Bento boxes are a "little bit of home", says chef

Tue Dec 21, 2010 6:13am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - There are many reasons to eat bento boxes, Japan's packed lunch in a compartmentalized box: weight control, saving money, or just enjoying Japanese culture.

But bento cook and blogger Makiko Itoh says that, above all, eating a bento is like taking a "little bit of home" with you wherever you are.

Though Itoh says there's nothing wrong with making bentos cute, an art that has risen to nearly cult status in Japan with the name "kyaraben," she emphasizes the practical, wanting to bring the bento -- in Japanese, obento -- out of the realm of art and make it an integral part of daily life.

Brought up in Japan, the United States and Britain, and long a resident of Switzerland, Itoh has learned to adapt her cooking to wherever she finds herself. Her book, "The Just Bento Cookbook," reflects this blend of East and West, with recipes ranging from traditional soba noodles to quinoa salads and sandwiches.

She also runs a blog,, which had around 365,000 subscribers as of November.

Q: Is "practical" the niche you see your cookbook filling?

A: "All those little cute bentos are very visual. People look at them and say "Wow, that's a bento that pretends to be a Nintendo DS." It looks great. But my feeling is that a bento is an everyday thing. It's for everyone that wants to bring a healthy lunch from home, save some money, control what they eat. It shouldn't just be regarded as a cute novelty in the same vein as Hello Kitty characters or whatever... I don't want it to be regarded just as something for kids. I want it to be for students, for busy professionals, for anyone right now, because eating out is so expensive no matter where you're living. So if you can bring a lunch with food that you want from home, it saves you money, and it's way more interesting than a brown bag sandwich."

Q: Was your mother a great bento maker?   Continued...

<p>Support staff at the G20 meeting on climate change use reusuable chopsticks to eat from traditional reusable "bento" boxes during their lunch break in Chiba, near Tokyo in this March 15, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>