Bento 101

What is a Bento?

In short the japanese word bento roughly translates as "packed lunch". Because in Japanese culture and some other cultures, it is often said that people tend to eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths (which makes a lot of sense, remember how difficult it is to differentiate raw apples and raw potatoes when you are blindfolded?) This means that how the food is presented can make an important difference. This in turn give rise to the many different types bentos that are available.

For example, bento lunches that are sold at train stations in Japan are called Ekiben. Ekibens are designed to be eaten by train commuters and usually reflect the typical cooking styles of the particular region surrounding the train station.

In Japan, there are also a lot of people who bring Noriben to school or work. Noriben is short for Nori (Roasted seaweed) + Bento. Usually it consist of 3-4 layers of rice and seaweed, soya sauce and sometimes dried bonito flakes. It is made very simply but many Japanese do feel extra nostalgic when they see a noriben.

There are also people who make bentos featuring cute characters such as Hello Kitty or Pokemons in the early 2000s. The key motivation for making these bentos with cute characters is to get children to eat ingredients that they don't really like, such as brocolli and capsicum among others. In fact many Japanese moms would wake up extra early just to make cute bentos for their preschool kids. The phenomenem got so widespread that a movement was started as a reaction against making these cute bentos and to try to encourage Japanese moms to make a "usual" bento instead.

Why do you go through the hassle of making a bento?
Well, for me, it doesn't really matter whether my bentos can be considered as a "cute bento" or not. The key motivation for me to make bentos is simply about love. I had been once asked a very good question, something along the lines of "Why do you go through all these trouble of making all these pretty things, only to have them gobbled up in a few seconds?"

It's really a valid question and I realised that the most important thing for me is the whole idea that my work can possibly cheer up a typical workday for my husband. Its kind of like opening a surprise package during lunch time. I guess you can say that in a twisted way, I am in love with the facination (that I can break the monotony of someone else's day just with a lunchbox.) Whether Mr Bear takes his time to savour his lunch or whether he only takes 3 minutes to wolf down something I spend 30 minutes on, becomes instantly irrelavant :)

While I wouldn't say that there are hard and fast rules to bento making, I realised that there are some golden tips I always keep at the back of my head. I had them written in a post on 3 October 2011 but I realised that it might be easier to make a seperate page so it doesn't get lost among all the other posts. Here are some of them:

Golden Rule #1
Always stuff your bento lunch box till it's full. 
When I say full, I really mean full, to the top edge of the box. Usually I make sure it's so full that there is no room for the ingredients in the box to move around.

Golden Rule #2
Make sure that food is sufficiently cooled before you place them in the box.
This is because condensation may occur and it may spoil the items in the box prematurely.

Golden Rule #3
Try to line the bento box with some kind of leafy vegetable makes cleaning up a lot easier.
Of course, this isn't compulsory, but it really does make a difference when it comes to cleaning up. And besides, the lettuce can always be eaten up so there's hardly any wastage.

Golden Rule #4
Keep salad dressings / sauce dips in a separate tiny container with leakproof lid.
This prevents the salad turning into a soggy mess by lunchtime. When the weather is warm, I use a small cooler pack on the vegetables as well.

Golden Rule #5
Pack a small cooler pack with the bento if the weather is warm
This keeps the food fresher and prevents sad looking half melted cheese.

Golden Rule #6
Try to plan your bento lunchboxes in advance
This saved me A LOT of time, especially for busy mornings. For time saving tricks and tutorials, simply type "tutorial" at the search box on the top right corner.

Golden Rule #7
Lettuce and other big leafy vegetables can make great food dividers
In case the silicon food dividers are in the wash, or I'm feeling lazy to do washing up, I tend to use a big piece of lettuce as a food divider, so that it can be eaten and I do not have to wash anything later. Sometimes I also use the leaf to seperate the meats from the rice or bread. This way the rice or bread does not turn soggy that quickly from all the meat gravies and juices.

Golden Rule #8
It's perfectly fine to use leftovers to make a bento
Of course there are times when I run out of bento ideas, but usually a good look in the fridge solves the problem. For example, half a slice of cheese is enough to make a figure, or faces etc; old rice can be made into fried rice; half a carrot can be made into 4 side dishes; leftover bread crusts can be diced and baked into crotons; irregular shaped cheese after using the cookie cutter can be thrown and melted in pasta dishes. The possibilities are endless. For bentos with efficient use of ingredients, simply type "leftover" at the search box on the top right corner.

About Bento Cat

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Amsterdam, Netherlands
I'm Shanna and I enjoy bento making a lot. I'm also a wife, daughter,sister,a full-time student, previous fashion and product designer, nerd and super foodie all rolled into one. With Adventures of Bento Cat, I hope to document the daily happenings of my life through Bentos filled with Tender Loving Care and more! I can be contacted at
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