Bento (also Obento, a more polite way of referring to it) is the Japanese answer to packed lunch. For all intents and purposes, it’s just thatâ€”a complete packed lunch that may be prepared at home, bought at a combini (convenience store) or from a restaurant. But as befitting Japanese attention to detail, bento separates itself from its counterparts from other nations with the extra care they put towards preparing it.
Traditionally, bento calls for a 4 : 3 : 2 : 1 proportion of rice : fish / meat : vegetables : pickled veggies / fruit. Special care is taken to make sure that the food is prepared in easy to eat portions. Food color and texture is also considered in choosing what goes together in a box, ensuring contrast that’s pleasing not only to the eyes but to the palate as well. And keeping true to the Japanese food aesthetic of making sure everything’s pleasing to the eyes, traditional bento is always attractive.
If you think that’s stringent, you haven’t encountered children’s bento yet. Because children’s bento is perceived as an expression of a mother’s love, moms take extra care in preparing their children’s lunches. They make efforts to include a child’s favorite food while adding small portions of food that the children generally avoid. To make sure they finish everything, creativity comes into play as pretty touches, decorations, and even food dioramas mask the said food items. As the mom’s creativity kicks into high gear, bento takes a step from the realm of food into art.
Today, bento has caught on and has turned into an international phenomenon. Because of the popularity of Japanese online bento blogs, people are sitting up and taking notice. A lot of times, these people are inspired into trying their hand at making bento themselves, spreading the bento-love like wildfire, with each person’s own unique culture infusing itself for a non-traditional, yet truly personal approach to bento.
Personally, I bento because I find it fun. I started bringing my own lunch, baon as we refer to it in the Philippines, to save money. At that point, all I was concerned about was bringing a balanced meal: rice + meat + veggies and a fruit cup. I was aware that bento existed from all the anime and Japanese movies I’ve seen but I have to admit, it never occurred to me that I can try making my own. Until I ran into mmmbento’s livejournal, now known as Cooking Cute. A few days later, I tried my hand at it, joined the livejournal bentolunch community (then a fledgling 300 member community) where I picked up tips and learned to grow as a bento blogger and as a cook.
Far from traditional, I love experimenting with different cuisines and possibilities. My bento range from classic, to cute, to mouthwatering. While my love for Japanese food is ever-present, one of my goals is to spread Filipino-style bento love.
Still, my biggest reason for preparing bento is to brighten up my working day with a happy lunch hour. Sometimes, with my lunch smiling back at me.
Read more about obento, its roots and its current role in Japanese culture:
Lunchbox is Obento from Tokyo Metroblogging
Eating Our Way Through Japanese History. A brief study of the Obento by Eva Lucks
Wikipedia entry on Bento