By Jeanne Litt.
Are you adventuresome in your eating? Are you willing to try new tastes? The Japanese are. If you traded your lunch for a Japanese bento box, you would probably get a very different meal from the one you brought.
If you went to school in Japan, you might have a cold lunch in a box called a Bento. Bento box can mean the box that the lunch is put in or the lunch itself. Bento means “behind the curtain.” The lunches were first served to actors behind the curtain at the Kabuki theatre in the 1600’s. The actors needed a lunch that they could eat while working.
The foods in a bento box are arranged very beautifully. If your mother made it, she would have spent almost an hour preparing and arranging it. She would put it in a lacquered wood or plastic box that you carefully bring back home. Or, you can buy bentos ready to go in a disposable box or basket.
Inside is full of a variety of foods and colors. The Japanese encourage eating thirty different foods a day and 100 different foods a week. They do this for enjoyment. If you eat one food, you only taste the first few bites. If you eat one or two bites of many different foods; then your taste buds are interested throughout the entire meal.
A Japanese meal will include all kinds of flavors – salty, sour, bitter and sweet. You will find different textures – crispy foods, for example, fried chicken or shrimp. There will be chewy textures, like grilled fish and seaweed. You will have soft food such as custard, steamed rice and boiled vegetables. And you will likely have something slimy, like okra.
Some things will delight you. You may find soft play dough-like gluten formed in the shape of a leaf. It will be colored with food coloring, green in summer and red and yellow in the fall. A slippery smooth egg custard will surprise you with a bite of tasty white fish in the center and a ginkgo nut (it tastes like a roasted chestnut). What looks like a perfectly formed mushroom turns out to be a potato, carved and colored brown. Pine nuts stuck into a center of bean paste look like a pine cone. A few grains of rice still clinging to their stalk are cooked until puffed like popcorn.
Often pickles are included. A sour-salty umeboshi plum will leave your mouth bursting with flavor and you reluctant to spit out the pit.
There will be seaweed, often strips of Nori – dark green-black and paper-like. You place this on your rice and scoop up a bite of rice along with the Nori. This paper-like seaweed softens on your tongue. It tastes and smells slightly fishy. Some seaweed is thicker and chewy, with a stronger flavor. Japanese are fucivorous, that is seaweed eating. Seaweed makes up 15% of their diet.
A bento box meal can be as simple as batter dipped fried rice and rice balls enclosing a bite of fish or bean filling with pickled ginger. Some are very elaborate. What would be in your lunch if you traded? Your lunch would probably seem as strange to them as theirs is different to us.
© 2010 Jeanne Litt