ONE BOX WONDER: THE JAPANESE BENTO → By Daniel Jurek (‘21)
The bento is a proud Japanese tradition that has been passed down through many generations. It made its first appearance during the Kamakura period (from 1185 to 1333) and historians believe this iconic symbol for lunch started out as a farmer’s lunch. Early versions of the bento usually consisted of just rice carried in a pouch. The wooden box form came at a later period and it was only during the Edo period (1603-1868) that the bento became popular throughout Japan. The Japanese have many categories of bentos, from musubi—consisting of just rice and nori (fried seaweed)—to ekiben, which is a specific type of bento sold at train stations and on trains. At the Tokyo Station, Japan’s busiest train station, commuters can choose from over two hundred different ekiben bentos. Popular bentos include: the Yonezawa Beef Domannaka, consisting of thinly sliced Yonezawa beef and Yonezawa Domannaka rice; the Miyagi Sparkling Sea, filled with ikura (salmon roe), rice, and salmon fillets; and the Maisen’s Tonkatsu, a bento with deep fried pork cutlets, rice, and of course, tonkatsu sauce. Bentos are no longer just convenient one box meals. Over the years, bento making has grown into an art form both in Japan and beyond. In a New York Times article on the popularity of bentos in America, Japanese cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo described bento making in Japan as having achieved cult status, where Japanese mothers labor over making the cutest bentos for their children’s
school lunches. HBA Japanese teacher Elena Yoo, however, has managed to maintain a practical outlook on bento making. She said, “It has to be nutritional, fun to look at, but simple enough to make, inviting (so kids will eat), have local ingredients, and has to be compact and packed tightly with a maximum variety of foods and ingredients, preferably seasonal ingredients to reflect the Japanese culture.” For Yoo and many Japanese cooks, meals should reflect the seasons. For instance, Springtime meals would feature in-season items like bamboo shoots, spring cabbage, and rice cooked with clams (“Asari Gohan”). During the colder seasons, food is normally prepared hot to provide warmth, and vice versa during the warmer seasons. Yoo said bento making was a labor of love when her daughters (now in college) needed school lunches. “I made bentos for both of my kids since their kindergarten year all the way to their high school graduation every single day. I don’t think there was any day (maybe one or two) that I didn’t make [bentos.] It was the expression of my love beyond just providing the basic nutrition for the day.” This semester, Yoo had her Japanese 3 students compete in a bento making contest. The rules were fairly simple: the students had to be creative while showcasing an aspect of Japanese culture in their bentos. Yoo explained, “[I] just wanted to make this more fun and the spirit of competition makes everything enjoyable. We also learned about nutrition (carbs, protein, vitamins, etc.) in Japanese, as well as the importance of using locally grown ingredients to promote a healthy lifestyle.” Yoo was able to get Yanagi Sushi, a local Japanese restaurant, to donate gift cards as prizes. In the end, the winning bento was “Bento Bananza” by juniors Christien Burgess and Kacie Moku.