Obento, My Bento!
Creating bento box art is a growing trend in the States thanks to the power of social media.
by VIVIEN KIM THORP
Lunchmeat lions, cheese slice tigers, sandwich bread bears … oh, my! Welcome to the world of the modern bento, where rice balls lead second lives as nori-clad ninjas and artfully trimmed veggies can turn a bed of noodles into a tasty tableau.
The classic version of the Asian lunch box has rectangular compartments holding the contents of a pre-cooked meal, as well as the bento’s fanatical offshoot, the charaben, in which anime characters and the like are obsessively fleshed out over a canvas of white rice. But as of late, the bento has crossed the Pacific with a new role: ambassador for the healthy, homemade lunch.
Crystal Watanabe, a 32-year-old university office administrator and co-author of the Yum-Yum Bento Box cookbook, first started making bento in 2007. “I was trying to lose weight to be in my friend’s wedding party, and bento was a great way of doing portion control,” she says.Since then, she’s watched the trend grow. “I see more and more dedicated bento blogs as time goes by,” she says. Retailers have been quick to follow. In 2007, there were only a couple of online options for bento-related supplies, she says. “Now there are tons of sites to buy bento gear, including a very big selection on Amazon.com.”
Like many of the new wave of bento-makers, Watanabe, who lives in Honolulu with her husband and two children, also documents her lunchbox odyssey on the Internet. Adventures in Bentomaking (aibento.net), her site and blog, features hundreds of bento-related posts from pictures of Hello Kitty-themed lunches, to instructions on creating fish cake carp and recipes like Okinawan sweet pork and sesame soy chum. And though she sometimes makes bento for her kids, it’s still something she does mostly for herself.
“Documenting your work as a bento maker is a really fun hobby,” says Watanabe. “And social media makes it really easy to share with a lot of people online.”
Debra Littlejohn, who publishes her blog hapabento.com from Seattle, first started sharing her bento pictures on Flickr.com. “I had no idea of the bento community out there,” says Littlejohn, who learned to make bento from her mother, an ethnic Korean born and raised in Japan. After finding a slew of bento blogs, she decided she had to create her own. “I am very proud to be a part of this bento-storm,” says Littlejohn.
Sheri Chen, who hosts Happy Little Bento (happylittlebento.blogspot.com), a blog about making lunches for kids, also found her entrée to the online bento world via Flickr. “When I started I didn’t really know any other parents making bento,” says Chen, a mother of two who lives in Northern California. “My kids’ classmates brought Happy Meals and Lunchables.” Since then, the former research scientist and stay-at-home mom has been featured in bento-themed articles in the New York Times and Glamour magazine, and regularly hears from parents around the world who are interested in creating more nutritious food for their kids.
“School lunches can run $3 to $5 per meal, and the food they get is often atrocious—frozen pizza, corn dogs,” she says. “Any parent can do better than that, and for less.”
Through her blog and Twitter, Chen has connected with bento enthusiasts from countries such as Japan, Indonesia, France, Finland and Singapore. “We’ve made the world smaller and increased access to information and support through blogs and social media,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
Jenn Hohman was one of those enthusiasts. Inspired by Chen and Littljohn’s blogs, she began creating bento in 2009. Now the 41-year-old, who lives in Virginia, posts pictures of her elegant and often internationally themed bento on her own site, bentobird.blogspot.com. As people keep looking for healthy alternatives to fast food lunches, she thinks the bento buzz will continue to grow. “It is a wonderfully thrifty and practical way of eating that can also express a sense fun of fun and love,” she says. “What could be better?”
In addition to bellies and budgets, bento has also been adopted in response to another type of unhealthy consumption—garbage. Heather Harper, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Florida, got on the bento bandwagon for precisely this reason. “We were concerned about the amount of plastic waste we were producing,” she says, citing zip bags and other lunch packaging. “I knew there had to be a better way, so I went scouring the Internet for lunch packing ideas and found bento.”
Learning about bento boxes sparked her creativity in the kitchen and dramatically reduced her and her husband’s plastic waste. “It even led us to eating healthier foods and smaller portions,” says Harper, who has a blog called Ohayo Bento!
Watanabe and Chen advise new bento makers to start simple. “Try just using a Tupperware container you have on hand already and arrange your food with a little more care than you usually do,” says Watanabe, who also promotes using time- and money-saving leftovers.
In addition to artful arranging, Chen advises packing foods tightly and picking produce that’s in season. “You’ll be surprised how much you can fit in a small space, and you’ll get used to what a fresh, healthy meal looks like.” Hohman echoes their keep-it-simple sentiments, warning against going shopping crazy in the bento world’s vast array of adorable supplies.
Tammy Kim, a Korean Canadian who lives in a suburb of Toronto, first began making bento in the fall of 2010. But in that short amount of time, she has created a remarkable 200 lunches. An eager adapter, she posts many of her whimsical lunch pictures on her Tumblr blog, funlunchbox.com, and then connects to other bento-makers via Twitter. Her lunches are primarily for her two daughters, but she also makes them for new mothers at church.
“I never would have found bento if it weren’t for the many blogs out there and the women and men that post them,” says Kim. Her online presence has even connected her with one of her original inspirations, Maki Ogawa, who co-wrote Yum-Yum Bento Box with Watanabe. “I actually got updates from her when the whole tsunami happened in Japan,” says Kim. “My thoughts and prayers went out to her and her sons via Twitter. It was great that we could connect like that.”
Those that would like a fast track into the world of bento-making should read Yum-Yum Bento Box as well as The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh. Published in January 2011, the latter is a veritable bible for the bento novice, with recipes, how-to illustrations and an array of insider tips.
This article was published in the February 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!
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