If there is a culinary activity guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of someone lacking in both cooking skills and artistic talent, it is having to prepare the much-admired Japanese bento for kids. When I was a child myself and blissfully ignorant, I used to pretend I was a chef with my very own television show in which I'd effortlessly whip up amazing dishes, whilst describing the process to my eager fans. It was when I reached adulthood that I realised that while I could occasionally make something that tasted really good, co-ordination, flair, and the ability to cook a simple meal without leaving the kitchen cluttered with used dishes and decorated with food splatters were talents sadly absent. In addition to being hopelessly clumsy in the kitchen, my efforts at drawing, sculpture and any other creative activity requiring you to actually make something with your hands, appeared to have reached their peak sometime in early primary school. Suffice to say, I wasn't the best person to tackle making a decorative bento.
Not that I ever intended to. When my son was in hoikuen (daycare) they had an excursion which required a packed lunch. Into his cute Miffy lunch box I arranged his favourite egg & mayo sandwich cut into triangles and a couple of gigantic strawberries. Imagine my horror when I went to pick him up and saw the photos of the day pinned to the wall, in them his classmates eating colourful and cute bento lunches featuring rice balls with faces, animals made of food, lunches that looked like they'd nailed every food group and then some. As if my shame could not get worse, the teacher told me that after he'd eaten all of his lunch he still wanted more. Of course he would have inhaled his lunch in minutes and then had to watch the other kids working through their own smorgasbord-in-a-box creations. I vowed to forego the sandwiches next time and out-bento them all.
Fast forward a few months and another excursion requiring another packed lunch. Remembering how red-faced I'd been after the last I made my first stop Kinokuniya in Yoyogi where I flicked through some Japanese bento-making books, studying the pictures for inspiration. My next stop was Tokyu Hands where I dropped 10,000 yen on all kind of bento-making equipment. Serious I was and also rather stupid as I later discovered 100 yen shops carry a lot of the same stuff. Nevermind, walking home that day with my brown paper bag full of bento gadgetry felt good. I worked out what I was going to make (and I may have even drawn some pictures too) and bought the ingredients. This was also an expensive exercise since you can't exactly buy one cocktail sausage or half a carrot.
I started cooking the night before. While I may have only needed one or two sausage octopus, it took significantly more to end up with something that actually resembled a creature from the sea and not a chewed up sausage. Meat balls were on the menu that night since I needed a few for the bento. Even though I spent a couple of hours cooking that evening, I remember that I still woke up the next morning at 5:30am to cook the rest of it and assemble it. I do remember how much my back ached from being hunched over a gadget that would cut out faces from nori (seaweed), trying to keep the eyes and mouth together on a surface already covered with other gadgets, dishes, and scraps of food. I also remember thinking there was so much waste, bits of carrot and cheese with star-shaped parts missing. And finally, I did wonder at what point is the addition of another animal-topped plastic toothpick, or a cute character face flag, too much cute for one box to take?
He took the bento with him (his dad took him that morning while I threw myself onto the nearest flat surface to recover) and apparently ate most of it bar a rice ball or two. His teachers probably felt sorry at my lame attempt (the octopus was missing a face, the egg was supposed to resemble a just-hatched chick, and where the hell were the cherry tomatoes and lettuce leaves) and tried to cover it by commenting on how cute it was. Imagine if they knew how long I spent making it :-o
I never did get to make another bento as we ended up moving back to Australia where sandwiches are the done thing and a bento like that would probably get you beaten up, or at least have your masculinity questioned. For mums who do live in Japan and question their bento-abilities you might want to read Bento - It doesn't have to be a dirty word. I also highly recommend taking a look at the frozen goods section of your supermarket, where you'll find all kinds of bento-sized goodies you can just microwave and pop into the lunch box. Add some rice balls, cherry tomatoes, all nestled in a lettuce leaf, and a few cute plastic decorations, and you'll have a bento that takes 10 minutes to prepare.
If you are a bento extraordinar and would like to show us how it's really done (complete with step-by-step instructions and photos), on behalf of bento-challenged parents everywhere, Japan Family Guide would love to hear from you.