After being featured in a Newsweek article about packed lunches for preschoolers, Lunch in a Box wondered if bento are a growing trend in the U.S.
Here in Singapore, I’ve begun to notice an increasing number of recent bento cookbooks published in Malaysia. These are bilingual English-Chinese and feature a range of Chinese, Japanese, western and local Malaysia/Singapore foods. The most commonly-found title is this one:
However, I haven’t bought any of these myself because if you already know how to cook, bento isn’t really about the recipes, but about how to combine foods in an aesthetically-pleasing as well as nutritious way, and how to pack the foods. Learning the principles of traditional Japanese cuisine (based on traditional Chinese medicine), which extend to bento, has been the most interesting and enlightening aspect for me. I’m also searching for unfamiliar foods and new ways of cooking them to extend the variety in my food intolerance-restricted diet, and I love the simplicity and back-to-basics character of many Japanese dishes, which is why Japanese cookbooks fascinate me. The Malaysian bento cookbooks don’t include any of these ideas, being a straight collection of recipes with large colour photos of the food packed into cutesy boxes.
The gorgeous photos are another reason why I love well-produced bento instruction books from Japan, and unfortunately the standard of Malaysian cookbooks doesn’t quite match up.
Another aspect of the reproduction of bento culture is in terms of the plastic boxes. While you can find attractive and reasonable-quality lunch boxes at Japanese stores like Daiso, there also exists a selection of cheap, China-made ones. They are very much bento-style, with dual layers, snap clasps and cute pictures, as well as some insulated containers. I’ve seen them at Mustafa (when I went shopping for the coconut grater), but thought they were not worth mentioning as they are very poor quality and more expensive than Daiso’s $2 boxes.