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.
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.
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.