(WASHINGTON POST) - In the quest to pack lunches kids will thank parents for, families outside of Japan have adopted a love for Japanese bento-style lunches. Pinterest is filled with the craze. Yet, in calling a lunch “bento,” without a full understanding of exactly what qualifies, parents and the bento lunchbox market may be misappropriating a cultural practice.
Why not learn about the real practice instead?
A bento refers to a meal on the go: any work, school or picnic lunch. It is a natural offshoot and complement to Japanese culture. It’s already common practice for a wife and mother to rise early and pack a bento for each family member. The idea of the bento is not meant to be something crazy, should not be too much of an endeavour; the idea of a bento fits the culture, with foods found on store shelves and in every home.
Every Japanese child knows it takes 100 days to grow a single grain of rice. The goal is to make one’s plate pika-pika, sparkling clean. This culture does not waste. A bento often employs leftovers from last night’s dinner.
My children, aged seven, four and one, have gone through the hoikuen pre-school system since they started eating. They share bento with friends under the cherry blossoms and peer into one another's lunches on field trips to unearth sweet potatoes.
Every ingredient is relevant. I add red shiso flakes (perilla) to the same rice I might have served plain the night before, to make pink-tinged rice. Foods make up the colour palette, as opposed to Red 40. Bento is about working creatively with ingredients one already has and uses, bringing aspects of art and nutrition into a working, edible expression.
Truly, it is more difficult and expensive for me to make lasagna here in Tokyo.
A bento employs the colours and foods of each season as if trying to box the feeling. It is poetic, too, pulling in the sky, sea and soil, and saying, “Look, it’s spring. I’ve even brought the cherry blossoms or the fall leaves into my bento box.”
There are distinct windows of time when each vegetable and fruit, even each fish, is seasonally available. There is thought to be power that goes into eating fresh eel on at the height of summer, for instance.
And yes, there is also crafting a carrot to resemble a maple leaf to reflect what is happening outside. Adding little details, that together with the food, make a simple but gorgeous lunch that is of value. These details make it a meal that engages the senses, much like nature does. It is bringing the outside in, with harmony and very little processed foods, save the occasional mini sausage shaped to look like an octopus. This kind of eating sparks joy in one’s environment and yields high-energy foods, qualities perfect for kids.
The bento is about whole foods before there was Whole Foods Market.
Over breakfast, one Japanese friend shared another aspect of Japanese cuisine: Thirty foods or ingredients are the ideal daily goal. I counted the healthy components of my Japanese-style brunch: 10. Every meal must pull its weight if 30 foods are to be eaten a day. These are 30 ways, essentially, to be your best, healthiest, most joyful, (or in the Japanese word, “genki”) self.
What a bento is not
Not merely a spider napkin for October, Japanese food conveys the essence of a season by presenting the best of what is available. Doritos do not constitute a bento item and, while I am at it, not all lunches should be called “bento.” Some lunches are merely processed, moderately or are not-at-all healthy, snack foods a parent knows a child will eat.
Use the buzz
“Bento” may be a motivating word. Lunchbox companies helped brand the word “bento” outside of Japan and lunch-makers across the world jumped on the train. “Bento” implies fun, healthy and, certainly trendy, but in the culture from which it comes, the word means a great deal more than a jacked-up lunchable. Ride the trend, but make it rich and applicable to honour your specific and diverse culture. Borrow from various regions, use a range of flavours and spices, but aim to hit the bento markers of colour, texture and design - using whole, seasonal food.
Prioritise and collaborate
Do not go crazy. Introduce new, healthy foods in amounts comfortable to you and your child. Invite your child to use silly toothpicks. Or make lunch, but let your child slice through apple peels to transform that apple into a rabbit. Children may greatly surprise us as they bring suggestions for ways to incorporate that Tahini you bought. Or maybe it becomes a shared project on Asian food culture and you plan how to procure produce like daikon.
Make the bento work for your family’s needs and resources. In the movie East Side Sushi, Juana is a Mexican woman in Oakland, California, who chances upon sushi and becomes a quick study. When asked if she wants to improve sushi, she answers: “No. Sushi, in its own, traditional form is beautiful, delicious and magical. I don’t think I’m improving, just adding more options. I think sushi can be adapted to local conditions and people.”
Perhaps, this is the way with bentos too. Maybe a little exploring is in order to see how one may reflect who one is and add those vivid facets to each small section. Enjoy the process and enjoy lunch. It may just be your love, together, packaged up.