Friday, April 30, 2010

Variety Friday: Bento Cheats

Bento making is becoming a fad among a certain demographic. If you visit the food porn web site aggregates, such as Foodgawker, you'll invariably find regular entries devoted to lovingly framed shots of bentos made by folks both in Japan and foreign countries. Just a few such blogs are Happy Little Bento, Hapa Bento, and the queen of bento sites, Adventures in Bento Making.

If you read these English language bento blogs or just look at the pictures to admire their artistry, you'll get the sense that the time spent making bentos must be immense. Not only do people have to carefully construct little star-shaped bits of carrot or cut little bits of nori to make happy faces on their rice, but they also have to make all of the food that goes into the bento. I don't regularly read English bento sites, but on the occasions that I do look at them, all of the contents appear to be made by hand.

In Japan, it is far less common for people to make all of the components of a bento themselves. Many of the people who I've discussed the topic with have said that the meat and fish components in particular were purchased in an already completed state at the local deli or supermarket. In particular, few people have the time to make tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), croquettes, or meatballs, all of which are popular bento fodder.

The picture at the top of this post is what I'd call a "bento cheat" food. That is, it is prepared food that is marketed and intended to be used as an addition to bento boxes. The little illustration in the upper left corner shows a mother and her two kids smiling at the addition of these meatballs to an artfully arranged bento box.

I bought these meatballs as part of a 3-pack of 65 grams (2.3 oz.) packets for about 200 yen ($2.32) at a tiny local market. There are 113 calories in a serving of 6 small meatballs in what is ostensibly "tomato sauce". You often find this type of meatball or a similar type of burger patty in a plastic pack sold as a bundle of three taped together.

I've had several different types of these throughout my stay in Japan. Most of them are not bad, but not really good either. The meatballs are always heavy on the filler and very soft. They don't taste much like meat as the second ingredient is often onion followed by breadcrumbs or some other cheap carbohydrate. The sauces are always bland and offered in very small quantities. The meatballs pictured at the top here are made by Marudai, which makes quite a few varieties of these types of foods. Though I would never buy these meatballs again, I've had a marginally better experience with a chicken patty version of this sort of thing.

From my utterly ethnocentric and subjective viewpoint, the fact that bentos are lovingly fashioned to look great, but sometimes filled with this sort of, quite frankly, less than mediocre food is a reflection of an emphasis on style over substance. I think it'd be better to spend the time preparing the food that goes into the bento than to waste it making happy faces on your onigiri (rice balls) or cutting your strawberries into tulips. Of course, I toss all of my husband's lunch components into individual Tupperware-style containers and cram the little containers into a big one, so what do I know about bento-making?


Token (Bento-Lunch-Blog) said...

Very interestings post about oBento :D In Germany the people are making bento, because it's fun and you can eat much healthier, than with normal convenience-food from the local supermarket.

One doesn't eat too much anymore, because the space of the bentobox is limited. But with this "small" amount of food, you are still full, because of the very close packing of the food.

For me I never do cute faces on my food. I just put mostly selfmade, delicious food in a beautiful way in my box. And I'm eating a lot better, than my colleagues at work. Cause they eat junk food or convenience food all day. And that's not healthy at all.

In Germany it's also fun for the people to collect many cute and beautiful boxes and bento-items and also to learn more recipes from asia. In that way many young people are trying to cook for themselfs. It's a good thing, cause the youth nowadays are not used to cook any more. But with bento, they will do.

I think selfmade bento is a lot better, than bento with premade stuff like the meatballs on your photo. But of course you doesen't have to have a real bentobox. A normal tupper-ware is also ok. But with a bento-box it is more fun I think *ggg* Japanese people should make more healthy selfmade bento, I think ;D I agree to you, when you don't try to make it super-cute food with lots of faces, there is also time to cook a delicious selfmade meatball. This is the true idea of bento I think. To make a Lunch, which is better and healtier than convenience food :)

Sherry said...

Actually as a bento making mom I can tell you that with the right tools those cute bentos don't take as long as one might assume, and those types of packaged products are often just used as space fillers to complete a mostly homemade bento. Oh I'm sure their ate moms that would fill a whole box with frozen bento stuff, but most moms I know have a mix of homemade and ready made. If those particular meatballs are bland or perhaps sweet in taste it's because they are meant for kids bentos, particularly the kindy age kids who generally dont like strong flavors other than sweet. There are all sorts of "rules" about bentos as any mom in Japan will tell you, and if you follow the rules your kid will end up with a very healthy lunch, even if some of it is this sort of thing. "cuteness" is not actually one of the "rules.". Some moms just do it because it is fun, like art, if you have the time. Also some kids are more likely to eat if it's cute.

Pikko said...

Wow, thanks for crowning me, haha!

Anyway, just wanted to comment to say that probably 80% of the main dishes featured in my bentos are leftovers from dinner the night before, so I guess you could say I "cheat" without buying ready made foods.