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When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Japanese food was rare and considered exotic at best, strange at worst. I used to dread the days when my mom packed a bento. Everyone would gather around me, pointing to my lunch, asking “What’s that?” “Seaweed? Eeew! What does it taste like?!” I got tired of explaining, and asked my mom to just make something normal like peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches. Secretly, I thought some of the other kids’ lunches were strange, and to this day have never had a fluffer nutter sandwich.

What a different world we live in now! My nieces and nephews love nori maki, and proudly carry bento boxes to school. I also prepare bentos almost every day for myself and my husband. I love putting them together, and I love opening the boxes at lunchtime. I also love the way they make me feel: I never get sleepy after eating a bento, and never suffer from the carb overload that I would from having a sandwich.

Bentos are a big business in Japan, and somewhat of an art form. Train stations and department stores carry bentos of all kinds, to fit whatever budget or mood you're in. The variety is dizzying, and a trip through any department store basement food hall can lead to torturous indecision. What will it be today? Grilled eel or sushi? Chinese style or vegetarian? The colorful and beautifully arranged boxes beckon, each looking more delicious than the last. Of course, when one is traveling it is considered a special treat to enjoy the culinary specialties of the area visited, and train stations cater to this desire. I often watched in amazement when fellow passengers knew exactly which station to jump off at, buy a bento and jump back on the train, all in two minutes. Then I found out that this very important information is included in travel guidebooks and magazines.

But back to real life: how can someone with a busy schedule make a bento? It’s easy if you follow these simple tips:

First of all, most Japanese people keep rice from the night before in their rice cooker. Rice doesn’t go bad very quickly, and for a number of hours it’s not worth putting the rice in the fridge. Refrigerated rice is practically inedible; it gets hard and has to be warmed up to consume. Therefore, room temperature rice can just be ladled into a bento box as is. When making onigiri, I usually microwave the rice for a minute (per serving), before filling and shaping them, because the rice needs to be pliant and sticky.

If you don’t have a bento box, a square Tupperware container does very nicely, especially if it is divided into sections. The rice (or onigiri) goes on one side, and the okazu (things to go with rice) goes on the other. These usually include leftovers from the previous evening, or side dishes prepared beforehand that keep for several days in the fridge, such as kimpira gobo (stir-fried burdock). I also keep some kamaboko (fish cake) and pieces of Japanese omelette – cut into small bite-size portions – in the freezer so that they can be added at any time. A few boiled and salted edamame, or a small piece of salty grilled salmon provide protein, and a few slices of carrot or red pepper add color and nutrition. The more variety you have in your bento, the better – not only for the taste and visual pleasure, but also for nutrition.

Since rice is not to be eaten cold, and the okazu are usually prepared with a fair amount of salt or soy sauce, your bento doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Some people like to put Japanese potato salad in their bentos, but I'm careful to refrigerate anything with mayonnaise, so for those days I pack a separate small container.

Bento can also be made without rice. Contemporary Japanese bentos include the occasional serv:ng of spaghetti, or perhaps a few varieties of dainty Japanese sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The key is just preparation and presentation: in a bento, there would be a ½ cup of spaghetti as the “main dish,” with other small portions of various foods – including vegetables – placed beside it.

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll really enjoy making bento. Not only will you feel healthier, you’ll save money as well. If you are making bento for your family, they will really appreciate the surprise when they open the box. And unlike during my childhood, your kids will be the envy of their classmates!

A bento should have a large variety of colors, textures and flavors. This two-layer bento box is patterned after the old-fashioned lacquerware bento boxes, but is made of easy-care plastic.
Hanami bento (c) Risa Sekiguchi 2010
Above: A hanami bento welcomes spring and features warm colors and seasonal fish and vegetables.