Finger foods bento & the ‘Five Principles’

Finger foods often work better for me in bento because they can be more easily eaten when one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down for a long stretch to enjoy a meal at a table. So this was quite a fun bento box to tuck into, apart from the abysmal attempt at making sushi with tuna filling (and making even more of a mess by simply pouring the extra aoi nori over the top because I didn’t want to waste it).

Bento fingerfoods variety

This was also one of the few bento I’ve done that includes enough of a variety to come closer to meeting the five sets of five rules of traditional Japanese cooking (read more here and here), which includes bento.

Although the online bento community frequently discusses what makes a good bento, there’s not much on creating bento that meet the principles of five colors (goshiki), the five methods (goho), the five flavors (gomi), the five senses (gokan); and for now, let’s leave out gokan no mon, a set of Buddhist principles on the appropriate state of mind when consuming food ^_^.

Perhaps the most commonly-known of these principles is that of colour, as this Washington Post article describes. Browsing Japanese bento cookbooks, you’ll often find a section dedicated to side dishes organised by colour to help you select a combination in contrasting colours. Of the five principles, this one is the one most obvious as the visual impact of a bento is the most immediate. (N.B.: Frank Tastes writes a commentary on the aesthetics of bento from a different perspective here.)

Some bento cookbooks lay out the fundamentals of bento-making, and 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 is one that explains how important balance is. A balance of nutritional elements (carbohydrates, protein, vegetables), colours as well as tastes.

On tastes, the book presents a chart listing four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This follows the categorisation in Tradtional Chinese Medicine, which also includes a fifth category – pungent, which refers to acrid, spicy, hot and aromatic flavours. As explained in Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford, each of these categories has particular warming/cooling values as well as therapeutic applications. Pungent and sweet flavours are yang, while sour, bitter and salty flavours are yin. The aim is to use these flavours to bring a person into balance with seasonal influences whilst considering the individual constitution.

Although 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 talks about different flavours, and using mild and strong tastes in different proportions, it is from the viewpoint of taste and variety only.

Apart from flavours, the method of cooking also affects the yin/yang value of a food, and that’s where goho comes in, which helps to achieve a better balance within a meal. In this bento, there’s tuna sushi rolled in aoi nori, fried mock poh piah (‘remade’ leftovers), fried sweet potato strips (also leftovers), a hard-boiled egg and raw pear pieces. Maybe not quite five methods, but at least at attempt in that direction.

I’ve personally experienced the importance of balancing yin/yang in bento, and bearing in mind goshiki, goho and gomi are good ways to encourage a variety and balance in this respect.

As for stimulating the five senses through gokan, I see it as a way of making one more mindful of the present by drawing attention to bodily sensations, along the lines of mindfulness practice in Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately, not something I’m able to achieve whilst dashing around and grabbing occasional mouthfuls of finger foods from my bento!

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