Debra Samuels, author of My Japanese Table: A Lifetime of Cooking with Friends and Family, explains the bento box (find more bento box tips from Samuels on her website). She also shared a recipe for Chicken Balls in Teriyaki Sauce.
I love the description of a bento box being like a Christmas present. Think about having a Christmas present every single day for lunch.
When we lived in Japan, my son went to a Japanese elementary school. I needed to send him to school with lunch. On his first day, he went with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrot sticks and a cookie, just like any good American mom would send.
He came home crying, "My lunch isn't cute." The lunch had to be cute. I didn't know. What's cute?
At which point I needed to learn how to make lunch Japanese style, obento. I went out and bought a book called 100 Ways To Make Obento. My son Brad and I worked our way through the book for the entire year.
Moms every day make their children lunches. It's not considered an onerous task, it's considered part of their job. The job of the mother is to make a nutritious lunch that looks attractive, and the child's job is to eat it all up.
At first I was concerned: "Am I going to be able to make something different every day for my child?" But my son Brad really got into it.
I took on the values that were transmitted in this box. I kind of look at it as Japanese culture in a box. I learned that aesthetics were important, I learned about balance, and I learned about the give and take from the receiver and the giver. It's a cooperative relationship.
I used to think Japanese women were crazy for spending the amount of time that they did on lunch boxes and creating these things, but the children eat it all up and they remember. Any Japanese adult, they remember their mother's bento boxes with a lot of fondness.
If you prepare ahead of time, basically what you're doing is an assembly project. Bento is all about preparation and good leftovers. Usually I did prepare things the night before or several days before. Then you're just picking and choosing what you want to have in there.
There is a ubiquitous apple bunny in every Japanese child's lunch box. That's what moms learn how to do.
Presentation is really very important. It doesn't matter whether it's for a 5-year-old or for a 50-year-old, it's a lot about the looks. Japanese eat with their eyes first. Actually, so do we.
There's no plastic wrap, there are no bags to throw away. This is your original green lunch. That is really a big part of it as well.
The concept behind bento as in most Japanese food has to do with balance, and the balance of colors. They have the concept of five different colors: red, white, black, yellow and green. If you have those five colors in any meal, you've got a balanced meal.
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