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For Lunch, a Bento Box Holds The Promise of Harmonic Nutrition

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."

None of this needs to be burdensome. Typical recipes for bento box items -- such as our Kabocha Squash With Miso or Hijiki Sea Vegetable With Carrot -- call for a handful of ingredients and quick preparation. The sections of the boxes could even be filled with the help of a market that sells high-quality prepared foods.

These days, bento (the word roughly translates as a picnic or box lunch) is so pervasive in Japan that you can't ride a train or plane, walk into a workplace cafeteria or pop into a 7-Eleven without seeing the familiar takeout containers. Yet they aren't a modern invention. Bento appeared in its most primitive incarnation in Japan centuries ago, when the country's populace was involved mainly in farming, fishing and fighting -- occupations that require a commute. During those times, workers would pack their rice lunches in bamboo, oak or magnolia leaves and eat their meals on-site during a midday break. Eventually the boxes became sturdier, made of wooden materials, wicker or woven willow.

The containers evolved into objects of art and beauty during the decorative Edo period (1603-1868), when quotidian wares once hidden in the cupboard were elevated to coveted showpieces. The boxes seemingly were designed by both painters and poets, with floating fans, delicate blossoms and ethereal landscapes embellishing the lacquer exteriors. Around that time, new shapes also appeared, such as the hangetsu box, or half-moon, and the multi-tiered Shokado, modeled after the paint boxes used by Shokado Shojo, an Edo-era monk and artist.

The focus of the bento meal also shifted from sustenance to celebration. The boxes were prepared for Buddhist festivals; outdoor sojourns, such as cherry blossom viewing; and theater outings. During Kabuki and bunraku (puppet theater) performances, for example, the production would take a break so theatergoers could dine on their makunouchi bentos. The practice still exists today, says Pratt, who during a recent kabuki show in Ginza was surprised to see patrons quietly pull their boxes from under their seats, lay napkins on their laps and eat an intermission meal -- without ever standing up. (Those who don't plan ahead can buy one outside from the bento vendor.)

Bento boxes even have specific names that refer to where they are sold or made: eki-ben, for train station bento; sora-ben, or sky bento, for in-flight dining; conveni-bento, sold in mini-marts; aisai, those lovingly prepared by a man's wife. The flavors and food selections also vary according to region (Kyoto is known for tofu, northern Japan for beef) and season (autumnal mushrooms and chestnuts, spring bamboo shoots and ferns).

"They go from the ridiculous to the sublime there," says Mary Arnold, who owns the Asian antiques store East & Beyond Ltd. in McLean and spent four years living on an Army base 26 miles south of Tokyo. "A lot of us who enjoyed the Japanese culture would go someplace and buy a bento box. It was always a special event."

Meanwhile, those not able to fly 17 hours for lunch can get their bento fix closer to home. Assemble one yourself for a weekday lunch break, or indulge at a number of Washington area restaurants that sell bento boxes for dining in, such as Teaism, Cafe MoZu and, most recently, Zengo, which prepares lunch bentos of sushi, rice and a choice of salmon teriyaki, tandoori chicken or dragon skirt steak.

"The category is huge," says Linda Neumann, co-owner of Teaism, which sold 115,000 bento meals last year. "People like the idea that their food doesn't touch and that it helps them control portions, eat slower and appreciate food."

To be sure, it's hard not to enjoy a colorful, healthful meal served in a culinary jewelry box.

As he dined on a veggie bento box recently at the Teaism in Dupont Circle, Shannjit Singh, 27, remembered the ones he ate as a kid in Los Angeles and on travels to Japan. "I was fascinated by the sections of the bento box and that they had all of these different flavors but didn't mix together," Singh said. "It was magical."

No plastic container or paper sack has ever elicited such glee.

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