Bento is to lunch what Japan's Shinjuku Station is to commuter trains: Pack as many nutrients and variety (or people) into a small compartment as possible. You've heard about that train stop in Tokyo, right? The one where the morning commute is so busy, gloved crew members help pack the trains full by pushing people into the crowded cars. Like that. Only edible.
In The Just Bento Cookbook, Makiko Itoh wants to make bento accessible for everyone. She started with a blog, justbento.com, and admits that bento can be overwhelming for beginners, since many of the books and blogs out there have over-the-top bentos.
The basic concept of bento is much like a diet: Small bento boxes help portion-control your food. And by including a variety of textures and colors in your bento, you get a balanced meal too. Healthy eating is all well and goof, but bentos are CUTE too. Cut carrots and apples to look like flowers or bunnies, and trim sausages to look like fish or tulips. Then tuck pieces of meat, leaves of lettuce, and balls of rice together in a bento box, top with a sprinkling of chopped vegetables or fruit, and wrap it in a furoshiki--a small square of fabric that can be tied to make a little carrying case. CUTE!
Cuteness factor aside, The Just Bento Cookbook is packed with recipes for savory dishes that will make a tasty dinner or lunch. There are recipes for Japanese dishes like ebi furai (breaded and fried shrimp) and tamagoyaki (a savory omelet), plus a few non-Japanese recipes, like pan-fried chicken nuggets and a Mediterranean mezze-style bento with lamb meatballs and baba ghanoush. Most of the recipes include several variations using different proteins and make-ahead tips. Plus there are instructions for cutting veggies and meat into various shapes, and instructions for how to make onigiri (rice balls) and sushi rolls.
Author Makiko Itoh is in Seattle this week to promote The Just Bento Cookbook. Catch her at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. and at the Kinokuniya bookstore at Uwajimaya on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 1 p.m.
Read Part II of Cooking the Books and a recipe from The Just Bento Cookbook.