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Food & Wine

Bento lunches add beauty to the box


Photo By: Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Photo Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier The bento mindset invites hundreds of playful lunch-box variations.

For many Americans, the “bento box” enters the vocabulary only as a combo-meal on the menu in Japanese restaurants. But the phrase refers to a larger phenomenon, dating back hundreds of years and appearing in forms kitschy and elaborate enough to inspire Internet followings and fan contests.

Why does putting food in a box inspire such love and attention? The designers who modeled IBM’s laptop computer after the bento box extolled the virtues of a simple box with orderly, elegant goodies hidden within.

Bento boxes can be large, small, multiple, stacked or compartmentalized, but they all fulfill the basic concept of a larger-than-life Tupperware container that showcases the food it holds and invites playful fillings.

For picky eaters young and old, the special compartments and bento-related tools separate and highlight lunch components, making a feast out of a meal.

The simplest bento lunches typically incorporate a carbohydrate, a protein and a fruit/vegetable element. But novelty toothpicks make spearing broccoli more fun. Hard-boiled egg, rice and sandwich presses shape plain food into cartoon characters or fanciful creatures. And nori stamps let you press out – quickly – colorful, edible seaweed stickers to add features to rice or veggies.

Bentos whipped up the perfect storm of enthusiasm online in recent years, at the nexus of people-taking-pictures-of-their-food and mom-bloggers talking about what to make for lunch.

Makiko Itoh’s blog, www.JustBento.com, makes a good first stop for bento novices, with its compendious coverage of bento products, techniques, stories and history from around the world.

Itoh’s book, “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA, 2010), offers some of her most popular recipes and bento “menus” that help beginners plan their noon-time boxes.

Crystal Watanabe’s “Adventures in Bento-making” blog, www.aibento.net, features how-to instructions for creating cutesy peculiarities ranging from American-cheese stars with which to stud pasta to a Halloween bento with severed finger sausages and ghostly onigiri (rice balls). She also co-authored the book “Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches” (Quirk Books, 2010) as a print guide to making lunchtime art.

For bento inspiration with a meat-free angle, visit Vegan Lunch Box. Happy Little Bento focuses on making boxes for young people, and What's For Lunch at Our House just posted a neat suggestion for making disposable, field-trip-friendly bento lunches.

Lunch in a Box compiled a handy guide to Bay Area shops where you can stock up on bento specialty tools.

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