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!!!