When a book titled Bento Blast!, replete with the byline “More Than 150 Cute and Clever Bento Box Meals for Your Kids”, including a golden medallion etched “The Lunchbox Reinvented”, with the promise to transform a dreary sack lunch into “Edible Cartoon Characters”, my attention went on high alert. A hardened kitsch-and-kawaī (cute) freak, a bentō blast was just what my low-brow inner self longed for after the seemingly endless pandemic era we’ve all endured and continue to endure. And so it was that the book leapt off the shelf onto my eagerly outstretched arms. I rushed the counter to claim it as my own following the ka-ching of the register and the beeped approval of my Life Takes Visa card.

It was a rare local find – all other bentō books were eons away or no longer available. I know; I had foraged for months. Like my anxiety, the list of online bentō publications I had amassed had grown gi-normous.  So it was with instant gratification that I realized lady luck had strutted her stuff in my direction.

Unless you’re a bentō fan, all this folderol may seem superfluous. But I was nearing a state of exhaustion from my stalking pursuit. To realize I had actually bagged one of the better bentō books was like mana from heaven.

Lee, the author and mother of two sons, began creating character (kyaraben) meals featuring animals, cartoons, animé, etc. when her first boy entered school. It was her means to cheer and comfort him as he adjusted to his new environment away from home. Over four years of comfort and joy, she created beyond a thousand different bentō boxes!

Once home, I spent hours plowing through page after page of piggy, penguin and panda rice balls tucked into curly-leaf lettuce along with pork cabbage stir fry, purple potatoes and strawberries. Grinning rabbits, sleepy bears, a dog with floppy ears were seen nestled among corn-on-the-cob, cherry tomatoes and broccoli florets. A hello to kitty cats asleep on a bed of rice, snuggled under a polka-dot blanket of tamagoyaki (Japanese egg omelette) with a side of cheesy fish fillet, broccoli and carrot stir-fry were nestled together resting. Adorable, darling and delightful screamed from the pages as I eagerly made my way through the book.

Satiated at last, I moved beyond the eye-candy pictures and settled in to examine the text. Saturated with photos and drawings, it was a continuum of what pleased me most about Lee’s work. The 245 pages are a visual learners’ paradise. Text takes second to picture tutorials with a promise of clear, accessible instructions. The colorful images and step-by-step pictures lead eyes and cerebrum to readily translate what and how to complete the task at hand.

The book is divided into three main sections (What is Bento; Bento and Food Art Tutorials; Recipes).  It includes a seven-page glossary of terms and definitions (e.g. aburaage, mirin, soboro), and a page of four templates to use in creating bentō characters. Bentō boxes are focused on rice, bread, salad and noodles, seasons and special occasion meals.  Recipes – in U.S friendly standard measures with an occasional metric calculate thrown in – are grouped into meat, seafood and egg, vegetables, and noodles and soups.  While a good share of the recipes incorporate Japanese ingredients and dishes (e.g., teriyaki, tofu, tonkatsu), there are plenty that do not (e.g., ketchup shrimp, potato salad, meatball pasta).  The result: happy meals with a wide menu and entertainment appeal to youngsters of all ages.

While there are numerous books that specialize in bentō lunches, and several that focus on character bentōs, this one – in its field – is an outstanding winner.

The Little Lunchbox Cookbook by Renee Kohley

Renee Kohley’s book, The Little Lunchbox Cookbook, is aimed at providing “easy real-food bento lunches for kids on the go”; its genesis – the need to provide school lunches for her daughter’s beginning kindergarten experience.  It resulted from a real-life proletariat problem – a global dilemma of soap opera magnitude. While staring into an empty lunchbox, Kohley pondered: “What in the world am I supposed to put in here?” Facing a year’s worth of this question, she narrowed the answer down to two possibilities: “scratch-making everything” or “throwing a Twinkie into a brown paper sack.”

In the end, the author settled on a menu of lunches that provide “a balanced whole-food meal that a kid would eat” which were, in addition, practical to prepare for those with hustle harried lives. To ensure the former, proper proportion of healthy macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) are used. To guarantee the latter, only one single homemade item per lunch is fussed over. Kohley’s entire family (husband and three daughters) teamed up on the book bonding project, working as taste testers, clean-up crew and goal setting partners.

The result: a 169-page “gluten-free and allergen-friendly” cookbook divided into eight self-descriptive sections: Beyond Peanut Butter and Jelly – Fun and Delicious Sandwiches; Lunchable Copycats; Warm and Comforting Thermos Lunches; Nuggets, Dippers, and Bites; Colorful Kid-Approved Salads; Finishing Touches – Snacks and Sides; Lunchbox Treats; and Real-Food Staples.

Each lunchbox is illustrated with a full, color-page photo with an exhibit of purchased food items (fruits, veggies, chips, etc.) nestled near the one homemade item.  Alongside the photo is the recipe for the cook to prepare that also provides an itemized “free” list, e.g., dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free, etc.  The recipe (more-often-than-not) makes several serving amounts beyond what you might need for one lunchbox.  This is a convenience for those saving time and money by preparing massed quantities to freeze for later consumption.  Measures are furnished in metric and standard/imperial units.  Helpful notes are included with each recipe, e.g., egg salad keeps in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 3 days.

While you won’t find a plethora of Japanese or other non-western recipes supplied among the 70 provided, there are a few. . . five to be exact, but curiously none from the bentō Land of the Rising Sun. These include Garden Party Quesadillas; Chinese Takeout Sweet and Sour Chicken Wraps; Build Your Own Mexican Nachos; The Best Chinese Takeout Copycat (stir-fried chicken with a coconut sauce and veggies); Veggie Noodle Salad with Kid-Friendly Asian Dressing; and Taco Tuesday Fajita Salad).  Hmmmm…

My take on the use of bentō in describing the book? It’s misleading horn into a well-established food market. Yes, it is a single-portion, compartmentalized meal taken to school. Beyond that, it seems a feint impersonation of a custom and tradition with a deep-seated and profound history. However, Kohley’s work, as a lunchbox book, has much to recommend it: health-oriented, kid-friendly, well written, and easy to prepare. There’s a solid audience for her book: that’s the market she needs to target.

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