Bento Box Cute Food
Darn! I completely missed my calling. I just sent my daughter off to college and only now do I discover the Japanese tradition of packing children’s lunch boxes with adorable little creatures crafted from decorated morsels of rice, cheese, meat and veggies: carrot flowers with asparagus stems, pudgy smiling rice pandas or a tiger with seaweed stripes. I guess Lila wouldn’t have put up with me making her precious lunch boxes in high school but maybe a decade before that.
I’ve always had a penchant for cute food. When I was an actress in Los Angeles, I handed casting directors my 8 by 10 glossies, accompanied by cookie versions of my face, hoping to make a sweet and lasting impression.
One morning, about 20 years ago, when I served my husband perhaps one too many bowls of oatmeal sporting a smiling face of raisins, he gently suggested that it might be time for us to have a child who could really enjoy my cute food creations. Several years later, before Lila could even appreciate them, I was thrilled to cook up teddy bear cakes, marzipan ladybugs, fall colored chocolate leaves and back-to-school cookies (shaped like apples, rulers and pencils).
I recently met Wendy, a local mother of two,who blogs about the bento box lunches she makes for her young sons. She turned me onto Ichiban-kan, a Japanese shop in El Cerrito that sells supplies from tiny fish bottles for sauce to molds for making bunny shaped hard-boiled eggs. And further down San Pablo Avenue, I found Berkeley’s venerable Tokyo Fish Market also carries a myriad of minuscule containers, teensy vegetable cutters and bento books in their gift shop.
For inspiration, I checked out some of the many websites devoted to this art. One of my favorites is Bento Zen by “gamene,” a Manhattan lawyer who takes the time to create a daily moment of harmony in her stressful life.
The author of Lunch in a box provides step by step directions to fabricate your own bentos, and points out that bento lunches don’t need to be exclusively for children. In fact, making attractive, portion-controlled meals in reusable containers is environmentally sound and may aid in weight control. Many Japanese adults bring or buy simple boxed lunches that don’t feature cartoon characters. Kawaii is the term for the cute versions made for kids.
In Japan, this tradition of sweet and silly food fabrication is taken quite seriously:
A typical mother spends almost an hour crafting every lunch into a healthful, beguiling blend of cartoon characters, flora and fauna — anything that will make the food appeal to her child. The teacher judges whether the lunch box is prepared according to obento rules (e.g., the food must be as handmade as possible, and it must be appetizing and aesthetically appealing to the child). — From PBS’s THE MEANING OF FOOD
I wonder if these cute but nutritious balanced lunches have a lasting effect on Japanese children? They must. Early experiences with food are deeply embedded in our psyches. A recent SF Chronicle article reported the encouraging news that our local Berkeley Unified School Lunch Initiative does indeed help our children make healthier choices.
It’s too bad that my daughter is off at college and too old to appreciate this art. Hmmm… I wonder if my husband would like a little broccoli garden with a sleeping rice bunny with pink ham ears…