Order of the Day

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sure, to pack your next alfresco lunch you could turn to paper or plastic -- and risk the likely leaks and messes when the apple mushes into the sandwich and the chips smash all to pieces.

Or you could picnic in a more stylish, more efficient, more artful way. Before the humidity hits in earnest, banishing all thoughts of daytime picnicking, take a cue from the Japanese and assemble a bento box. The Asian lunchboxes are designed like curio cases -- imagine a more graceful TV dinner tray or a grown-up baby setting -- with subdivided or even stacked sections that hold various mini-dishes.

Yes, even adults appreciate giving food some boundaries, especially when fresh apricots and salmon dripping in lime-soy sauce are next-door neighbors.

"A paper sack is so anticlimactic," says Yukari Pratt, a food writer recently based in Tokyo. "In a bento box, everything is protected. Each thing has its own place."

Yet bento boxes are more than just a clever way to segregate the sauced items from the dry, the hot from the cold. They are exemplars of the Japanese concept of mingei, the marriage of form and function. And for those determined to eat a rainbow of foods, squeeze in their five-a-day or control their portions, the boxes can double as important nutritional tools.

"When you look at the bento box, nine times out of 10 you know that you are getting a balanced, nutritional meal," says Pratt, 40, who prepared her own bento boxes for lunch when she worked at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo a few years ago. "But it is also aesthetic."

The items displayed in a bento box follow a formula, albeit a creative one. The arrangement usually includes a heap of rice accompanied by a selection of vegetables, meat, fish or eggs. Each prepared food inhabits its own compartment, though sometimes the rice might cohabit with others. (The main dishes and rice go in the larger sections; side dishes are placed in the smaller spaces.)

To ensure a healthful balance as well as an artist's palette, the boxes should contain at least one dish in each of five color groups: red or orange, yellow, green, white, and black, dark purple or brown. The concept of goshiki, or five colors, is based on traditional principles of Japanese cuisine, some of which are rooted in Buddhism.

Indeed, planning your bento can be like a fun party game, or a kindergarten class: For reddish items, opt for carrots, kabocha (Japanese squash) or pickled apricots; for yellow, consider sweet potato, takuan (pickled daikon radish) and scrambled eggs. Green is easy: broccoli, spinach, green peppers, asparagus. Ditto for white: tofu, rice, daikon radish. Choices for black include Japanese eggplant, sesame seeds or seaweeds such as hijiki or kombu.

"It's also a great way to use up your leftovers," suggests Pratt, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City who now lives in Minnesota.

The second rule of bento boxing: Employ a range of cooking techniques, another means of pleasing the taste buds and the calorie counters. Foods should be grilled, fried, simmered, steamed, pickled and/or boiled. For example, a box could include grilled mackerel, fried rice, a boiled egg, a pickled plum and a fresh tangerine for dessert.

"You don't want everything to be fried," Pratt says. "It's not like Chicken McNuggets."

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