Last night I did a fun class called ‘All About Bento’ – a Japanese language taster organised by the Japan Foundation on the subject of the famous lunch-box!
First we explored ‘What is Bento’. It has a surprisingly long history (more than 1000 years!). It was interesting to learn how it had evolved – in particular how it had come into its own in the era of the steam train. Still now eki-bento is the perfect food to take on a journey. We found that bento is an integral part of Japanese life, accompanying it through various important stages and marker-points – from school-day lunches, through school trips and cherry-blossom parties (with optional sake), to later years when it might be delivered as handy food for the elderly. But it’s definitely not like a ready-meal! A huge amount of effort, skill and love can go into making bento!
We watched two short video clips – one of a father making incredible kyara-bento for his children: his care and attention to detail making these realistic animal characters out of food was astonishing, almost painful to watch! The second (from a Tokyo Gas advert) was of a mother steadfastly making bento for her son every day, putting all of her love and encouragement into it ‘like a secret message’ even though he didn’t always appreciate it – it had us all quite teary;)
We discovered that there are various tools to help personalise your bento – such as a nozzle device that allows you to ‘write’ on your creation; a rice-ball maker, useful for making small spheres to turn into characters’ faces (see kyara-bento); and colourful partitions to divide up your bento.
A bento will normally have three compartments, and should feature all five-a-day colours! Rice or another staple goes in the biggest compartment – but we were surprised that the ‘main dish’ (meat, fish) goes in the smallest! But then it made sense – have as much protein as you need, but don’t over-eat. Fun, healthy, adaptable, portable… Bento seems like the perfect way to eat! Our teacher even showed us her own bento – yes, it had all the correct colours and arrangements, and she could even tip it upside down (it was a plastic food model, very realistic…)
So now we had to get on to the part where we learned to say what foods we like or don’t like; asking our neighbour the same; making up our own bento, and one for our neighbour. By now with all this talk of food everyone was getting so hungry. I wanted to bring my bento to life, by saying the magic word Oishii (Delicious!)
Talking about food is always a wonderful ice-breaker; and it’s amazing how we can feel we’re getting close to another culture by sharing its food. I think this is all going to be very useful for the next J-trip…