Spring time is in full effect here in Florida as the schools cycle through their annual Spring Breaks. Personally, when the end of March rolls around, I always think back to the end of the Japanese school year. The year round Japanese academic calendar starts in April and concludes in March which I’ve always found beautiful. With the end of winter and the arrival of spring, the Japanese school year begins under the pink clouds of the cherry blossom trees. Speaking of new beginnings, in April, I, too, will celebrate a new adventure right here in Orlando.
The palest pink with the faintest scent…
Hanami (Flower Viewing) is a long honored celebration of the arrival of spring, in which the Japanese take pack up their lunches, barbecue grills, and their favorite libations to enjoy picnics underneath the beautifully blooming cherry blossom trees, lovingly called sakura. Although heavily associated as a symbol of Japan, the cherry blossom is not the national flower. Annually, countless Japanese, foreign residents, and travelers take to any green space they can to so as to enjoy the fleeting and delicate beauty of the cherry blossom trees. I was fortunate enough to spend five glorious springs in Japan, picnicking outside underneath the cherry blossoms with my close friends and colleagues. So many great memories!!
Forget Brown Bagging It!
When I lived in Japan, I adapted many healthy habits from my friends and colleagues. My first two years, I was without a car, so I took public transportation, I regularly rode my bicycle and I walked every where. Our school cafeteria was run by three local ladies who made ever lunch feel like you were saddled up at their kitchen table. Meals were balanced, healthy, and the portion sizes were roughly a third of what I was accustomed to in the USA. Naturally, at certain times of the year, work load, weather (and sometimes office politics) prevented us from breaking away from our desks and heading over for our daily dose of family meal time. The truly loved the high school I worked at, and I was fortunate to work there for four years, so by the time I left, these folks were my extended Japanese family.
Some of my Japanese wrapping skills!
So what did I do when I knew big school-wide events were happening like Parent-Teacher Conferences, Open House Demonstration Classes, and Entrance Exams? I channeled my inter Japanese housewife and packed myself darned good lunch boxes or bento! Granted, I never unlocked those higher bento achievements like super cute cartoon character rice balls or carving animals out of fruits and veggies, but I picked up on the basics enough that I could wake up in the morning and it felt easily into my morning routine. If I was feeling ambitious, I even packed the night before while I was cooking dinner.
Personal Picnic Time!
When I came home from Japan one summer, I was introduced to Bento, the Pan-Asian restaurant that was dominating the Asian food scene in Gainesville, primarily because they touted Japanese sushi and bento lunches. College-era, anime obsessed, Japanese-studying Karen would have been a regular fixture at this restaurant had it been around at the time. Karen-sensei who lived amongst the Japanese rice fields in a tiny agricultural prefecture on the hand could only manage a solid C for effort. They nailed the niche market and the food was good, but the interpretation of their Japanese food falls into the “Asian Food for American Palates” genre of dining– at least for me.
When Americans think of Japanese-style “bento lunches” two images typically pop into their heads: the compartmentalized, dining experience at Japanese or Asian Fusion restaurants or the lunch box style popularized by super-creative Japanese housewives and Japanese animation. Since returning home from Japan, my limited Japanese cooking skill set has been dulled with the lack of access to the proper ingredients. I am now concerned that I might get simple recipes like Miso Soup wrong. When I was sick in January, I re-read Naomi Moriyama’s Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat, and I remember sitting there with my mouth watering as my mind filled with old memories of truly good and healthy food.
Prior to moving to Japan, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I could ever master the basics of Japanese cooking. The green-eyed monster with ravenous ‘hanger’ often stalked the staff room, lovingly fawning and coveting the homemade lunches my colleagues enjoyed. Over lunch one day, I polled my colleagues as to how much time did it take to make a boxed lunch. Most of the gents admitted that their wife or girlfriend lovingly packed their meals, and the ladies admitted that it’s easy to make it part of the dinner routine ‘because you’re already cooking food anyway.’ Genius. Pure genius. I took out paper to take notes and suddenly they turned the tables on me.
“What do you think of when you see our lunch? Does it look good? Do you want some?”
“How is it different from American food? What do Americans eat for lunch? Do they bring something like this to work? Try some of this, it’s a local root vegetable…”
“What would you want to eat? Hot? Cold? Spicy? Sweet? If you like spicy, you’re going to love this…”
“What kitchen appliances and tools do you have in your kitchen? How much space do you have to work with? I am sure we can help you find things you need! Have some more rice with furikake (dried seasoning sprinkled on rice)…”
“How often do you go to the market? My girlfriend and I live right by you. We’ll take you food shopping after work. Try this…”
This was my beloved homeroom team. Most of them weren’t English teachers or spoke much English at all, but if I showed the slightest interest in Japanese culture, they were more than willing to oblige. Though I didn’t mean to eat a bit of everyone’s lunches, they gave me lots of food for thought. At the time, I lived in a tiny one room apartment in which my kitchen consisted of a single burner stove, a small combo fridge and freezer, a convection oven/microwave combo, and a small rice cooker… in my tiny hallway connecting the front door area, genkan, to the rest of my living space. Would I be able to actually do it? Do I dare venture into the hollowed tradition of Japanese cooking? I could do it, couldn’t I?
“Karen-chan, let’s go to the cafeteria for lunch… you haven’t eaten, too much, have you?”
Not for lunch, but there was a betsu-bara (‘separate stomach’) for dessert. Always.
Better Bento Bang for Your Buck!
Honestly, if you are planning on packing items requiring heating or includes liquids something that snaps tight is best. If I am going to expend the energy to pack a lunch, the last thing I want is it leaking everywhere and possibly ruining my bag and clothes. I knew that eating lunch at one’s desk isn’t healthy, so when the weather cooperated, I’d take mine outside and sit outside. One of the biggest gifts about living in the middle of rural Japan was that I could enjoy my lunch under the shade of a big tree and look at mountains and rice fields. (Hey, being from Florida, we don’t have mountains!)
“You don’t have to spend too much money on the lunch box. You can get one at the 100 yen store and it’ll work just as good as one you’d get at an expensive department,” my friend advised as we picked through the shelves of brightly colored lunch boxes in a variety of fun shapes and patterns. “What you really need to look for is versatility! The best ones accommodate a variety of dining options, so you can be more creative with what you pack.” Suggested purchase points included:
- Can it hold hot and cold items?
- Is it insulated or requires refrigeration to avoid spoilage?
- Can it be microwaved?
- Does it need to be hand washed or can you toss it in the dishwasher?
- Will you need extra cups or accessories to further divide the internal compartments?
Often the fancier, imported bento boxes you may find as a specialty shop may come with limitations. Some types are designed purely for cold food service and will not survive a trip through the microwave. Others could have metal pieces that could prove catastrophic if forgotten prior to heating up you meal. If you are purchasing one, especially online, make sure you read all the associated literature and labels prior to making your purchase as well as the customer reviews. There’s nothing worse than dropping the money on “The One” and then have it not meet your dining needs. If all you require is something with a lid that holds food to get the job done, seriously reconsider buying that multitiered box that feeds a family of four to cart around. While most American office fridges aren’t as compact as their Japanese counterparts, you need to be conscientious of the refrigeration needs of your colleagues, too.
Like every job, there were times of the year when we lived on bento lunches purely for survival as the work day or weather prevented us the luxury of heading down to the school canteen for a home cooked meal. Other times, the convenience of a desk picnic meant using part of free period to catch up and build relations with my colleagues, helping to break the heavy tension of working in a highly competitive academic school. Whether it was quick bites between classes or leisurely dining during a free period, I could always see diversity in the lunches my colleagues would bring. I was shy when I first started bringing my lunch, but my colleagues applauded my embracing of their dining culture. I was hesitant when they would ask to try it, but regularly we became kids trading bites of food in grade school cafeteria.
Basic Bento Accessories
If you want to get fancy and work on developing a true, homemade Japanese-style boxed lunch and you have a penchant for shopping or crafts, I have one word for you: accessories!! Like picking out the perfect scarf, socks, bracelets, or hat, I always enjoyed figuring out the best combination of accessories and accoutrements for my stereotypical ultimate bento dining experience! These items do not need to be expensive, but like with clothing you can amass a collection representative of your personal style. When I lived in Japan, my combination of containers, flatware and linens tended to be a motley mix of Japanese and Western.
- Chopsticks: Reusable is best! Go lean and green! Disposable take-out ones help in a pinch!
- Flatware: Yes, you can go “Western-style” with your bento
- “Lunch Box Belt”: Fabric elastic band which holds traditional stackable boxes closed
- “Wrapping Cloth” (Furoshiki): doubles as placemat and napkin if you’re a messy eater like me!
- Bento Bag: Holds loose items like flatware, spices, small thermos, etc.
Our teachers’ room had a large sink which had regular traffic throughout the day. Like the coffee station across the room, it was a watering hole of sorts, but it was where folks chatted over doing their dishes. Some of the best office gossip wasn’t traded over cups of tea and coffee, but over scraping out dishes with rolled up sleeves and separating our recycling. Like many other experiences in Japan, it was a great opportunity to talk with people who I normally never had the chance. I walked away with great cooking hints, simple recipes, restaurant recommendations, and even the occasional social invite simply by bringing my lunch and washing my dishes out with the best of them. I would add dish soap, a small sponge and a dish towel, so you could save time (and wow your personal chef) by bringing home clean dishes.
I hope with my new job, I can find the perfect spot to enjoy my lunches. Going back to a standard weekday, eight-to-five desk job is going to be a welcomed change and hopefully an easy transition. Even with a desk job in Japan, I managed to lose 40 pounds, so I am certain if I actively seek to return to some of those healthy lifestyle habits, I will be able to conquer some of those stubborn challenges ahead! I am currently plotting ways to get the necessary ingredients and items to start a throwback series to Japanese cooking experience with the ultimate goal of expanding my repertoire and skill. I am hoping to pick the brains of my Japanese for tips, tricks, and most importantly recipes!
Would you be interested in seeing some of my return to Japanese cooking attempts? I do not claim to be a professional by any means, but if you are curious about Japanese cooking, I can see what stops I can pull out!