Are you tired of sandwiches in your lunchbox? Bored with the never-ending round of fast food of dubious origin? Can't face another moment of scavenging your lunch from the machines in the break room? Just want something else?
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Originally published in Japan as Don to Genki Bento, and here in the US as Bento Love, this slim cookbook takes a look at the Bento box, which has been a long tradition in Japanese society, very popular among schoolchildren and salarymen alike, a perfectly portioned meal of rice, protein, veggies and perhaps some kind of pickle packed up in a container. Recent modifications have created bento containers that keep the hot food hot, the cool food cool, all packed up in a tidy, not too large parcel that is easy to take along. But once you get your hands on the bento of your choice, what exactly can you put into it?
And namely, can you get it done before you leave for work or school?
The answers to both of these questions can be found in Kobayashi's book, and those answers are: just about anything you like, and yes, yes you can make bento quickly and tastily.
Mr. Kobayashi starts with an introduction to what is bento, and how it was likely it came about, along with some simple recipes for the most basic of bento. He reflects on the bento that his mother made for him and his family as a child, and how much he savoured those delights. (Most bento are made by stay-at-home moms, but really, you can knock one together in a half-hour with some planning ahead)
From there, he moves to the most basic of bento meals -- a quickly cooked steak of some meat, such as chicken, pork or beef, with a bit of sauce or seasoning, with rice and veggies. All is sliced up into bite size pieces and packed up. Soon after the basics, he does talk about spices, seasonings, various condiments and other things that you're going to want to keep on hand for your bento preparations.
And yes, there is such a thing as a fish bento. Usually this one is fried -- indeed, the author does a nice little riff on that classic fish and chips. There's even a chapter on how to use leftovers for a next-day bento, and how to supersize a bento for that construction worker in the family. And finally, bento for the vegetarian.
But the chapter that sold me was the one on side dishes. These are lovely morsels of vegetables and some starches, just enough for one person to devour, and many of them can be made ahead or in quantity to have on hand. The ones that are takes on salads, whether leafy or pickled items, were wonderful to try out, and tasted delicious -- if you have problems convincing your spouse or children to eat those veggies, give these a try. It just might convince them to make a change in their food choices.
The book is lavish with the illustrations and photographs, with a picture for nearly every dish in the book. Additional photos are provided when a technique or preparation may be unfamiliar to a Western reader. And those photographs are certainly drool-worthy, with plenty of loving attention being paid to them.
At the very end of the book, there are several useful references. Recipes for noodle sauce, toasting sesame seeds, and dashi stock are provided, along with a glossary for common Japanese ingredients. A list of on-line resources for finding your own supply of Japanese sauces and condiments is given, which is very useful if you can't find them in your own local market.
This was a book that I had great fun using and learning from. While it is less than a hundred pages in length, there isn't any wasted space or text in this. I liked the author's writing style, which was entertaining and encouraging for any level of cook, and he did not take himself too seriously at all. I intend on finding the remaining books in this series, and keep trying my hand at Japanese cooking.
Five stars over all, recommended.
Easy Japanese Cooking Series:
Bento Love -- you are here
Bento Love/Don to Genki Bento
Kentaro Kobayashi, Patricia Kawasaki, trans.
2009, Vertical Inc.
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