Monday, October 21, 2013

stop worrying, love the bento

I had a gig as a part-time teacher* at a kindergarten here seven years ago, and I got to see the exquisite and tyrannical cuteness of the bento first-hand. There really were fish cakes stamped into flower shapes, adorning rice-ball bunny faces with pink ume cheeks and black nori whiskers, joined by adroitly flayed cocktail wieners and that non-edible decorative sushi grass. That shit is real.

(*had nothing to do with "teaching")

I would eat with the students, and marvel at their little zig-zag cut cucumber slices, their broccoli spears topped with a smattering of sesame seeds, their tiny patterned foil cups filled with coiled noodles... and they would make fun of me for my unabashedly boring leftover curry..
But, come to think of it, they made fun of me for just about everything. Aren't kids delightful?

So I had some trepidation about this lunch-making business. Getting tips from cookbooks specifically for bento is like taking a crash-course in master-chefsmanship... learn to prepare tiny portions of savory and aesthetically appealing finger food, nutritionally balanced and artistically nuanced:

Roasted eggplant slices interspaced with prosciutto! Glazed grilled salmon and bite-sized chunks of boiled kabocha! Apples sliced like an MC Escher drawing!

Gorgeous little hors d'oeuvres. For your child. FOR LUNCH.

I flipped through the pages of that cookbook thinking my kids will not eat any of this.

But first, before I even got to the cooking part, I needed some things:

ALL THE THINGS. Are needed.

I can't even tell you how many different stores I went to for the proper napkins and little cups and pouches for little cups, but it was a lot, and I broke a sweat in all of them because the kids take my price-tag-reading and decision-making-face as a cue to escalate to full-on feral monkey mode.

But we made it out eventually, and everything is safely gendered and color coordinated, despite the hodge-podge of assorted cartoon personae. 

To the kitchen, then, for my first attempt:

Fortunately the majority of the bento is supposed to be rice, and it's not hard to dress it up with some furikake. The fried-chicken was store-bought (cheating, yes), then sliced apples, clementine wedges, cucumber slices -- salted! that's the trick -- and some green beans, blanched, then simmered in miso paste.

This is not going to become a cooking blog,  where I take well-lighted pictures of food I made in my impeccably tasteful house in order to make you feel bad about your life, heaven forbid -- I only need to illustrate my story to show you that my children ate these vegetables. My children. Who usually eat cheese crackers and hot dogs. After a week in Japanese Yochien they are willingly eating green things.

Attempt #2 was leftover chicken piccata, rice cooked in dashi with carrots & mushrooms (followed this recipe, more or less), gomae (sesame spinach), and some more cuke & apple slices.

I'm crediting peer pressure mainly, and also the utter lack of fall-back comfort food, as the reason my kids will even try this stuff. But I have also realized my own complacency in our previous lunch habits. I don't want to be all insufferable about it, but learning how to cook vegetables in a way that tastes good to my kids is a skill I didn't know I needed until I was forced into it. Having a toaster oven helps, too.

I did not expect to like making bento; I was only hoping for a grudging tolerance. Believe me, I have deeper issues about Japanese food in general that need to be resolved (how desperately I miss good bread, for example), but I'm giving myself permission to feel a little smug in my success on this front.

Don't expect cocktail wieners cut to look like octopi with little sesame seed eyes, though. I have some snark to maintain.


1 comment:

Fenna Diephuis Stoub said...

This is SO crazy! It's like you have a new artistic medium! Theres a Chinese film about a Chinese woman eat .....something. Anyway, there's a scene in it where this chef brings a lunch to his grandson at school. It goes beyond Bento! Did you ever see that film? Sorry I can't think of the name of hand. Any way, good job! Your writing is witty and entertaining as usual! So proud of you!