What happens where creativity, status, and practicality meet? In this case, lunch! Bento encourages you to play with your food.
Bento is a homemade or takeout meal common in Japan. Traditionally packed into boxes, some of which are very elegant, basic bento consists of rice with fish or meat and vegetables. The bento has been around for centuries, much longer than the western lunch box, but recently parents and artists in Japan and around the globe have elevated the art of bento food preparation to new heights. Using the natural texture, color and structure of food, along with modern accessories and food coloring, people are making pictures.
Video via Harley Anderegg on YouTube.
Some Bento are called kyaraben or character bento. They often depict popular characters, such as these from Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor, Totoro. Amusing and cute as they are, I would be torn between eating and admiring them. What’s it like to take a bite of your favorite cartoon personality or celebrity figure?
Another form of Bento is the oekakiben or picture bento. These can be nature scenes like the one below:
or cityscapes like this one. You can devour Berlin!!
Bento began in the 12th Century out of practicality. Rice was cooked, dried, and placed in a bag for later. Brown bag lunch, anyone? By the end of the 16th century it became fashionable to place foodstuffs into beautiful lacquered boxes to be used at tea parties. Travelers carried bento boxes made from bamboo on the road, and bento was served between acts at theatrical performances of Noh and Kabuki plays as well as on holidays. Bento is entwined with Japanese culture and symbolism.
The offering below is more than gorgeous, but at some point you are cutting into a pretty neck. Sadistic? No. Just don’t think about it. No one complains when we cut up Oscar the Grouch for a birthday party.
During the 20th century the bento box fell into disfavor, especially in school, because it clearly revealed the status of the student and brought economic disparity into focus in the classroom. A child was judged by his peers for what was in the bento box, and would be envied or ridiculed accordingly. After World War II, with Japan’s economy in shambles, there were no longer the resources for such luxuries anyway. Children and teachers were provided simple and uniform school lunches by the public school. But who could resist something so beautiful for long?
In the 1980s, thanks to the microwave oven, the convenience store and ingenious marketing, bento made a comeback. It was seen as a clever way to get children interested in eating, and, sometimes, to encourage them to eat healthy food rather than processed goods. Many parents of Asian school children labor over these elaborate lunches, some of which take hours to prepare and mere minutes for a hungry child to devour. Once again bento is at the intersection of status, practicality, and creativity, and it is set to conquer the world.
Here’s some more pictures by some of the best bento artists on the web. Pi, anyone? Wait, something is wrong here…
© Megan with CCLicense