Perhaps the first thing many people associate with bento culture are the elaborate kyaraben (character bento), but everyday bento don’t have to be that difficult. However, the fundamental ideas of packing bento can take your lunchbox from unappetising mess to something to look forward to. It feels really good when instead of being pitied for one’s food intolerances, people think your food looks better than theirs!
You don’t need to do cutesy or complicated, but it helps to have some aesthetic sense to guide you in composition, arrangement and the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Frank Tastes provides some excellent examples of simple, almost Zen-like bento arrangments. As with developing any kind of artistic sensibility, exposure to as many examples as possible will build up your visual ‘vocabulary’ to facilitate creativity. Apart from the plethora of bento websites, if you have access to a Japanese bookstore, do browse through Japanese-language books on bento for inspiration — the bento examples and the overall art direction are usually absolutely excellent.
It’s also important to choose a box of the correct shape and size. A shallow box is better as it allows you to lay out the foods horizontally, almost like a painting. Also, if the foods come up to the lid when the box is sealed, they won’t move around during transportation and your bento will still be intact when you come to eating it.
Just Bento oftens discusses the usefulness of bento in controlling portion sizes, and Japanese guidelines on the optimal size for men, women and children are very useful. However, I have also discovered that the volume I can finish in one meal differs according to the type of food. The type of rice makes a huge difference, not so much in terms of managing the caloric value, but in terms of how much is enough to make me feel full. With brown rice, I eat much less than the half-box portion of sticky, short-grain Japanese white rice recommended for standard Japanese bento, and it’s likely you’ll find that with long-grain white rice typical of Southeast Asia and in southern Chinese cuisines, you’ll need quite a bit more than that. Any kind of glutinous rice would be the most filling of all.
Noodle dishes are a different ball game because not only do I consume a larger volume than if I had a meal of brown rice and side dishes, you need some empty space in your bento box to allow you to loosen the noodles and pick up the strands, or to toss the noodles with the topping ingredients (in terms of presentation, noodles look much nicer with the toppings heaped on top than ready mixed).