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Mother Love and the Bento Box

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bento means lunch or lunch box. But for most Japanese home cooks, the act of preparing a bento box can mean much more than that. A bento box represents a mother’s love for her family. For centuries, bento boxes have been used to carry food to school, to work and on trips so people can taste something that feels close to home.

When my son started kindergarten many years ago, I got up early to produce his first bento box. It held a piece of omelet, steamed green beans, a sliced apple, meatballs and grilled salted cod roe (tarako), which he loved to eat with rice. For me, preparing the bento box was a true labor of love, but when I picked him up from school he was cross with me. A boy had told him that his lunch looked weird, especially the cod roe.

Apparently, in this boy’s eyes, the pale pink seafood sticking out of the white rice looked like a finger. “I never want to take a bento box to school again,” my son declared, handing me the box as if it contained evidence collected at a crime scene. From that day forward, he stuck to sandwiches.

Like my son, I had my share of horrible bento experiences. When my family returned to Japan after living in America for many years, my mother sent me off to my new school with a chicken teriyaki bento. She wrapped the bento box in a pretty floral napkin and told me to hold it upright, which I did most of the way, except for the last 200-yard walk through the temple grounds. I wanted to look at the beautiful koi in the pond before I faced the treacherous first day of school, but I needed both hands to do it, so I threw my bento box into my knapsack.

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Despite my initial anxieties, my first day went relatively well until I opened my knapsack. Suddenly there was an overpowering smell of soy sauce. My bento box had leaked. A small puddle of sauce was at the bottom, staining the corner of every notebook and dyeing the flowers of the napkin brown.

I could feel curious eyes measuring the size of the disaster. I wanted to cry. During lunch I built a barricade with my books so no one could see me eating the ugly bento. Its sauceless rice was compressed to one side and had taken on the texture of glue.

For several months I remained quite homesick for America. My mother made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to ease my loneliness. But eventually that got me into trouble too, because my teacher complained that they had too much sugar. So my mother switched back to making bento.Initially her bento came home uneaten. One consisted of sauteed burdock root that smelled like mud. Then there was the thousand-eye bento--a mass of baby sardines covered the rice. I screamed.

At home, my parents would tell me stories about the wartime, when a bento box was just a pickled plum on a bed of rice. This was supposed to resemble the Japanese flag and raise people’s patriotic spirits. When the war escalated and rice became scarce, a single roasted potato or corn made up the entire bento. So why was I whining?

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As time went on, I reacquired my taste for Japanese food. I would find out what other people had brought to school for bento and report back to my mother. There was a boy in class who didn’t have a mother. Every day his father would fix him a gigantic rice ball wrapped in seaweed; it looked like a shotput. The ball and three dried sardines were thrown together in a plastic bag. I would watch him eat the rice ball out of the corner of my eye. I grew to like this boy because he never seemed to mind or to envy other people’s fancy bento. He just ate his rice ball and the three sardines from head to tail.

In less than a year after our return, my mother had honed her bento-making skills. Her bento box would remind me of a field of flowers. Included in the floral landscape were my least favorite vegetables, such as green pepper and tomato, disguised as tulips.

Eventually I learned to appreciate them not only for their artistic presentation but for their flavor. Once someone asked me to trade my mother’s chicken meatball for a piece of shrimp. I thought twice before I agreed.

This year, I found a good reason to start fixing bento boxes again. My sculptor husband moved his studio from downtown Los Angeles to the back of our house in Santa Monica and became a regular presence. As a result, lunchtime took on a new meaning. After a half-day of painting and chiseling, he took real lunch breaks.

In the beginning, I fixed two sandwiches in the morning: one for him and one for my sandwich-loving son. But my husband’s response was a sigh of disappointment--perhaps not unexpected from someone raised in a non-sandwich culture.

So I started fixing bento boxes. My now-17-year-old son would see me arranging the bento box in the morning and snitch from the cutting board the ends of the cucumber rolls that I had been saving for myself. If I made an omelet, half of it would disappear too.

I started sneaking rolled sushi into his lunch to see if I could break the monotony of his sandwich-only lunch. He liked the change. In fact, he asked me to fix him a bigger box with lots of rice or pasta.

This pleases me, even when he sometimes hands me an empty bento box that has spent many dark nights in his knapsack, incubating green life forms. I am proud to have succeeded in reintroducing a tradition that otherwise could have gotten buried under a mountain of sandwiches.

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Rolled Sushi Bento

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes* Vegetarian

Bamboo mats are available at cookware stores and Asian markets; nori seaweed and wasabi paste are available in the Asian aisle of well-stocked supermarkets and at Asian stores.

SUSHI RICE

1 1/2 cups short-grain rice

1 1/2 cups water

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

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1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon coarse salt

Rinse the rice under cold running water 2 or 3 times; drain in a strainer for about 20 minutes.

Combine the rice and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the water has been absorbed, 20 minutes.

Combine the vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Transfer the hot rice to a bowl and quickly toss with the vinegar mixture.

ASSEMBLY

3 sheets nori seaweed

Sushi Rice

Wasabi paste

1/4 pound cooked crab meat, shredded, optional

1 ripe avocado, sliced lengthwise into 9 pieces

1 small carrot, cut into 4x1/2-inch strips

1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into 4x1/2-inch strips

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Pickled ginger, optional

Place a sheet of seaweed shiny side down on a bamboo mat, with the long edge toward you. Moisten your hands with water and spread a cup of Sushi Rice about 1/8 inch thick evenly over the seaweed to the edges and the bottom and within 11/2 inches of the top. Across the center of the rice bed, dab a thin line of wasabi paste, about 1/4 teaspoon if you like your sushi hot.

Use 1/3 of the sushi fillings for each roll of sushi: Place some of the crab, if using, the avocado, carrot and cucumber lengthwise across the rice. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Then, holding the filling down with your fingers, lift up the mat with your thumbs and roll it over until the seaweed and rice form a tube. Press the bamboo-covered roll firmly to compress the roll enough to cut easily. Use the remaining ingredients to make 2 more rolls. The sushi can be refrigerated up to 4 hours.

To serve, wipe a sharp knife with a well-wrung damp cloth. Place a roll lengthwise on a cutting board and slice in half, crosswise. Cut each half into 4 pieces. Be careful not to saw back and forth, or else the roll will fall apart. Repeat with the remaining rolls. Place in the bento box. Put the pickled ginger in a cup or foil and put it next to the sushi.

3 to 4 servings. Each of 4 servings: 144 calories; 308 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.96 grams fiber.

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Chicken Teriyaki Bento

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

You can substitute 6 to 8 ounces of tuna, salmon or yellowtail filets for the chicken. Slice the fish into 1/4-inch-thick bite-size pieces and marinate in teriyaki sauce for a couple of minutes. Pan-fry the fish in a nonstick frying pan with a little oil until brown on both sides. For side dishes in the bento box, arrange an orange wedge, a steamed broccoli floret and some plum tomatoes. Mirin and sake can be found at Asian markets. Also look for mirin in the Asian aisle of well-stocked supermarkets, and sake at well-stocked liquor stores.

CHICKEN

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 tablespoons soy sauce (regular or low-sodium)

2 tablespoons mirin

1 teaspoon grated ginger root

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon sake

Heat the broiler or grill to medium-high heat.

Cut each chicken thigh into 8 bite-size pieces. Combine the soy sauce, mirin, ginger, sugar and sake. Add the chicken and marinate 10 minutes.

Thread the chicken on skewers, then broil or grill, basting with the marinade and turning the skewers every minute so the chicken doesn’t burn, until lightly browned. The chicken will take about 6 to 8 minutes to grill or about 5 minutes to broil.

BASIC RICE

1 cup short-grain rice

1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons water

Gently rinse the rice under cold running water 2 or 3 times. Combine the rice and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the water has been absorbed, 20 minutes.

ASSEMBLY

Basic Rice

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

Chicken

Lime wedges, for garnish

1 green onion, chopped, for garnish

To arrange a bento box, place 1 1/2 cups of rice in each box. You may use sushi molds and mold the rice into finger foods. Sprinkle the rice with the sesame seeds.

Add the chicken to the bento box with the lime wedges and the green onion.

2 to 3 servings. Each of 3 servings: 315 calories; 439 mg sodium; 108 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 0.76 gram fiber.

Glazed Meatball Bento

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

Make the meatballs the night before you plan to fix the bento boxes. Usually most of the meatballs will disappear before they reach the bento box, so you might want to double the recipe and serve them as appetizers before dinner. For side dishes, arrange steamed green beans or snow peas alongside. Put a slice of apple or strawberries next to the green vegetables. Sake is available at Asian markets and well-stocked liquor stores.

MEATBALLS

1/2 pound ground pork or beef

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sake

1 teaspoon grated ginger root

1 green onion, chopped, optional

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch

Oil, for deep-frying, about 2 cups

Combine the ground meat, soy sauce, sake, ginger, onion, salt and starch and mix well. Form into 16 (1-inch) balls.

Heat the oil in a wok or deep saucepan to 350 degrees. Fry the meatballs until well browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or Chinese deep-fry ladle. Drain on paper towels.

SWEET AND SOUR GLAZE

3/4 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch

Combine the broth, sugar, soy sauce, salt and rice vinegar in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat. Dissolve the starch in 1 teaspoon of water and add to the broth mixture. Continue cooking until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken, about 1 minute.

ASSEMBLY

Meatballs

Sweet and Sour Glaze

Basic Rice

Dip the meatballs in the Sweet and Sour Glaze. Place the meatballs on skewers if you wish.

Place some rice in each bento box. Arrange the meatballs next to the rice.

4 servings. Each serving: 184 calories; 565 mg sodium; 33 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.


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