January 04, 2010

Brighten up your Lunch with a Bento Box

By Stuart Turner

Forget a soggy sandwich and crisps, Bento is the Japanese way to ensure you eat like a champion at lunchtimes.

Bento is the Japanese version of a packed lunch and can be made at home to take to work or school or bought at news stands, cafes or various shops when you’re out and about. Each box is divided into a number of different compartments for a variety of delicious foods. Traditionally they will include fish or meat, tofu, a portion of rice or onigiri rice balls, pickled vegetables or radish, other cooked vegetables and fruit. All the food is made to be eaten cold and, typically for the healthy Japanese, includes a portion of protein, fruit and vegetables.

The Bento boxes themselves can be bought to make at home and are made of hand-crafted, lacquered wood. In Japan they are often lovingly prepared by housewives for their husbands and children to take to school or work. In fact, so much attention goes into some of them there are actually national competitions to recognise the art form of Kyaraben - a form of novelty food arrangement in which the food is made into people, animals, landscapes or cartoon characters for children. It certainly a unique way of getting your kids to eat fruit and vegetables if you have the time.

While travelling in Japan,  Bento boxes are a real treat and much tastier and healthier than the fast food or prepackaged options we get here. I was told by my Japanese friends that it's traditional to get yourself a can of beer and a Bento to eat on the super fast bullet train. A few hours later, I found myself tucking into an amazing Bento box the size of a proper evening meal for just £5. Takeaway Bento is known as Ekiben and, because of the seasonal delicacies and regional varieties, it is possible to zoom round the country on their excellent trains and enjoy a culinary tour without leaving the railway station.

Bento boxes are popular for all sorts of outdoor eating such as picnics and packed lunches. However, they are also a common menu item in restaurants where a hot meal is served in the beautiful lacquered boxes with all the usual attention to detail and colour that Japanese cuisine is famous for. I may just be me but there is something quite pleasing about eating food from little compartments rather than mixed together on one plate and it makes each flavour quite distinct.

We are all back at work and school, the warm summer nights still feel a long way away and lots of us are keen to offset the excesses of the festive season. A delicious Bento box is a tasty, creative and healthy way to add some joy to your day and make lunchtimes worth waiting for.

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