If you love cooking, are fascinated by Japanese food, and while away many a happy hour in the kitchen lovingly preparing sustenance for your grateful and appreciative family you most definitely have a) a very happy husband b) a secretly or overtly jealous and competitive Mother in Law and c) no need to read this article.
For the rest of you – if you are anything like me and cooking appeals to you about as much as colonic irrigation, but you have kids and therefore have no choice – I am happy to share a few tips, short cuts and outright cheats that I have picked up over the last what seems like a millennia of knocking up those &%$# lunchboxes every $$%&# morning….
Most kindergartens, barring the ones who actually supply a lunch time meal (which are few and far between so if you are in one, please write in and give us your secret for how you got in there,) will require a bento.
First of all, whatever your Mother in Law may tell you there is ABSOLUTELY no need to get up at 5am and start cooking. Anyone who does is in desperate need of a time and motion study in my opinion. For Gods sake if you are up and about at that time, take a long, hot shower and do your hair, or just simply relish the peace and quiet.
I almost always make my bento the night before, and leave it in the fridge. So far, no-one has come down with food poisoning, and no-one has even noticed it isn`t fresh off the stove.
Don`t be tempted to go out and buy a book on how to make bentos, unless you really enjoy cooking. They will totally freak you out, and I can tell you with some authority that, for the most part, nobody`s bento ever looks like one of the works of art that you see within those pages anyway, except on the days when you are invited to go and view the class eating their lunch, which is the one and only time everyone pulls out all the stops and sends their child off with a “designer” bento. I whispered one day to my daughters class teacher in Japanese something along the lines of “Holy Crap! Is this how bentos are supposed to be??!” to which she whispered back from the corner of her mouth “Don`t worry, they never look like this normally!”
There are two skills in the kitchen that will become indispensible to you: (well, actually, I can think of a third, but that is for a different section of this website entirely ;) ) Onigiri and tamago-yaki – rice balls and eggroll. Unless of course your child has an egg allergy in which case you might want to skip the latter. Ask your mother in law or any Japanese friend – I could tell you myself how to do it here, but the brownie points you will score in just asking for their help in the kitchen is not something you want to pass up.
Pick up your bento box from any supermarket, home centre or Mom and Pop store, and pick up some little paper cake cups from the same places or a 100 yen shop. Flags go down really well too, so grab some of those if you can – the ones attached to little cocktail sticks. If you want to get really technical, buy some little cookie cutter thingies that you can use to cut carrot pieces, seaweed, or anything really into various shapes.
The key to a good bento is lots of little things. So keep the fridge stocked up with a variety of things you know your child likes, for example carrots, cucumber, mini-tomatoes, cheese and so forth – these things all make great “fillers” for the gaps between things you put in the box.
Sound complicated so far? Well really, once you have bought the above, you are 80% there.
I simply make a little extra of whatever I am cooking for dinner, and add it to the box, using the fillers listed above to plug any gaps. It takes about 10 minutes. On days that I have gone on strike, I simply knock up some onigiri or tamago-yaki in about 1 minute, add a few fillers and bingo – healthy, simple lunch that will pass the eagle-eye of any kindergarten teacher. Or whip up a sandwich. For the most part, especially if you are a foreign Mum, the kindergarten teacher will allow a sandwich to pass under the radar, but you might find yourself questioned if you do it every day. This is a nation obsessed with food as you will notice if you watch daytime Japanese TV, and variety is absolutely the spice of their life. While we might view a sandwich as the ultimate healthy variety food, to them a sandwich is a sandwich is a sandwich.
In addition, if you go to your local supermarket frozen section, you will find a variety of packets of little things such as meatballs, mini croquets, mini-hamburgers, tiny portions of vegetables, that you can just pop in the microwave and have ready in under a minute. I always keep a few of those things in the freezer, again just to plug any gaps.
For dessert, I always cut up a few pieces of fruit. Again, they are great for plugging gaps, and most kids have some kinds of fruit they will eat.
If you can get inventive and make the ingredients of your bento into animal shapes, trees or faces, by all means go for it. Just bear in mind that if your child is anything like mine, by the time his schoolbag containing his bento has been kicked across the schoolyard, and used to cosh another child over the head, your loving efforts may have been wasted.
So, to recap, here are the 10 rules of fuss-free bentos:
- Don`t buy a bento making book if you are easily intimidated
- Pick up flags, shape cutters, and cake-cups
- Perfect your onigiri and tamagoyaki skills
- Keep lots of “fillers” in the fridge.
- Keep some frozen bits for plugging gaps
- Make it up the night before with dinner leftovers
- If there are no dinner leftovers or you are on strike, knock up a sandwich but don`t do it every day.
- Go for roughly 50% carbs, 25% protein, and the rest “fillers” of fruit and veg.
- Don`t be tempted to put in yoghurt or jelly as a quick dessert – it will be returned with a stern note.
- Pull out the stops only when you have to – like bento viewing day, but otherwise rest assured that your bento will be as good as everyone elses.
If all else fails, many Japanese women pride themselves on their prowess in the kitchen (with cooking, I mean!) so if you feel inclined, pick one and ask them for help. Japanese just LOVE to help out useless foreigners with anything Japanese. I remember when I first arrived here a whole bunch of lovely kind women falling over themselves to give me guided tours of the supermarket. I didn`t have the heart to tell them that I rate supermarket shopping up there with golf and chess as some of the most boring pursuits in existence so I politely endured having the various types of soy sauce and their uses explained to me over and over. The only useful thing about these supermarket tours is that they can often tell you when the cheap bread/veggie markets/frozen food bargain days are – now that IS worth hearing!
Above all, don`t stress too much about your bento. You will be admired for your effort and appreciated for your ongoing commitment to kindergarten life. We foreign Mums actually get away with quite a lot here, and this is one of those things when being foreign is actually a distinct advantage. I almost feel guilty sometimes!