bento is a japanese lunch box. check the links below for a specific history. i guess there are specific rules on how to pack one, but i find the best way is to learn about japanese cooking and look at bento blogs. a bento should be visually appealing and flavors should complement each other yet provide enough variety and nutrition that a person feels satisfied (not stuffed) after eating it.
prepare good bento items as part of dinner and keep the season in mind when creating menus. good bento items are things that taste good after sitting overnight and when eaten at room temperature. simmered vegetables, stir fries, meats and fish cooked in miso or other seasonings, and mixed rice dishes are examples of good bento foods. while i tend to lean more towards using japanese foods, pretty much any type of food can be packed in a bento style.
you don’t want the wrong flavors mixing into each other. vinegared foods should be placed in a foil cup or on a lettuce leaf. foods with sauces should be separated with a lettuce leaf or a plastic divider, or placed next to rice or other foods that complement the sauce. for instance, place teriyaki over rice or next to hijiki. soy egg or simmered vegetables can go next to ohitashi. place fruit in a paper cup, on plastic, or on a plastic seperator.
i’ve posted links on the sidebar under “bento inspiration” to other bento sites that illustrate arrangment (there’s also a fun virtual bento game linked below). when looking at japanese bento sites, even if you can’t read what’s in the bento box pictured, you can generally tell the nature of the food by how it is placed with other items. the best english language resource for bento examples and recipes is Naomi Kijima’s book “Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go”, linked under cookbooks.
when purchasing a japanese bento box, as a westerner, it is important to note that food portions in japan are smaller than food portions in the west. consider the size of the bento when you buy. most bento boxes are around 6″ long and 3.5″ wide. my oval one is 5 x 3.5 x 7″ (deep). for larger appetites, use a the bento box for side dishes and put rice in a separate container.
another option for larger appetites is to use a larger bento box. i found the best large size bento box at my local asian grocery, uwajimaya, a line of plasticware called lock&lock. the containers are square, rectangle, and round, and some even come with dividers. they also make side dish containers in different colors. the products are bento friendly, and they are very inexpensive compared to nicer bento boxes ($4.50 for a larger box with 2 removable compartments).
bento and japanese cooking make it easy to integrate different flavors depending on your preference, as well the variety provides good nutrition and an enjoyable lunch experience. i enjoy cooking japanese food because i can use the same base set of ingredients and there is ample variety to keep it interesting. i particularly enjoy packing bento because it provides an aesthetic relationship to food and allows for a productive creative outlet. and for some reason, food in a bento seems to taste better… maybe cuz it’s made with love. ;D
wikipedia – the history part of this article is good but whoever wrote “how to pack a bento” section was on crack.
Kids Web Japan – probably the best “how to pack a bento” resource on the web, this site is an overview on the history of bento and has pictures of current examples. and of course, my favorite part is the virtual bento you pack yourself.
bento box – western perspective overview with excellent pictures of bento boxes and bento supplies. most how-to pics are from Naomi Kijima’s book, “Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go”.
my lunch can beat up your lunch – another western bento site. while presentation is pretty lacking, if you like american food these are some bento-like ways of putting it together.
get in my belly! – vegetarian western bento, nice presentation, excellent variety and use of color.. oh yah and i’m jealous of her hangetsu bento!
uwajimaya – anyone living in the seattle or portland area probably knows this store. they have a good sundries section where i get my bento accessories.
daiso – a japanese dollar store, there are 2 in the seattle area – downtown and at alderwood mall in lynnwood.
bento boxes on j-list – great place to order cute bento boxes and accessories.
lock n lock – if you can find these containers, they are korean made, and make really good inexpensive bento containers, especially if you need something a little bit larger. these are airtight, so the food stays fresh and doesn’t leak, and some models even have dividers.
bento boxes on asianfoodgrocer.com – some basic plastic bento boxes at very reasonable prices. not quite as *fun* but authentic nonetheless!
re-ment on j-list – the miniature sets made by re-ment are ideal for education about day to day japanese life. i highly recommend lunch time, mom’s kitchen, and is dinner ready yet?. the lunch time set is a variety of different types of bentos, while the other two sets show common types of japanese food cooked in the home, as well as various cooking utensils.
also see cookbooks for more bento and japanese cooking resources.
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