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Thinking Outside The Bento Box

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 6, 2012 3:44 pm

I'm sure you're a very good cook. But if you want to feel bad about yourself, spend five minutes cruising the Internet for photos of bento boxes.

They won't be hard to find. Originally just a convenient boxed lunch for Japanese field workers, bentos today can be high art, with flower-petal carrots, hard-boiled eggs shaped into bunnies, broccoli sculpted into trees. The moms who make them — because they're mostly moms, and not necessarily Japanese — are eager to share their edible masterpieces.

Confession: I have a problem with food that is cute. I even pick the buttons off gingerbread men. I'm also against expending that much effort just to coax my kid to eat. (Yes, my daughter thinks I'm "mean.") That said, I truly believe that we eat first with our eyes. And because of that, there is much to learn from the art of the bento.

Bento boxes go back to at least the 5th century A.D., when Japanese field workers, hunters and fishermen would pack dried rice into boxes. Somewhere around the 19th century, makunouchi, or "intermission," bentos emerged, packed with side dishes and treats for theatergoers to munch between acts. When the railroads arrived, ekiben — station boxes — filled with local specialties became popular. Today, many Japanese men and women carry bentos to work, and schoolchildren tote colorful arrangements of checkerboard-carved apples and rice balls shaped like Hello Kitty.

Of course, these Japanese lunches will have Japanese food: rice balls (onigiri) stuffed with pickled apricot or baked cod roe, deep-fried pork cutlets, vegetables simmered in sweet soy sauce. But you don't have to cook Japanese food — or make cute cutouts — to reap the benefits of the bento.

Cookbook author and Japan expert Debra Samuels says the five main elements of a bento are color, texture, seasonality, presentation and nutrition (and let's not forget portion control — how much can you cram into those little compartments?). She says many Japanese believe that including five colors on your plate — red, yellow, green, white and black — means you have a balanced meal.

Many cultures — including our own — carry lunch in a box. In India, children and workers take tiffins — stacked stainless steel boxes filled with rice or bread, curry and vegetables. Korean dosirak offer jubilant heaps of bibimbap or perhaps sushi-like rolls called kimbap. Many American parents pack those Buzz Lightyear lunchboxes with organic, whole grain, gluten-, antibiotic- or trans fat-free foods. But all of these lack what are perhaps the most distinctive features of the bento: organization and an appetizing aesthetic.

Face it, PB&J wrapped in plastic — whether it's organic or not — just isn't that appealing. Maybe that's why my kid-size containers — bought especially for school lunches — still come back half-full of the snap peas, blueberries or tabbouleh I put in them. What if you could make that food fun and appetizing, though? Even without the hearts and flowers?

It doesn't have to be complicated. Just think of naturally hand-held foods. A wrap filled with meat and crunchy, colorful vegetables becomes a lunch cone. Slice it sideways, and it's pinwheels. Farmers markets, supermarkets and even some big-box stores are filled with gorgeous and delicious kid-size vegetables like mini zucchini and summer squash, fingerling potatoes, clementines, bell-shaped yellow and red cherry tomatoes, slender Persian cucumbers, tiny sweet peppers, and yellow, orange and purple baby carrots (real ones — not the ones lathed into bullets at the factory). Eggs provide easy, affordable, colorful protein — "cheap and cheerful," as a British friend says. You can boil them, turn them into an omelet or an herb-stuffed patty, all of which are delicious cold. Cheese comes in single-serving sticks and rounds, with varieties from mozzarella to cheddar and even chevre.

And then there's the box itself. Like the food, the boxes in Japan can be works of art. Delicate cedar vessels and boxes of wicker and willow evolved from the simple wrapping of bamboo leaves and falconers' feed bags that are thought to be among the original bento boxes. The boxes can be slickly lacquered and painted with scenes. But today, a Japanese office worker is more likely to carry a sleek aluminum container with built-in gel packs or vacuum-insulated boxes. For children, there are boxes in the shape of frogs and pandas, boxes decorated with their favorite cartoon figures, even boxes that look like stacked Legos.

Through the miracle of the Internet, many of these items are available online. One company even makes a bento — and that's what they call it — with colorful insert containers. Sleek, clean, the ultimate green lunch.

A little color. Some crisp, beautiful vegetables. Just a few minutes of attention to feeding your eyes before your stomach, and lunch suddenly becomes a whole new experience. Just remember to say itadakimasu — "I humbly receive."

Note: Recipes that accompany this story may not be visible on all mobile devices. You can find them at npr.org/recipes.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.