Apr 30, 2014

The Japanese and the Art of Packing Lunch !

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.
Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read Here. 

Today I talk about Japanese and the art of packing the lunch Box.

What is so special about packing lunch you say. It’s simply dumping the food in different containers or wrapping it up in foil. Try telling this to a Japanese housewife and she will look at you as if you are a rodent that has entered her immaculate kitchen by mistake!

The Japanese, as they tend to do with everything that the rest of the world considers mundane, take even packing lunches very very seriously. Infact they have elevated packing the humble lunch box into an art form.

I have a sneaky feeling that most of the Japanese moms wake up early in the morning with just one mission in life – to make their kids’/Husband’s lunch box as artistic as possible.

There is a saying in Japan “We first eat with our eyes and then with our mouths”. They firmly believe that not only should the food be nutritious but also visually appealing. This also applies to packed lunches or "Bento" as they are called in Japanese.

 There are all sorts of  Bento boxes available. The most common ones are of course the simple plastic boxes, some are specifically targeted at kids with with catchy designs and shapes and then there are the very dignified,  aesthetically designed wooden boxes.

 With their fetish for rules and structures, the Japanese also have specifications laid down for making a Bento – the most popular is the 4:3:2:1 ratio (4 parts rice, 3 parts side dish, 2 parts vegetables, and 1 part pickled vegetables or a dessert). 

Special care is taken while placing the food in the box.Different colored and differently textured food is used together - this not only ensures that all the food groups are covered but also makes it very pleasing to the eye. 

Care is also taken to see that different foods don’t touch each other and flavors don’t mix - That would simply make the food unappetizing and unappealing. Plastic dividers are used to separate different types of food or slices of cucumber or lettuce or something similar is used to create sections in one big box. A Bento will also usually have chopsticks and a beautiful cloth napkin accompanying it. 

The most popular type of Bento are called  'Kyara-Ben' or Character Bento. These have food cut and decorated in the shape of a famous cartoon/TV character and are usually given to young school going kids. 
vegetables and meat is cut into pretty patterns and the rice molded into different shapes using special molds and cutters that come just for this purpose.

Most of the Japanese mothers don’t always make complicated kyara- Ben for their kids but they do try to make the food as appetizing and attractive to look at as possible so that the kids feel like eating the food.

www. e-obento.com
Kyara Ben has now evolved into an art form and there are annual kyaraben competitions and festivals all over Japan.

Then there is the very famous Ai – Bento. Ai means love in Japanese and these are the bentos lovingly prepared by new wives for their husbands. The love for the husband is declared in the form of heart shaped food or love notes written with sauce or even with seaweeds ! 

But bento is not only for people who have loving wives or mothers to prepare it for them. Bento is also sold on train stations and these are known as Eki Bento. (Eki – Station)

 Eki- Ben forms a very integral part of train travel in Japan.
 I have had so many of them while travelling through the country and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Eki- Bens are not simply some boxed food for a traveler to eat. 
The way the food is prepared, decorated and the type of box that is used usually gives you a very good insight into the regional cuisine and culture of the place. 

A shop at a station selling Bentos
Some stations are famous for the Bentos sold there than anything else. Most of the Japanese passing through the Tokyo Station make it a point to buy the marunouchi ekiben sold there. The bento is inspired by the snacks that were eaten during the intermission of kabuki performances in the area.

There are usually a lot of Bento shops near commercial districts. The busy office goer can simply pop out at lunch time to buy a bento and come back and eat at his desk. Or he can pick up a Bento on his way home and just heat up his dinner. My dinner in Japan usually comprised of Bento boxes that I bought near my office. 

Very few countries herald the change of seasons as vividly as Japan. And this gets reflected in their lunch boxes as well.

This is a special Bento for the cherry blossom season. 

And the Girls' Doll festival has its own special Bento as well. 

Apr 17, 2014

Book Review - Sorting Out Sid

Sorting out Sid is Yashodhara Lal’s second book. The first one, “Just Married, Please excuse” is a hilarious take on the life of a newly married couple. In her own words the book is rather autobiographical.

Sorting out Sid on the other hand, talks about the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Sid aka Siddharth Agarwal in the corporate world as well as in his personal life.
Sid is your regular guy with regular problems. Ok, not so regular because his biggest grievance is that his desk is too close to the loo so he is wary of shaking anyone’s hand if they come to his desk straight from there !

Sid’s usual reaction to the complexities in his life is to go into the denial mode, half hoping his problems will go away on their own. He tends to wander into his own thoughts; half listening to what others are saying and this almost always lands him into foot in the mouth situations. To these idiosyncrasies, add a steadily crumbling marriage, possessive parents, an obnoxious boss fond of cracking Bathroom jokes, and an HR head showing a little more than professional interest in him and you have “Sorting Out Sid”.

Sid also has a different garb for the different roles he plays in his life – The Obedient Son, The eager beaver of an employee, the socialite and the always-acting-goofy Friend. The real Sid gets a little lost in all this.

The only place he can be himself is with Brownie – Someone (or is it something!) he can have intimate conversations with over endless bottles of beer because in his own words “You know why I love you so much, Brownie … You are such a good listener. You don’t judge. You don’t preach”.

Sorting out the Book!

Despite the complexities in Sid’s life, the story is simple and uncomplicated and the characters well etched out. There is no hotchpotch of parallel stories or numerous characters. All the characters, big or small play their own significant role – even the obscure maid Sid’s soon to be ex-wife hires does her own bit to make the plot funny.

What actually made this book such a delightful read for me was the way Yashodhara Lal has treated the story. Her strength as a story teller lies in the fact that she manages to convert even the most mundane everyday life incidents into humorous tales. The story line is actually serious. We are talking about breakdown in relationships and work politics – But Yashodhara tells these sordid details with such wit and humor that you will end up laughing out loud and commiserating with Sid at the same time.

Another thing that stands out about the book is that it has been written from Sid’s point of view. This is perhaps the first time I have seen a woman writer write a book from the perspective of the male protagonist. And I must say she does it with great panache and aplomb.
There is a whole lot of conversational tone and Hinglish used in the book – which works wonderfully with some readers but then not so well with some.

The sort of reader that I am, I usually go for the language. Exposition and wordplay is usually the first thing I will look for in a book, and if the book doesn’t have that then the plot better be racy and full of intrigue. Sorting Out Sid offers you neither. There are no elaborate descriptions and the plot is actually rather mundane – Just a sequence of events that happen in Sid’s life. And frankly in between the plot tends to drag just a wee bit.

But Yashodhara Lal wins you over with the quirky dialogues and the situations laced with droll humor. The book is peppered with absolutely hilarious monologues that Sid has with himself.

The language is simple but flows very smoothly. There is no symphony of words here but then there are no jarring notes either.

Yashodhara Lal knows the pulse of her readers well. This is the sort of book that young India will relate to. For aren’t we all a bit like Sid - bumbling through the stresses of modern life and in the process still trying to Sort ourselves out!

Sorting Out Sid is a fun and breezy read. A book you can enjoy with a cup of coffee or a beer – while you sit comfortably ensconced in your bean bag. It will make a perfect antidote for a bad work day!

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