I think the word "bento" has become somewhat familiar to certain Americans these days. For those who are unfamiliar, bento is a boxed lunch, unique to Japanese culture (if you want to totally nerd out, click HERE). As I have written a lot in the past, we take our food seriously and so it is important for us to have good food even when we are on the go. There are all kinds of bento to be had all over Japan for all occasion. But what I want to focus here today is the kind mothers have to pack for their children to take to school. Let me paint you a picture.
Moms in Japan take pride in their cooking. That is not to say that there aren't any dads who cook (for instance, my brother is an excellent cook), but there is an enormous pressure for moms to cook well. And bento that they prepare for their children says everything about how much they care about their children's well being. It is a status thing and a point of pride. And if you don't prepare a perfect bento, you have failed as a mother. That is of course not true, but that is what they think. I have a friend who is a high-powered career woman who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare her daughter's lunch everyday. Then she puts breakfast on the table for her family, gets herself and her daughter ready and puts her on the right train (kids who go to private schools commonly commute on subways--I was one of those kids) and gets in to work by 9:00 a.m. If that were my schedule, I would be asleep at my desk by 9:25. She said she went to the first parent meeting and the teacher said, "You are going to be preparing bento for the next 12 years. Mothers, pace yourselves." This is how seriously moms take it.
The most important bento of all during the school year is for the annual Field Day. The whole family comes out to watch various sporting events in which all kids are forced to participate and the bento that each family brings is the statement of the family. Moms have to totally put their game faces on and do some serious cooking to not shame the family.
Up to this point, I did not have to prepare bento on a regular basis because my daughter's Japanese preschool served the most delightful, well balanced, home cooked Japanese meal every day. But that is no longer the case for me BECAUSE MY DAUGHTER STARTED KINDERGARTEN. I realize I live in the States and no one expects me to make a perfect bento everyday (and many won't even know the word), but I feel the need to do at least a decent job in following my cultural tradition. It must be my DNA. So I went to the local Japanese book store and purchased a bento cook book. Yes, there is such a thing and the section on that topic was pretty sizable that I stood there for good 15 minutes selecting just the right book that was at my skill level.
Photo of said book
One of the most common and beloved Bento item is called omusubi or onigiri, which translates to "rice ball." They looks like this:
The standard shape it triangle and we make these by hand. You wet your hands, put some salt on the palm of one hand and scoop some rice onto your hand and gently make this shape with your hands and toss it in circle until it becomes this shape. We all learn to make these at some point in our lives. You can make them plain or put something in the middle, like a small piece of grilled salmon, pickled plum (also shown in the first photo above), and a bunch of other things. You have three of these and can call it lunch. Delicious.
This is a side note but we love it so much that convenient stores all over Japan now has a huge section of nothing but these with many different ingredients
This is one really delicious and cheap way to eat in Japan, just so you know.
There is a film called Kamome Shokudo (excellent food movie, by the way), in which, the woman who runs the diner refers to onigiri as "Japanese Soul Food." My daughter will always eat these no matter what. So that is the first thing I packed. The important thing in obento is how you present the food. If you want to go nuts, you can do things like this:
Who has the time and patience to do this before 8 a.m.?
OK, this is kind of amazing.
Seriously, people need to stop.
Or you can go totally simple and cheap and prepare the most traditional bento:
This, I can do.
This is called "Hinomaru (Japanese Flag) Bento." It's rice with Ume (pickled plum) in the middle. That's it. This was popular during war time or in the rural country side back in the day. Nothing fancy, just some starch to get through the day. I think the equivalent is like having a boiled potato. Might be just stylish. Or totally unbalanced.
While I would like my daughter to take joy in eating, I am also realistic and know my limitations so I will do what I can to give her a fun looking lunch. It's a part of my culture I enjoy and want her to also appreciate it, if not now, down the road.
What's achievable: salmon musubi, chicken karaage and carrots in stackable bento box
How it looked in her lunch box on her first day