For many non-Japanese who enjoy Japanese culture, especially the pop culture and have watched many anime series or drama series, or even read the manga, it is no surprise if you are curious about bento. The way they are put together and how creative they are (as well as economical), it's no surprise that more people outside of Japan are catching bento fever and wanting to make bento at home.
So, what is bento? Think Japanese version of the school lunch but instead of a big thick lunchbox, there is creativity on the portions of what one eats and are typically set in a special container in which food is split. There is no big bulky apples or bananas or a big sandwich, for the Japanese, you have your steam rice, egg, vegetables, meats, etc. and it all fits into a container.
And it's no surprise that bento boxes have become popular outside of Japan. People wanting to create economically cool bento boxes and who best to write about it than food blogger Makiko Itoh, owner of justhungry.com and justbento.com.
Makiko has written "The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go" featuring 25 attractive bento menus and features more than 150 recipes which include the Sushi Roll Bento, the Chicken Karaage Bento but as it does feature Japanese style bentos, she also has a not-so-Japanese section which has a Summer Vegetable Casserole Beto and Every Loves a Pie Bento.
And what is important is that Makiko doesn't focus on cuteness or for the sake of having cute bento, she writes with care about nutrition and has easy-to-read, concise instructions that go along with photos.
For example, using the cover image (featured above), the photo is for "Chicken and Three-color Pepper Stir-fry Bento". She shows you how to create the stir-fry with a recipe, plus how to make instant cabbage and cucumber pickles and blanched broccoli. Also, information on how to prepare basic white rice.
She also has a time line of how long it takes to create the dish as well.
After you make the dish, she then features how to prepare the food and place it into a single-tier and two-tier box.
So, these are easy-to-follow instructions.
So, what about the rolled up egg? How do they roll it up? No problem, she has pictures on how she does it.
What about the zig zagged vegetables? No problem, she explains how to do it as well.
And it's important to note that the ingredients featured on the Japanese recipes are ingredients you can find at your local grocery store. Especially if you have an Asian grocery store nearby. Granted, sesame salt or kabocha squash may not be at your local grocery store, but the goal is to improvise if you don't find some of these ingredients.
Now, by using Makiko Itoh's "Just Bento Cookbook", you may be thinking...great, we got the recipe down, ingredients for the Japanese and non-Japanese dishes can be found but what about the actual bento box and equipment that Makiko uses. Now, this is the cool part of the book where she actually showcases bento boxes and accessories and where you can purchase them.
Itoh also goes into foods that can be refrigerated or frozen and for those who are not familiar with the Japanese ingredients, she also has a glossary at the end of the book. So, for those who read and are not sure what "bonito flakes", "miso" or what "edamame" are... no problem, she explains what they are.
Overall, this is a fantastic book for those wanting to prepare bento dishes. Sometimes blogs on how to prepare bento are hard to follow and Itoh recognizes the weaknesses of what others have tried to do and focuses on making the experience as easy as possible for those creating bento for the first time.
So, if you are interested in making bento, I can easily say that "The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go" is perhaps the best book I have reviewed on bento thus far.