Here’s to your health! Get outside in the warm springtime weather and enjoy a Japanese picnic lunch as bright colours unfurl all around you.
With fun shapes and creative composition, these meals are delicious and adorable. This koraku bento is perfectly portioned for day trips. Each section holds a complementary flavour for your outdoor palate.
What’s in a name? Bento basics
A traditional boxed lunch that comes in many shapes and sizes, the bento has become an international symbol of Japan’s loving attention to culinary culture. But there’s more to this lunch than meets the eye. These days, most Japanese call it obento (お弁当), adding a respectful honorific prefix, but the term was first imported from a medieval Chinese word which meant “convenient.”
The modern bento certainly lives up to its origins, as convenience is one of its distinguishing features. A typical bento box is divided into several compartments to maintain the integrity of the various flavours, and the container itself can range from disposable plastic to a gorgeously decorated set of lacquered boxes. The bento’s contents are prepared in advance, and the menu is created with three elements in mind. First, it must be nutritionally balanced. Second, each aspect of the meal should be in harmony with the others. Finally, it must be delicious served cold.
The social life of food: Everyday bento
Bento are traditionally made by women for their boyfriends, husbands or children. Lunches painstakingly made for a husband are called aisai, or “loving wife” bento, while oversized lunches made for big appetites—especially adolescent boys—have come to be heartily called dokaben, a kind of “hard-hat bento.” Many women go to great lengths to create beautiful and nourishing lunches. An artful bento can attract the envy and admiration of colleagues, classmates and teachers, while a merely functional bento could reflect poorly on the family. The pressure to be a selfless and loving caretaker means some women rise early each morning to craft the perfect meal.
Eat lunch with character: Kyara-ben
One style of bento that has charmed the world is the kyara-ben (キャラ弁), or “character bento,” which features dishes shaped like characters from anime, manga or other parts of pop culture. The character could be as simple as a seaweed-wrapped rice ball designed to look like a pair of cute faces, or as elaborate as a Hello Kitty or Totoro character complete with accessories and friends. Kyara-ben were originally created by mothers to encourage their kids to enjoy their school lunches, but they have since become a global phenomenon, thanks to kyara-ben blogging and national competitions.
Take a tasteful trip: Koraku bento
If the kyara-ben are created to delight the childlike spirit of school-age Japanese, the koraku bento (行楽弁当), or “picnic bento,” is the kind of boxed lunch that grown-ups can enjoy. Koraku bento are made specifically to be taken on day trips when the weather is warm. When spring’s cherry blossom viewing season arrives in Japan, adults head outdoors to picnic under delicate pink and white petals, enjoying their boxed lunches with beer, tea or sake, in the company of good friends and family. Gorgeously constructed to match the season, koraku bento are made with fresh ingredients that harmonize with nature.
Explore the bento’s historic roots: Makunouchi bento
One of the most popular types of bento in Japan is the makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当), or the “between acts bento,” which usually consists of a combination of fish, meat, egg, vegetables and pickles. The accompanying rice is shaped to look like an old-fashioned straw rice bag, which is sprinkled with black sesame seeds. This bento gets its name from its historical origin in the Edo period (1603–1868) as a boxed lunch enjoyed by theatregoers in between acts. Traditionally, this bento would come in a set of tiered, lacquered boxes to be shared among friends, but nowadays they are mostly sold in individual portions.
Bento makers pay careful attention not just to the contents, but also to their presentation. Traditional bento are wrapped with extra care, often using a beautifully designed cloth.
Spring in a Box
Celebrate the flavours of spring with a colourful bento box.
1. Colourful onigiri
Wrapped with carrot slices (!) instead of regular black nori (seaweed), these rice balls are sure to stimulate your appetite. Daisuke added fresh spring green by mixing boiled edamame with rice before forming it into onigiri.
2. Miso-marinated konjac
This konjac (devil’s tongue) has been grilled and then warmly dressed with honey-sweetened miso—a style of cooking that’s called dengaku. Konjac is a healthy choice that’s free of fat, sugar, gluten and starch. If you don’t have konjac on hand, you can substitute grilled tofu, eggplants or yams.
3. Tamago-yaki and grilled salmon
Small pieces of salted salmon add a splash of pink to the box, while Japanese omelettes are everybody’s favourite. You can add some sweetness to your omelettes if you like, but when sugar is added to a tamago-yaki, it can burn easily. Please mind the heat carefully.
4. Deep-fried veggies and chicken
Chicken kara-age (deep-fried chicken) is a bento box staple. Daisuke also cooked up some veggies with white soy sauce and put them into the deep-fryer for just a second or two to give them a light, crispy texture. (Note: White soy sauce is not actually white.)
5. Shrimp and okura umani
Yummy soy-sauce-braised shrimp! Make sure to go light on the soy sauce, or it will ruin the shrimp’s pretty pink stripes. Daisuke again added some green to the colour palette by pairing the shrimp with cooked okura (okra or lady’s finger).
No time to make your own? Try these ready-made bento boxes
Heisei Mart is a Japanese grocery store located in the J-Town mall. Their bento box is a balanced meal with a variety of dried, pickled or steamed vegetables, plus a choice of chicken teriyaki, salmon, tonkatsu or mackerel for the main dish.
Fa~Mu Natural Meats
Sushi Marche specializes in catering and pick-up ordersaccommodating all kinds of gatherings and events. Their Atlantic salmon bento boxes offer up a fresh portion of grilled salmon along with different sides each day. (Note: They only take orders for more than ten boxes.)
Tel. 416-277-5512 (ask for Emi)