Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Obento Love

Green Bird Bento
photo by Nonochan

At lunchtime tomorrow, men, women and children across Japan will open their obento boxes to see beautifully prepared lunch, much as their ancestors have done for centuries. The ancient art of obento lunches is an elegant expression of beauty, simplicity and love. In fact, a beautifully prepared children's Bento is synonymous with a mother's love in Japan. It is an invisible connection between mother and child, as the child goes out into the world.

Obento (also called bento, but the "o" signifies honor and isn't is a lovely idea to honor one's lunch!) is made from bits of meat, vegetables and rice, combined in a visually appealing way. Rather than portions, there are "bites" of a variety of foods in the typical bento. The diversity of tastes as well as the beauty of the meal make for a satisfying lunch.

John Maeda, from the Rhode Island School of Design, says the beauty of bentos and of all Japanese art and life is due to the limited resources of that island nation. Individuals always are seeking ways to make more with less (New York Times).

Even an obento, produced by a stranger and purchased in a train station, has meaning. It is a way for each area to feature its own local foods and style and to welcome the visitor.

It is easy to see why people become so poetic about this art form. I think this eloquent comment from a New York Times article says it best:

An o-bento is an invitation. To the flavors of home, of its kitchen, and of its "o-kaasan" (Mom) or its "o-kamisan" (mistress of the inn or lodgings)and an extravagant invitation to the senses, to the few moments of private pleasure it conveys, to a treasure chest of flavorful morsels. You may indulge, but like Belgian chocolate, a little at a time.

It is an invitation to the furtive glances of the other kids in the classroom, the other office ladies in the lunchroom, to the teacher who notices that his pupils are well-supplied and happy at home. For the male salariman, it is an "aisai bento" - often only prepared in those first months after marriage - that signals to his peers that he has made a good choice, and has a life partner who cares.

In the "o-miyage" shops at every station, it is a focal point of local foodie pride,the "eki-ben" or "our station's favorite lunch box" that lends that distinctive pleasure, to the visiting traveler the novelty of having come all this way to have this simple but distinctive and nutritious locally-made dish, to the wayward city dwellers a reminder of the simpler life of home."

In the next post, we will come down to earth and discuss some ways to make our American lunches more appealing through bentos. Until then, please enjoy these photos from one of my favorite bento artists, Nonochan. She makes these for her two children. Lucky kiddos!

Sleeping Cat Bento

Christmas Bento

Little Hen Bento

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