Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lunch in a Box: One White Kid's Fascination with Obento

A poorly, but early attempt: Talapia Obento
Throughout my time in public school (and, now returning after some years of absence), I've had a general-purpose fascination with Japanese language and culture - and of course, as with most of my cultural studies, I've always paid particular attention to food culture.

Probably because some differences are so stark, I found Japanese food of particular interest. Stark differences in culture, in an area of life that is a constant for all people, speaks volumes of the natural history and cultural pscyhe of a people - and none of the traditional foods of Japan were ever quite so fun to learn about or practical to understand as Bento.

Obento is the Japanese answer to box lunch, rising, if memory serves me correctly, during the Shogunate era. Part ration, part brown-bag lunch, the techniques and paraphernalia associated with the preparation of Bento is, in my view, the ultimate form of packed lunch for work or school. Calorically- and nutritionally- dense foods, small parcels, and a wide array of flavourful goodies in that same small, reusable package means that lunches are now smaller, cheaper, but more satisfying than anything you could cull from fast food.

Of course, learning to pack a bento involved me re-learning what I know about rice preparation. Like many younger chefs, the only rice dish I could prepare, reliably, was risotto - unless I used a rice cooker. What I eventually came up with was a method for cooking short-grained rices by the simmering method, carefully seasoning the cooking liquid with powdered dashi kombu and a small amount of traditional tamari soy-sauce... without discolouring the rice, of course. The result is a soft, sticky, chop-stick-enabled rice.

Rice doesn't keep well, prepared in this way. A risotto would reheat magnificently, but a daily diet of risotto would, of course, quickly make it faster for me to roll to work than walk. So, I learned what any self-respecting cook should probably know - the correct preparation of zushi rice.

Treating the rice with the small amount of seasoned vinegar makes it travel and reheat well - much better than the early attempts with simmered or fried rice. True, too, it better complements my favoured foodstuff - fish. As it presently stands, I can get away with using fish in my lunches, simple because I have access to a fridge.

The trick, of course, is ensuring the variety. There were two rules I learned a long time ago (and, like all rules, promptly began ignoring): Goho and Goshiki: the five methods and the five colours. In the simplest form, this refers to the idea that five different cooking methods and five different colours of food should be available. This makes the dish more pleasing and, arguably, more nutritionally balanced.

I have a proper bento box on the way from Japan as we speak, actually. Perhaps, as a stand-in for substantive thought, I might post any packed lunches I come up with.

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