Bento Deluxe

His raspberry nose!

The regular New York bento box has nothing on the real thing. In Japan, mothers of lucky preschool children spend their mornings preparing special kyarakuta bento, box lunches brimming with cabbage leaf flowers, boiled egg bunnies, rice-ball rocket ships and lemon-slice butterflies. Tomatoes become ladybugs. Cauliflower clouds and tiny seaweed seagulls dot a rice sky.

A tomato ladybug and radish tulips for spring.

The results are an anime take on the formal Japanese rules of food arrangement, moritsuke, which I wrote about in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. Creativity counts just as much as tastiness, and the best bento boxes offer a riotous mosaic of colors and textures. One bento guide stipulates there should be “at lest ten different items” included in each box, all reshaped and transformed.

In the 7th century, monks traveling to visit beautiful shrines began the bento tradition, toting along their elegant and compact lunches. Now the bento boxes for schoolchildren are a national obsession, and a symbol of domestic comfort, proof of mother love. Special bento magazines are consulted. And the results are often magnificent—and, of course, very, very cute.
One of the best bento sites for English-speaking beginners is just bento (check out the recent contest winners.) Another great site is a blog by La Carmina, author of last fall’s Cute Yummy Time. She’s a Japanese self-described “goth Lolita,” who loves to bento.

Hello Kitty in a cucumber bunny disguise.

Three little pigs bento box.

Expressive bread.