Thursday, September 29, 2005

Why I am glad I am not a Japanese housewife...

Today, my little sisters (the Baby Cubs) are staying with us on a weeknight for the first time! The Cubs have school tomorrow, and this is my very first time to think about what to pack for lunch and such. Since the Papa Bear is the Papa Bear, he's a little on the oblivious side when it comes to these things, so this Baby Bear is pitching in with ideas and logistics.

Packing lunch for school ain't an easy culinary challenge. How many dishes can you think of that is good cold and won't spoil?! Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ham and cheese sandwiches get old real fast, and anything left over from the night before can't just be microwaved for a quick, tasty lunch. Dishes with too much oil are out, since we all know how disgusting congealed oil looks and tastes!

My own mother spent countless hours preparing my sister and my lunch boxes when we were in middle school. Since we were living far away from school, she had to get up at the crack of dawn to prepare our lunches. And she went all out too. Our lives were a little bit complicated then and to make up for any time she missed with us, she put her heart and soul into those boxes every day to make sure we knew how much we were loved. Every bite was full of commitment and affection. I've never had food with so much spirit as that time period in my life.

Luckily, we are in the US, far, far away from the influences of Japanese culture... If we were, we'd have a whole 'nother dimension of a problem. Japanese lunch boxes - commonly known here as bento boxes - are a whole new world of culinary accomplishments. I've read and heard so many accounts of horrified young moms, over-worked and stressed out about producing the perfect lunch box - with things like this:

Yes, that is a piece of sausage, my friends. And yes, it is in the shape of a crab. Why? Because it's cute. And anything and everything in Japan has to be cute. You have to admit that rather than a simply sliced piece of sausage, this crab-sausage doubles in cuteness and tastiness!!

And this perfectly layered egg omelet? Yes, a part of a bento box. Dripping with dashi juices with each bite, this dashi-maki-tamago (tamago wrapped with dashi) must be comprised of delicate layers that melt in your mouth.

Onigiri balls with fragrant nori is a necessity as well. Balancing salt with other flavors - like the sour ume or the sea-scented salmon flakes - is an intricate art in the world of rice balls. Every bite of an onigiri delivers a much more complicated and finesse taste than just rice in a ball shape. Although it might look simple, onigiri is a dish in its own with aromas, flavors, and calculated balance. The rice can never be overly packed or too loose so that it falls apart - it must have just the right combination of firmness and gentle crumbliness. And all this has to be done without thought - as if by natural talent, many Japanese mothers have mastered the art of onigiri.

And don't even start with the whole color scheme aspect of a bento!!!! A child's bento must not have too much of one color or be bleak - it has to elicit a sense of joy in a child as the box is opened at lunch time. A splash of color and contrasting colors are all an important aspect of a child's lunch. 'Egokoro' or 'picture spirit' as it is called in Japan, the artist's sense of a painting or a drawing is required for the colorful and joyful bento.


It's amazing what these Japanese ladies are expected to do. You will never see me acheive that level of competence in the morning...

Wanna know who made this beautiful bento for three Japanese girls?

...A 46-yr old Japanese man!!!! Ted, the wonderful boyfriend of Shuko-san and generous guide on our recent fishing trip, showed up with this fabulous bento for our excursion!!!

Wanna know what my contribution was? Trader Joe's Italian bread, various cheeses, prosciutto, and green apples with soy butter... Yes, I've become quite Americanized from those days when my mother spoiled me with 'nested burgers' (this has got to be a separate post one of these days!) and other favorites of my childhood!

Thank you, Oka-san, for giving me the memories of beautiful, healthy bento boxes!

DMBLGIT winners will be announced soon!!!


The Papa Bear said...

Yes, and I appreciated all the hints that the Baby Bear could give, subtle or not.

Robyn said...

I can't imagine having to make something like these. When I was little my mum made me fried egg sandwiches for a gazillion years, which weren't fun to eat cold at all. Later she'd give me leftover in a thermos, which while nicer than then egg sandwich ultimately made me dislike the food she put in it (like chicken fingers and rice).

But...she worked full time so I can't say I would've wanted her to make lots of pretty, tasty food. I feel like my childhood is largely devoid of good homecooked food memories though. :\

drbiggles said...

Uh, yeah. My school lunches never looked like that. Everyone once in a while, rather than give me money for lunch, my mother would make me something. But it would only last a day or two and then it was back to cafeteria food. Yum.


Sam said...

dont you mean italianized??!

Crawmommy said...

Having a culinary challenged mom, my obento was usually in 2 colors, consisting of rice and 1 type of okazu. I used to envy other kids' lunch box....

Yoko said...

Everything must be cute. Yes, yes, yes. That is really true.
I cannot be so creative like Japanese housewives.

I have introduced a great hand made bento site before. Here is its URL;

Lynn said...

Gosh I watch this show in the morning sometimes when I'm in the gym and it's called "hanamaru cafe" They sometimes show the craziest ideas for lunch boxes, such as a soccer ball shaped onigiri (with nori carefully cut out to the pentagonal shape and pasted onto the rice ball). and there's so much peer pressure from what I hear.

Freecia said...

You can do what the rest of the working women do- fake it. Buy it from a nice grocer's, mess it up a bit, and shove it into your own box. We have Dean & Deluca's and gourmet supermarkets remember? That's what they're there for!

Hehehe. It is totally cheating, but really, I don't think I could take the bento pressure. I'd have to write "My mother has better things to do than make me cute food. I'm lucky she feeds me." on my kid's lunch box.

William Conway said...

I love the whole concept of the bento meal, but alas they are unavailable in Atlanta, beyond the plastic trays of sushi available at our supermarkets.

I wanted to get some Hawaiian bento on my honeymoon, but we didn't get the opportunity.

Thanks for the great post!

Alice said...

Oh, Papa!


That site is amazing! I shudder at the thought of ever finding myself surrounded by such high expectations!!

Yeh, Doc Biggles,

I became a cafeteria girl after my sister no longer needed lunches. My mom could do it for the two of us, but as soon as it was just me, off to the cafeteria I went!


Ha! I guess that was an italianized offering, huh? Well, except for the soy butter and apples!


That's exacly what my own bento looks like! I call it Ko-haku, when all I have is rice and carrots!!!!


Oooooh, that's the crazy sausage site! Amazing, amzing stuff!!!


Soccer ball shaped onigiri?!!!! That's a WONDERFUL idea, although oh, my, how painfully tedious!!!!! I don't know how they get so creative and actually pull it off!!!! Every morning too! I think I'd rather have my full time job than find myself in that situation...


I totally agree with you - I don't think I can pull it off every day! Once in a while, on a special occasion, I think it would be really fun to go all out and make the cutest lunch box possible, but on a day to day basis? I'm just not that creative and my morning hours of sleep is too precious... And honestly, that Dean & Deluca sandwich might taste better than anything I can slop together in my dreamy, hazy state!!!


The spirit of bento - the completeness as a meal in a carefully prepared box - is so efficient and compact, it totally rings true with the Japanese national obsession with efficiency and minimalization. I love it too! But too frequently, I over minimize and end up with a box of rice and carrots - my red and white (kohaku) bento!!

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Sam I love japan and their foods.Every meal I try to make into a japanese style I have succeded in making carrot flowers (its not easy as it looks) I just wanted to say

Ward Sheppard said...

I''m familiar with this subject too

Kanako said...

Hi, I just stumbled across your blog while trying to find some recipes for soul food. lol.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that my mom used to pack me obento everyday during middle/highschool and all my friends always envied how nice it looked! (But the secret is 冷凍食品). :-)

I like obento much better than what she used to give me when I was in the states - pastrami sandwiches and all that... but if I had taken obento to my school in southwestern PA, people would have totally kicked the crap out of me... so I guess that's love!

Anonymous said...

Came across this blog as I was looking for Sardine recipes (it's your link to the "In Praise of Sardines site")

Anyway, have you seen Cooking Cute: A Bento site:

Great pics and recipes too. Forget being original, just follow some of Ngoc's ideas!