Friday, September 2, 2011

Lunch Boxing

Bento (lunch box) wrapped with furoshiki


Here's what's inside Jiro's lunch box today.

I've been told the rice is supposed
to go in the larger container.

All organic:
  • Steamed whole rice topped with pickled plum paste and a sheet of  sun-dried seaweed
  • Japanese style spinach omelet
  • Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) croquette
  • Fried chicken nuggets prepared by my PAL (PAL is my food coop)
  • Sauteed string beans
  • Sauteed julienne burdock root and carrot


I have to get up extra early to prepare the food that gets stuffed into this lunch box but it's worth it for the feeling of supreme satisfaction I get once the deed is done. I can't explain the sensation that comes over me after I've served up breakfast, finished frying up the last croquette and have tied the final knot on the cloth that holds the two-tiered lunch box together (and will later serve as a neat place mat). I guess it's the taste of victory.

I used to make lunch for my older son, Ichiro, when he was in junior high too. Before embarking on the task, I thoroughly researched the subject. Bookstores in Japan dedicate miles and miles of shelf space to books all about bento,the quintessential Japanese lunchbox. In the end it was a toss up between a tome on how to make the ingredients inside the box resemble your child's favorite Pokemon character or how to make the healthiest lunch on the face of the planet. I went with the latter and oh boy was that ever a mistake.

After receiving an overwhelming number of customer complaints, Ichiro's mother stepped in to save the day. We started taking turns with the lunch box duty and the flood of complaints were halved to a steady stream that flowed only every other day (my lunch box duty day). She and her lunch had thoroughly won the heart and stomach of Ichiro. I felt utterly defeated. 

How did she blow away the healthiest lunch in the world? I can explain that in one word: volume, volume, VOLUME!  She jam packed that box with more meat and oil saturated delectables than anyone in class 3-F had seen in their entire 12 years on earth. Anything but willing to throw in the towel, I dug in and took aim with a voluminous secret weapon of my own.

Each new year in households across Japan, families sit around the table to enjoy an elaborate array of sumptuous foods stuffed into an equally elegant wooden lacquered box. Known as osechi-ryori, it ranks up along side sushi or sukiyaki as one of the most renowned dishes in Japanese cuisine. That was my secret weapon and that's exactly what Ichiro got the next day for lunch and that's what got me permanently fired from lunch box duty (and maybe part of the reason Ichiro eventually stopped going to school altogether).

All was not lost though. I still had the delicious memories of each lunch I had lovingly  
prepared and if memory failed I always had the photographs. You see I had faithfully recorded each lunch box that went out the door on my new digital camera. As a photographic theme it was perhaps ahead of its time. No one had seen anything quite like it. Today you can log on to the Internet and find a panoply of Japanese blogs known as "bento diaries,"  essentially annals of what people made and ate for lunch. I can say I was a pioneer in the field and I have the pictures to prove it. 

If you don't believe me just ask Mrs. Suzuki. Before I got fired from lunch box duty M had lent Mrs. Suzuki our new camera to take pictures of some school event. Flipping on the camera switch she was surprised to see the photographic collage of lunches. Obviously having never witnessed a body of work quite like it ever before she asked, "are these pictures important?" M didn't know what to say. Of course they were important but what's even more important now is that I'm back on duty and the bento boxes are better than ever.

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