Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Have Mr. Bento, Will Travel

In an article I wrote for examiner.com, I described bento, the Japanese lunch box, as a great way to incorporate healthier eating into your New Year's resolutions. The Japanese have been making and consuming bento for centuries, and it seems to work for their diet.

Bento isn't a particular dish, but it's a mix of different healthy dishes packed into a box. There are no set rules for bento, but they generally contain rice or noodles, meat or fish, vegetables, and something fun like tofu or fishcake.

I explained in my article that Toru Furukawa, president of Fuji Catering, a bento-making company in New York, thinks Americans don't have a healthy balance in our meals. We eat large portions of greasy garbage, or, if we're too busy to sit down for a decent meal, we eat fast food. Furukawa is on a mission to help Americans – New Yorkers, at least – achieve the healthier balance contained within bento. I joined Furukawa on his mission and wrote my article to spur people into action.

After a holiday-bad-diet blowout for the ages, I decided to heed my own advice.

Since I travel every week in the winter for work, I needed to find a way to enjoy bento for at least one meal on the road. Enter Mr. Bento. Stackable in the same way as traditional bentos, Mr. Bento has the qualities of a thermos: He keeps the hot stuff hot and the cold stuff cold. I call him the uber-thermos of bento boxes.

He has a handy canvas bag.

Stainless steel makes Mr. Bento both functional and attractive.

My husband gave me Mr. Bento as a Christmas gift in 2008, and I used him, but only sparingly. Now I see what an important tool he can be for my diet. With the help of Naomi Kijima (Japanese Meals on the Go: Bento Boxes), Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat (Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals), and Elizabeth Andoh (Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen), I prepare my bento the night before or the morning of my business trip.

Mr. Bento has four compartments for food storage and a spork (bottom left). Phone not included. I put rice in the largest container, and it's anything goes for the others.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I prepared (from left) Japanese-style omelet, chicken wings, miso soup, and rice with adzuki beans.

The omelet here (called tamago) is what you'd find at a sushi place. Unlike the omelets we know in the West, there is nothing – cheese, tomatoes, ham – stuffed into these. Instead, the Japanese-style omelet is sweet, prepared with sake, sugar, and a dash of salt. It looks prettier when cooked by professionals. Okay, so I didn't exactly prepare the chicken wings. They were leftovers from Tebaya, a Japanese chicken-wing joint in my neighborhood. That's the beauty of bento: Leftovers make a quick and easy meal for the next day. And the wings aren't the greasy Buffalo wings fat guys devour at every sports bar, but they probably aren't the healthiest item to include in my bento. I'm working on it, though.

I mentioned earlier that Mr. Bento keeps the hot things hot and the cold things cold. Well . . . Disclaimer: For a reasonable length of time. I define "reasonable length of time" as two or three hours and not after making it at 2pm and then running errands and then taking a three-hour train ride to D.C. The bowls are microwavable, but my hotel room was sans kitchen appliances. That said, it wasn't completely gross. That said, I didn't completely finish it. I did, however finish the rice. The rice had adzuki beans and sesame seeds added for enhanced flavor. You can make the rice with fresh beans that you soak, or you can use ready-made packets. Guess which one I chose?

I highly recommend packing a bento for lunch or dinner whether your commute is two thousand miles or twenty minutes. You can find Mr. Bento at amazon.com or more traditional bento boxes at tokiusa.com. You can use Tupperware instead; I just think Mr. Bento is the best. And the food you put into your bento doesn't have to be Japanese; there are a surprising amount of websites dedicated to bento preparation. My faves are Just Bento and Lunch in a Box.

So far this month I've had three trips and two successful bento experiences. The unsuccessful one involved my luggage remaining in Chicago after I arrived in Cincinnati, so I don't blame Mr. Bento. I'm looking forward to working with Mr. Bento to eat healthfully in 2010!


Daniel said...

Great article. I need to get a bento of my own, but, more importantly:

You were in DC and you didn't tell me?!

Be sure to let me know next time (assuming you have any time to hang out).

shrinecastle said...

I had a feeling I would hear it from you! I should've written, "On a recent and ridiculously brief trip to D.C. . ."