side dishes of raw, simmered, or pickled vegetables. There are many different types of bento boxes, ranging from traditional handcrafted wooden lacquerware to disposable containers – see Bento Boxes and Accessories for examples. Most bento boxes have compartments or internal dividers for separate dishes.
Bento is an art form in Japan. Japanese women spend a good part of their mornings preparing bento for their families – there is even a sense of competition among mothers to see who can produce the most cute, appetizing, and healthy lunch for their children. Modern Japanese culture virtually revolves around compact cuteness. The variety of designer bento boxes, food liners, wiener and cookie cutters, egg molds, food picks, and other bento-ware used to create these mini-masterpieces is amazing and overwhelming. Check out some of the Japanese bento blogs in the Links and Resources section for truly incredible edibles.
The bento I pack are not quite so fancy. I enjoy food presentation and like to make my food as cute as possible, but as a busy professional that gets mauled at work on a daily basis, I don’t have the time necessary to churn out super-bento (although I get inspired every so often!). I’ve found that preparing healthy and visually appealing bento lunches in the mornings is quite doable – especially with good planning, a well-stocked pantry and freezer, the aforementioned bento-ware, and the plethora of frozen and prepared foods available at local and Asian groceries.
If you haven’t tried making bento yet, you should give it a go! It is said that when you eat a bento lunch prepared by a loved one, the preparer’s feelings for you are transmitted through the food (think Like Water for Chocolate). What could be better than sending a bit of love and cuteness to your loved ones – or yourself – every day? ;)
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