A Japanese lunchbox
The bento is 'just' a lunchbox for Japanese workers, but as Nippon culture dictates, it's far more than that: More complex, sophisticated and balanced than the lunchboxes we know, you won't find dry sandwiches or bags of crisps in these chic boxes. A bento is designed to hold lunch for one, with individual compartments and sometimes multiple layers to contain lots of small dishes of different flavours that go together perfectly. Its purpose is to provide a little of lots of little dishes to fill you up without mixing everything together. Traditionally, it was the housewife that prepared the bento box for her husband and children, but Japanese traditions are changing.
What makes a bento special?
As with many things Japanese, presentation is important for both the box and its contents. A bento box has one or two layers and comes in many different materials ranging from heat-resistant plastic to chic lacquered wood. They come decorated with cartoon characters or patterns to appeal to all.
What to put in a Bento box?
Take your tips from the Japanese and fill your bento with lots of different dishes in small quantities! This is the best way to fill yourself up and get a balanced meal, so think 'picnic' and make everything in miniature. If you love simple Japanese food, go for traditional rice bamms, meat and fish kebabs, sautéed veggies, sushi, maki, omelette, etc. Otherwise, go for a more Westernised bento - here are some ideas:
Meat, fish and protein: crabsticks, meatballs, omelette squares, hard boiled eggs, pieces of fish, chicken nuggets, etc.
Vegetables: a bed of green salad, nuts and seeds, peas, grated carrots, beans (green, kidney, broad etc), tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber etc.
Carbs: rice balls, croutons, a slice of bread, small types of pasta (avoid lasagne and spaghetti), potatoes, rice cakes, etc.
Dessert: small fruits (such as berries) or large fruits chopped into pieces, a slice of cake, gingerbread, a pancake cut into small pieces, etc.
Dairy: a slice of cheese (easy to chop up and easy to munch!) or cream cheese with fresh fruit or coulis.
Look after the inside of your bento box and try using small pieces of greaseproof paper to separate your food. And vary the colours: culinary pleasure starts with presentation!