That phrase takes me back to Sunday afternoons and gathering around the dining table, before the family snoozed with happy bellies filled with the yummy delectable’s that made up lunch. Actually, that’s an afterthought. The first thought when I hear the question brings back memories of school – and all of us boys, peeking into each other’s lunch boxes. We’d be all nonchalant at home, but the lunchbox was where we’d proudly show off and share the secrets of the home kitchen - favourite sandwiches, a paratha rolled out as a dinosaur, a weird smelling chutney that tasted absolutely divine! You opened a box and you’d end up eating your way through different regional cuisines, a variety of bread or potato chips, washed down with a juice. And that got me to thinking about the this new trend of the bento box that’s caught everyone’s fancy.
The bento box is the Japanese equivalent of a lunch box. Its chief characteristics are that it be portable and that all the foods contained within are ready to eat. The box is usually prepared for one person, with foods individually portioned. The container may be wood, lacquer, wicker, or now cardboard or plastic. It is believed, the first bento may have been packed in wartime, or for theatregoers during the Edo Period (1600-1868); the box may have begun backstage as a meal to be eaten by actors and stagehands while preparing a performance. Nevertheless, the bento box is central to Japan’s culinary heritage. Typical to Japanese tradition and culture, utmost and painstaking care is taken in the appearance, taste and presentation of the bento. The aesthetics of the lunchbox, the landscapes of food in each section of the box, demonstrates the kodawari or dedication of the maker and his or her skill in preparation and artistic presentation. Each bento is expected to represent something from the ocean, something from the plains and something from the mountains, meaning fish, fish cakes or paste, or seaweed, chicken, meat, or egg, and vegetables and grains (usually rice). For young children, the aesthetic arrangement of food in the bento is said to train their eyes to respond to nature and the elements of beauty, as well as engage them playfully.
All through December, the chefs at Edo at ITC Gardenia initiate us into this unique lunchbox concept with the Obento. Designed for someone who has to get back to work within an hour and doesn’t have the luxury of time to pore over an elaborate menu choosing soups, appetisers, main course and a dessert, the bento box has a more or less fixed menu, listing out each course. You can choose from the vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, with the latter having the choice between meat and seafood. Obento is thus, a complete meal that includes elements of Japanese cuisine in portion sizes suitable for one person.
Come on then, and discover a bento with a friend or a colleague. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?”