Thursday, 13 October 2011

SmartCooks Let's Bento!

October 2011 

SmartCooks here.

I've discovered Bento lunches or meals served Japanese style in a box!  I have a new cookbook.  A couple of new ipad apps. 8 new lunch boxes!  A whole new way of making lunches for work (and weekends!) And aesthetically so beautiful! 

What is Bento?

How did this happen?  Well, I'm a grazer.  A food grazer.  A book grazer.  A life grazer.  A website grazer too.  One day I happened to come across two sites -- Just Bento and Just Hungry -- and I was hooked by the variety, portion sizes, attention to detail and health benefits.  And the bento boxes are adorably cute too :) ahhh More on those in a minute. 

I made a number of recipes from the Just Bento cookbook pictured on right above -- quinoa with vegetables, shredded carrot and turnip with lemon juice, radish and cucumber with lime --  and totally loved it.  The food is perfect for me.  Again, the benefits of cooking dishes on a Sunday night that will last most of the week is perfect.  I will keep a list in a future post so I remember what I did. And, congratulations to author Makiko Itoh for a beautifully photographed book, good glossary, and lots of information on how to Go Bento!

My favourite Bento box -- Ojyu box -- with its drawstring lunch bag pictured below, left.

Both blogs that I found seem to be written by young, health-conscious women.  If you browse deeper into Just Hungry, you will discover like I did that the writer of that blog has a personal site where she discloses she is undergoing some serious health problems i.e., chemo... uterine cancer.  But she is carrying on with her life for which I give full marks and wish her all the very best as she moves through a difficult year.  

As I explored the sites I discovered, not surprisingly, both a philosophy and science behind bentos.  There are very cute bentos, highly decorated 'artistic' bentos with cute characters like Hello Kitty! and small bunnies that are so popular in Japan.  I think they're cute but definitely not me.  I've also had many a basic bento box that you see in restaurants both there and here.

But I prefer the simple, healthy bentos called "shoshoku" that have become popular in some parts of Japan, with the focus on traditional Japanese foods,organic food, fresh vegetables and whole grains.  Some are macrobiotic and vegan or vegetarian.  They date back to the vegan cooking developed by Zen Buddhist monks, and I certainly some of that when I was in Japan a decade or so ago. 

Why Bento?

I've decided to give Bento lunches a whirl for a number of reasons, as follows: 
  • It will guarantee a healthy lunch because I plan them carefully and incorporate vegetables and vegetarian choices as much as possible. 
  • Bentos incorporate a variety of foods in small quantites so the calorie count is around 400-600, depending on the size of the bento box (I have samples below). 
  • There are so many intriguing recipes to choose from.  The recipe book is choc-a-bloc crammed with healthy examples, with layouts shown, and the bloggers have tons more examples they are sharing with the world. 
  • Prep time is about 20 minutes the night before or morning of... more than that ... well, then I'm just overdoing it. 

  • The food layouts are so attractive.  I always open up the bento box and marvel at how 'pretty' it looks.  It makes for a great lunch.   
There's also a real science behind meal planning.  I copied an example of a weekly meal planner for bento lunches.  I have not followed it to the letter of course as I'm not as fond of fish as most Japanese are but, nonetheless it is a good guide. 

And, if you're getting the impression I'm somewhat maniacally organized (about some things), you guessed it.  But look at the planner below! The Just Bento site has templates that can be downloaded and printed but don't think I'm quite going there.  The Just Bento book, however, breaks down each of the bentos in time allotments and claim no more than 20 minutes per bento box.  I did a marathon Sunday night of four dishes for a couple of hours so that would work out to be just about right. 

Bento Preparation

The past two weeks, I've focussed on making
rice paper spring rolls, filled with a luscious array of julienned vegetables and micro greens from my Community Agriculture Box, avocado, leftover turkey, cranberry sauce, green goddess dressing etc. They have been crunchy and delicious.  The picture at left shows the array of vegeys.  With a mandoline they took no time at all to prepare and I got enough vegeys to last 3 or 4 days of spring rolls. 

The bento box at right shows the finished product, with turkey/vegey spring rolls, some radish sprouts, yellow heirloom carrots and homemade pickles.  All yumm.  BTW, this box is called the "Shikiri", which means 'divider' in Japanese.  The Shikiri Bento includes more inner dividers than any single bento box on any of the sites. I took out some to fit the spring rolls but, in general, I find this one has a LOT of functionality. It's also kindof retro '80s style in design and looks so works for me. 

This weekend, I will get a bit more adventurous for the week with some sushi rice balls, with some meat (like chicken or a small meatball) stuffed in the middle.  The Just Hungry site gives detailed instructions, and admonitions to use sushi rice, called " " and not sticky rice or other such substitutes.  I also have some dried seawood (Husband goes Yuck at this point) which is absolutely superb as a snack and loaded with vitamins and minerals. 

This weekend, I will also try a recipe for yellow onions, cooked with classic nanban sauce.  Here's the recipes for the nanban sauce and onions below.  I've tried the sauce before and LOVE it. You can use it on vegeys or as a dip.  It's fast and flavourful. There's a photo and detailed descriptions on the Just Hungry site. 

Bento boxes

KomamonyoIn a word, they are just the 'best'.  I spent hours trolling about websites like Bento and Co,, and J-List, and ordered bentos from both of them.  Most bentos cost between $7 and $30 dollars.  I found my ultimate Bento called "Komamony" (picture left) at both stores but balked at the price of $215!  I'm showing it though because it seems quite special, almost a work of art.  Don't know how practical it would be for going back and forth to work.

I bought a selection of bentos that seem to fit my cooking lifestyle.  I'm showing some of them below.  I've tried 3-4 of them now and am very satisfied with the ease of storage and carrying.  Most come with a band to wrap around the box and hold it snug, a pair of chopsticks and a bag to carry the lunch.  I bought western style bags but if I wanted a true Japanese experience I would have opted for a square cloth that is tied around the bento.  I haven't quite gone that far .... yet. 

Pictures of bentos below
Ojyu Bento
The Ojyu bento is left.  It's two tier and large.  Salad in bottom portion, spring rolls in the top and oodles of room left over.  I use it a lot and it could be used for appetizers as well at a party.  Also pictured above as is my current favourite!

I also bought some "Zen" Bento boxes (right), various shapes and sizes.  They are stainless steel, quite utilitarian and sturdy.  For some reason, I chuckled thinking that they would be right at home on a construction site, like the one in FlashDance (don't ask me why).  I pictured Jennifer Beals biking around town in her warm-up socks and a Zen Bento stuffed into her backpack.  Anyway, they are quite nice.  

Picnic Style Lacquered 3 Tier Bento Box with Chopsticks & Elastic Band ~ Lucky Animals Then, for some reason, I got captivated by the one at left.  It's a 3-tier, picnic style bento with chopsticks cunningly fitted into slots at the top of the box. I thought it looked quite different BUT what I didn't realize, however, was it has "lucky bunnies" and other animals on it.  That one is destined as a gift to an age appropriate person. 

ASCII Art Bento - 2-tier Tight Box KITA~This one pictured right is a favourite though, and not just because of the "A", eh? It's actually called an ASCII Art Bento.  It is compact, 2-tier and doesn't hold as much as the others, say a small salad and one spring roll plus a few carrot sticks.  It also comes with chopsticks and an adorable carrying bag.  

CUSTOM MODE Blue Volume 2 tier Bento Box with ChopsticksThis one (right) is long and lovely, called the Custom Mode (unsure why) but I don't find it as functional.  It's clever though as the black strap at top snaps on the bottom tier holding it snug.  The chopsticks are tucked under the black strip.  I haven't used that one yet. 

Red WAON Bento Box Set ~ Square 2 tier Bento Box & Chopsticks & Bento Bag
The one, pictured left, is 2-tier Waon red Bento box set.  It comes with band to hold it, chopsticks and the cute little bag you can see in the picture.  I use this one quite a bit as well as I find it a good size.  It comes with a drawstring cloth bag.  Many bentos come with  'furoshiki' which is a cloth or napkin that holds the box and chopsticks (some are pictured above when I talked about Why Bento?  The Bento and chopsticks are placed in the centre of the furoshiki and then the cloth is tied in a knot. It's very cute.  Frequently the bags are decorated to match the bento. Some look more like lunch bags.  I got a good mix of them in my orders.  I avoided the anime characters that are so popular in Japan.  

DX Bento Special Gift Box Set  ~ YUZEN Lacquered Bento Box & Band & Chopsticks & Bag

And finally, the Bento box set on the left is quite special -- DX Bento with Yuzen lacquer and in a gift box.

I fell for it because it reminded me of tradtional Japanese kimonos and one in particular. 

An aside:  Let me explain.  One of the scenes of Japan (Kyoto actually) that stands out in my mind is from 1997 when I was coordinating communications on climate change at the UN Conference on Climate Change. 

Picture this.... 10,000 delegates crammed into Kyoto.  Each country delegation has to have its own space to meet and work.  The Canadian delegation was crammed into a basement room at a hotel just across from the main Conference Centre.  It was too small and hot, the technology wasn't perfect and computers kept breaking down etc.  The noise level was deafening, frantic, frenetic energy and competing agendas.  The stress level was palpable. 
One afternoon, to escape the chaos, I slipped out into the hallway and watched, in total amazement, as a bride-to-be and her entourage of 30 attendants emerged from the salon across from our delegation room.  She was dressed in the most exquisite kimono/gown (like the bento box picture) I had ever seen (later in Tokyo I found more in a department store where they ranged from $10K to $50K (that's U.S. 1997 dollars).  Multiple layers of make-up were on her face and hands and her hair was piled and pinned with an intricate tortoise shell hairpin. 

I called into the delegation room for folks to calm down.  As if on cue, the delegation folks turned to look and, voila, the noise level dropped to total zero -- silence -- as we watched the Bride being ushered along the corridor.  It looked like part of a solemn ritual.  She passed, and, presto voila, the noise level rose to its deafening crescendo again.  Sigh.  


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