FROM JAPAN’S LUNCH BOX TO THE WORLD’S BENTO

FROM JAPAN’S LUNCH BOX TO THE WORLD’S BENTO

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Japanese lunch boxes, with their collection of numerous small dishes and appealing presentation, have grown so far in popularity that they have come to be known simply by their Japanese name, “bento”, even outside Japan. While Japanese food itself is popular for the healthy image it fosters, bento are coming under the spotlight thanks to the well-balanced meal they provide. From a more traditional style, to train station bento, and the almost art-like bento arranged in the shape of popular characters, you might be surprised at the sheer variety available. In this article, we dive into the world of bento today, and see what makes them so special.

The lunch boxes of the world vary so greatly in their style and contents that a peek at lunchtime fare offers you insight into the very culinary culture of a given country.

Sandwiches squeezed into plastic containers are the norm in the West, with simple combinations such as peanut butter and jam making for a typical filling. Common side dishes include crackers, and vegetables and fruit carried in plastic containers and lunch bags to be eaten as is.

In comparison, the Japanese lunch box – the bento – offers a well-balanced mix of main and side dishes that cover a broad range of nutritional needs. They are both appealing and unique in their appearance, and are highly regarded for being healthy.


SO, WHAT ARE BENTO?

While the word “bento” is now widely understood across the world, exactly what is this piece of Japan’s culinary culture? In Japan, “bento” refers to food that can be eaten while out and about, away from home that is stored and carried along in containers. Bento can be either a hand-made variety prepared in the home, or a commercial product bought in stores.

Commonly consumed at lunch, bento often account for one of the three main meals of the day. As such, those with a good nutritional makeup that offer one third of the daily requirements are opular. Good presentation is also considered an important aspect of enhancing their visual appeal.

Because the dishes in a bento are combined together in limited space, they demand different considerations to standard plating of food. There must be little liquid left in the food prepared, and the taste and colour of the food must change very little, even after being refrigerated or left untouched for some time. Food that goes off easily is avoided, and ingredients that must be cooked before consumption must be well done. Food with a strong smell can fill the bento with their odour, giving off a strong smell when the bento is opened or even affecting the taste of other dishes, and is, therefore, often avoided as well. Rice can spoil if added while hot, and must be added after it has cooled. These and other techniques are crucial.


A BENTO FOR EVERY OCCASION

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Overseas in Australia and elsewhere, Japanese-style bento most commonly appear on the menu of Japanese restaurants.

In Japan, however, the bento was originally designed to provide a meal for those out for the day’s labour and unable to return to home to eat. As such, bento are found in many different places. Not only are bento commonly brought to the office or school for lunch, they are also commonly taken along on excursion, such as picnics or flower-viewing parties.

The bento is also often served as a type of boxed lunch combining both a main dish and side dishes during occasions, such as the celebration of a child’s first seasonal festival, Buddhist ceremonies, and even meetings at the office.


TYPES OF BENTO

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There are many types of bento in Japan, from bento made at home and taken to the office or school for lunch, to those sold at stores specialising in bento such as Hotto Motto, bento called “ekiben” that are made for long train rides, convenience store bento, chef-made bento served at restaurants, and more.

In particular, the “makunouchi” style of bento that combines rice formed into a rectangular shape with numerous side dishes has a long history. Designed as a meal served during the intermission to stage plays during the Edo period, this style of bento is one of the most common commercial bento today.

There are many unique variations on the bento nowadays, ranging from those arranged in the shape of popular characters and introduced alongside photographs on Instagram and other social media and blogs, to the sushi sandwich style called “onigirazu”. Bento are made not just to be eaten, but to be enjoyed and to give joy, and it is this sense of entertainment that marks the bento of today.

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THE “SUPER DRY” EXPERIENCE IN AUSTRALIA

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It is said that Japanese people and Australians enjoy their beers in different ways. What is the secret to enjoying Japan’s most beloved – Asahi Beer?

6pm at night. A bustling street filled with people after a long day’s work. You duck into a back alley where the tantalising fragrance of yakitori (grilled chicken) wafts towards you from all directions. As you step into your usual izakaya (Japanese pub), a waiter’s boisterous, “Irasshai!”(“Welcome!”), echoes throughout the restaurant. This is what it’s all about. An izakaya is a Japanese person’s “oasis of the heart”.

The first word to leave most people’s mouths as they take their seat are, “I’ll start with a beer on tap”. You order an icy cold beer and what gets brought out is an ASAHI SUPER DRY. You shout, “Kampai!” (“Cheers!”), with all of your mates, clink glasses, and pour the golden beer along with its almost overflowing, creamy white head down your throat. Such a smooth, refined mouthfeel with a crisp aftertaste. A refreshing beer sure hits the spot after a hard day at the office.

One cannot overlook the small plates overflowing with edamame and yakitori, which go so well with beer. Many Australians seem to enjoy their beer on its own. The Japanese, on the other hand, much prefer a variety of side dishes to accompany their beer.

Asahi Breweries, Ltd. is a proud Japanese brand, topping beer sales in Japan for 17 consecutive years*. The ASAHI SUPER DRY brand can be found in pubs and bottles shops here in Australia as well, making it familiar amongst many Australians.

ASAHI SUPER DRY took out the gold award for the International-Style Lager category at the 2014 World Beer Cup, the USA’s prestigious international beer competition. At the Belgian international beer contest – The Brussels Beer Challenge – ASAHI SUPER DRY took out the gold medal for the Lager: International Style Pilsner, achieving the first gold medal for a Japanese brewery.

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3 brands are currently sold in the Australian market. ASAHI SUPER DRY (5.0%ABV) has a “delicate, yet rich, full-flavoured body with a refreshing dry aftertaste”. It is the topselling Asian Beer in Australia. Since its debut in Japan in 1987 as the first “KARAKUCHI” (dry) beer, ASAHI SUPER DRY has set a new de facto standard in Japanese brewing.

ASAHI SUPER DRY BLACK (5.5%ABV) is a crisp new Super Dry style lager. Bold and refreshing, it has changed the world’s perception on dark beers. Asahi successfully blended the rich aroma and flavour while maintaining the smoothness of ASAHI SUPER DRY. This beer is perfect for when you want to refresh yourself.

ASASHI SOUKAI (3.5%ABV) is an Australian market-limited brand. It delivers a clean, smooth taste that embodies the sophisticated, Japanese way of life whilst still retaining that unmistakable refreshing, crisp ASAHI SUPER DRY taste. ASAHI SOUKAI is an easy-to-drink, non-filling, sessionable beer, expertly brewed using quality Japanese brewing techniques.

Try comparing the beers yourself to experience their distinct flavours! The next time you get together with your mates, why not grab a few Asahi beers as well? Don’t forget the bowls of edamame to snack on. Bring the Japanese izakaya experience to your home by shouting out “kampai!” as you clink together your glasses of icy cold Asahi beer. *Taxable shipped units of 5 major Japanese beer makers in 1998-2014.

JAPANESE KITCHEN KNIVES WHICH CUT LIKE A SAMURAI SWORD

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Photos: Naoto Ijichi

The essential components of tasty cuisine are top quality ingredients, the touch of a good chef and the equipment in their right hand. Just like a samurai could not exist without their sword, a chef can’t exist without their kitchen knives.

Currently, the export of Japanese made high quality kitchen knives is rapidly spreading across the globe. The reason non-Japanese chefs love these knives so much is by merit of their astonishing cutting ability. Japanese knives are uniquely designed to cut without needing much force at all. The circumstances which have brought about the evolution of these knives is a culture of subtle and detailed food preparation that is an essential part of traditional Japanese cuisine.

ACCORDING TO THE FOOD EXPERTS, WHAT MAKES A GOOD KNIFE?

Mr Takashi Sano, sushi chef at popular Sydney restaurant Sokyo, says knives are an important partner just like one’s wife. A good knife has a certain familiarity in one’s hand which acts in harmony with the chef’s thoughts and to date, this has provided much satisfaction to gourmet clients in Sydney at Azuma, Tetsuya’s and a number of top restaurants serving Japanese, western and modern Australian fare. These knives give the ability to cut fish in a clean and precise manner without any hindrance allowing for beautiful presentation of the food and the wonderful texture and flavours to be felt when eaten. The sizes and shapes of the many styles of Japanese knives are a strong ally of a chef and it is said this bond is well understood and cherished by non-Japanese chefs too.

THE BEST WAY TO MAINTAIN HIGH QUALITY UTENSILS

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Mr Takashi Sano, sushi chef at Sokyo

In order to not only craft the appearance of the cuisine but also the flavour, it is vital that anyone working in a kitchen chooses the optimum knife and takes extra special care with the maintenance of both the blade and the handle. In Sydney, Knives and Stones is a specialist shop selling a huge range of Japanese made homeware, knives and sharpening stones. On top of selling their high grade wares, they also undertake the difficult maintenance of the knives including polishing and fixing chipped and bent blades. The owner James says that with just one maintenance session, you’ll soon have a blade which can cut through anything with the utmost ease.

When using a knife for a number of years, there is a chance that parts of the wood in the handle may become corroded, splinter, or the original pattern may lose its detail due to the constant pressure from one’s hand. When this happens, it’s a good idea to consult Knives and Stones to repair or replace the handle. Their showroom also displays the best Japanese knives such as: Sakai Takayuki and Masamoto Sohonten; and sharpening tools so it’s perfect for people who are serious about looking after their equipment and keeping it in top condition.

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