Japanese food is ever more popular in the UK, but it's not just the food that we're enamoured with. The way that Japan eats its food is also inspiring us. Take the bento. This term is used to refer to a single-portion meal, packaged so it can be eaten on the go in a box-shaped container (if buying a takeout bento from a convenience store or similar) or in a reusable container (if home-made). It's often translated as a "packed lunch", but this is pretty misleading since--if you're anything like me--that term conjures up images of white bread, wafer thin ham, maybe a yoghurt and a piece of fruit. Well, Japan's notorious as being a culture with almost obsessive attention to detail--and the bento is no exception. Even the most perfunctory of bento appear to have had considerably more loving care lavished upon them than your run-of-the-mill British packed lunch: rice, small-ish portions of cooked meat or fish, vegetables, pickles, and maybe a slice of rolled omelette all sit together, packed neatly in a compact little box, magically not becoming mushed up together. Sometimes it's leftovers, some people get up in the morning (or have family members get up for them) to prepare fresh food, but the undoubted king of the time-consuming bento must be the kyaraben. That's "character" as in manga or anime, and "ben" as in "bento" or lunchbox; these are quite possibly the cutest way to eat lunch in the entire world. After all, why eat a roll when you could eat a "Totoroll"?
Kyaraben are now a noted cultural and culinary phenomenon in Japan. Recipe books, websites, and Flickr groups all celebrate the creativity and imagination of these cutest of cooking achievements. They are assumed to have started out as a way to get kids to eat their lunches, before becoming widespread, whether as a result of an inherent love of kawaii, frustrated creative instincts, competitive parenting, or simply just enjoying cooking up cute food to make your kids smile. The abundance of recipe suggestions and inspiration on the web mean that there's barely a popular character that hasn't been made into a bento--just take a look at these:
We tried the "Totoroll", a Hello Kitty bento, and some Rilakkuma inari sushi. There's no getting around it, it took a pretty long time. And eating the Totoroll was almost--almost--heartbreaking (in the most delicious of ways). The Rilakkuma was the easiest to make--get hold of some Japanese rice and some inari wraps. You'll also need sheets of nori, a slice or two of ham, a few cheese slices, a (clean) box cutter (be very careful) or very sharp knife, a great deal of patience and a steady hand. Cook up the Japanese rice according to these instructions and get your inari wraps ready. You then need to get concentrating and cutting. Nori for the eyes, nose and mouth. Tiny circles of cheese for the nose and ears. And, if you're feeling like a real challenge, even tinier circles of ham to sit on top of the tiny cheese-ear-circles. Stuff your wraps with rice, then assemble your features according to your preferred expressions. Ta-da! Delicious, kawaii, and low calorie too.
Even if you think it's all too much for you, there is one staple of the cute bento box that anyone can master: the Sausage Octopus. Take a look at this comprehensive tutorial, then let us see your masterpieces on our Facebook page!
You can also find lots of authentic Japanese recipes on the Eat-Japan recipe site. Happy cooking!