“People always ask me why Japanese people are so skinny,” says Tokyo-born food writer Makiko Itoh, over the phone from France. Part of the answer, she discovered, may lie in bento, the Japanese word for those aesthetically arranged meals-in-a-box, which are often eaten at lunch in Japan—and have become increasingly popular in the West.
After a globe-trotting early life (her businessman father moved the family back and forth between Japan, the U.S., and England), the former Web designer and developer settled in Zurich with her husband. While there, she needed to lose 30 lb. and decided to return to the lunch box of her girlhood: “I had to relearn portion control and bento was one way to make sure I was eating healthy lunches and not just picking up another hamburger and fries.”
In 2007, she began to document her bento adventures on a blog called Just Bento, which now has over 375,000 subscribers. Since then, writing about food has become a full-time job, most recently with the newly released The Just Bento Cookbook, in which she outlines her bento philosophy, along with 150 recipes for meals in boxes.
Though bento’s origins are humble—as far back as the Edo period in Japan, from 1603 to 1867, travellers would carry their rice balls around in bamboo leaves—this kind of lunch-making has evolved in the last decade into an art form. “When you look at the bento boxes that are talked about on English websites, there is a focus on the very cute, highly decorative bentos, with little rice balls with faces on them,” says Itoh. She’s referring to the proliferation of bento-dedicated blogs featuring kyaraben or “character bentos” that look more like Hello Kitty than food. But “they are just a fraction of the bentos made and consumed in Japan every day.”
So while Itoh is first to admit that “we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths and stomachs,” her bentos are more health-conscious than cartoony. Rule No. 1, she explains, is that bentos should be balanced, with protein, carbs, lots of vegetables and fruit for dessert. (The ratio she usually abides by is 1:1:2 for carb to protein to vegetables.) Bentos should also display the Japanese adage that each meal have five colours, to encourage eating fruits and vegetables. Itoh also opts for nutritionally superior brown rice, seasonal and local foods wherever possible, avoids processed ingredients, and aims to keep her boxes under 600 calories.
Though most of the food is cooked in advance, Itoh designs the recipes so that the lunches also taste good at room temperature. But of course, these meals wouldn’t be bentos without the care given to presentation. Cucumber and cabbage have never looked as appetizing as they do in the thin slices she arranges in a heart-shaped container and sets against a rainbow of vegetables. Sandwiches in bento land aren’t the boring slabs many of us are accustomed to, but are cut with a bunny cookie-cutter, and placed on a bed of tulip-shaped sausages and cucumbers.
Itoh feels bentos need not contain Japanese food at all. So along with traditional recipes for tamagoyaki—the sweet omelette that is “such a popular bento item in Japan that many people insist on having a piece or two in their bento box every day”—about half of the book is dedicated to “not-so-Japanese bentos.” She writes, “You could call them lunch boxes, but I just like to think of them as ‘international’ food put together with a bento aesthetic and philosophy.” Itoh’s nomadic life surely influenced the deconstructed salade niçoise bento, Mediterranean bento (with koftas and baba ghanouj), and Indian tiffin-inspired bento.
If all this seems to stray from Japanese food culture, Itoh insists that’s not the case. “A lot of people are surprised when I say this, but I don’t think there’s any nationality as interested in food as Japanese people. They have an obsessive interest in delicious food. And not just Japanese food: Korean, Chinese, Thai, Italian.” Or Indian, Greek, and French—bento style. But her personal favourite? “The traditional bento: rice, grilled fish, and pickled vegetables. While I try out different combinations, and I like them, I always go back to what I grew up with.”