I calculate at the rate of 12 years x 40 weeks x 5 days, that I ate 2400 lunches at school, every one of them prepared by my mother. My superhuman mother had four children, so she made going on for 10000 of these damn (as she may have thought) lunches, on top of working full time and studying almost full time. Every single one had the same components: a sandwich – if it was cheese it was Kraft, that one wrapped in alfoil in a box – fruit, and for morning tea either a simple cake or biscuits she made herself. Definitely the highlight. On Mondays, lack of fresh bread meant that they were cold toasted sandwiches, an ugh for we children who critiqued our basic lunchtime fare. At some point she started making them in bulk and freezing them. It didn’t seem to make much difference to us, defrosted or fresh. And in the waste not, want not way of the world back then, once she started using gladwrap, we would bring it home, she’d wash it, hang it out on the line and it would get used again. And again.
So for me, the idea of a bento lunch is fantasy world. I love the occasional lunchtime bento restaurant outing as a grownup, but I look at it and think ‘all that trouble’, ‘all that time’. Who can do that? Maybe people like S-L, who makes her own lunch to take to work and introduced me to Makiko Itoh’s blog. But my mother? Surely not.
Having said that, the thing that is most striking about Itoh’s writings is that they are dominated by the pragmatism of saving time, eliminating trouble. She manages to walk some very fine line between this and maintaining the aesthetics of food that are so important to Japanese culture. Each bento box section addresses the following:
- the things to save time – so much can be cooked and frozen ahead of time, or prepared and kept in the fridge for a few days
- the things that need to be done in the morning
- things that need to be done to ensure eating safety.
- the aesthetics of how to pack the box
She also constantly stresses health considerations, both specific – if you need low salt then….if you need sugar free then…. – and general – variety is the key to healthy eating, the more colours you have on the plate the more balanced and healthy your eating will be.
One of the things that attracted me to the Just Bento blog was that Itoh lives in the French countryside, not so far from me. This lends itself to thinking out of the box (so to speak), being adaptable, using what is available in one’s local area. Itoh’s pragmatism is seen in her flexibility as to what one can put in a bento box. She isn’t constrained by ideas of being true to tradition. She suggests lots of dishes which start off as a dinner dish, with the left-overs becoming part of the bento lunch, and Western dishes find places in her suggested menus. Buy pre-cut and packaged vegetables, tinned fruit – she is not judgemental about these things.
In any case, what is tradition? We see through this book, that the idea of ‘bento’ in Japan is no fixed, timeless thing. Hence her section on ‘Rice Sandwiches’, introduced with the comment that
A recent bento revolution in Japan is the rice sandwich, known as an onigirazu, meaning ‘not pressed (into a ball),’ a play on words on the traditional onigiri rice ball. The advantage of a rice sandwich over a rice ball is that you can vary the fillings a lot more, and put in a lot more filling too, making a satisfying lunch.
For those overwhelmed by the idea of having to prepare several things, involving lots of ingredients, even if much of it has been done beforehand, there is a section on one-dish bentos, ranging from yakisoba and fried rice, to rather Western ideas like ‘Chicken, Chickpea and Swiss Chard’
I don’t have an excuse as an adult to even consider going bento, as I’ve (almost) never worked away from home. However, I use the recipes and ideas for cooking at home, nothing is beautiful, nothing is bento, but it all tastes good. Not surprising since, as mentioned, she suggests using left-overs as part of the bento box menu.
On my first trip to Japan I discovered the most foreign place I’d ever visited. Not least that applied to the cookbooks I’d buy to bring back home. Although they had the comfort of being in English, there any sense of familiarity ended. They were organised in ways I didn’t understand. The ingredients were often completely unintelligible and unobtainable, with no idea what one might do as a substitute. I’d come back from my trips to Japan full of enthusiasm, buy a bunch of mysterious things at a Japanese grocer, and before long none of them would have any meaning at all for me.
The Just Bento Cookbook 2, like its predecessor, is quite the opposite of these sometimes challenging experiences. Itoh uses basic ingredients which are obtainable anywhere. As luck would have it I have a couple of excellent Japanese grocery shops close to hand, but most supermarkets these days stock the basics called for here – miso, soy, sesame, mirin, sake, Japanese rice, a couple of vinegars, oyster sauce. There are a few more esoteric ingredients, but nothing that the ideas stand and fall by. It is worth pointing out that she uses the microwave a lot, but as far as I can see, not having one doesn’t matter, most things are straightforward to make without.
There is a vast amount packed into the pages of this nicely laid out and organised book, covering a lot of ground. To end with an example, I love the sound of this, ‘Miso Soup Balls’.
Miso Soup Balls – makes 30 balls, one per serve
- 300g miso (she doesn’t specify a type of miso for this)
- 1 tablespoon dashi stock granules
- added ingredients of your choice such as:
- chopped green onion, frozen mixed vegetables (she suggests 1 tablespoon), a pinch of wakame seaweed, pinch of kiriboshi daikon, toasted sesame seeds, abura-age fried tofu (a tablespoon), chopped chicken (a tablespoon)
Thoroughly mix all these together. She doesn’t mention this, but one could obviously vary the 30 balls by dividing the miso and dashi into several groups. She suggests a spoonful, shaped into a ball after wrapping in plastic wrap. Many won’t like that idea these days. When I’m making gyoza/wontons, I lay them all on a tray in the freezer until frozen and then pop them in a container, they don’t seem to stick. I imagine you could try doing this here too.
She adds the idea of making the miso soup balls plain and taking along small quantities of other ingredients, rather than freezing it all. Mushrooms, baby spinach, as well as the ones she lists above.
The idea is to take one of these as part of lunch, assuming that you have access to hot water. Add to a cup of water, stir to dissolve and you have lovely home made miso soup with bits in it. I’m tempted to make this for using at home. I make miso soup, but I get out of the habit. This is a way of ensuring a regular supply without going through all the preparation whenever one wants it. Small stroke of genius!
This book is great value at $19.95US cover price. Foyles has it at £16.99.