A very ‘Japan-easy’ mix of sculptural veggies and decorative garnishing cocooned in exquisite lacquered wooden boxes, or plastic stamped with ‘Hello Kitty’, define the millennial aesthetic of bento. Bento is, quite simply, a well-balanced and appetising meal, creatively arranged in a lunch box. But it wasn’t always this pop culturedriven. Before the modern bento – or o-bento – large leaves, leather pouches, linen sacks, woven straw envelopes, wicker baskets and round wooden buckets were all used as crude portable lunch containers. It was in the 12th century that the bento box took root in Japanese culture and overshadowed other, more primitive containers. For the wealthy, bento boxes were detailed with mother-of-pearl accents and decorated with intricate designs depicting tranquil landscapes. You also got ‘theatre bento’ and even ‘blossom-viewing bento’ – diversions for which the portable bento was suited. Typical ingredients were rice, pickles, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, chestnuts and seafood. Koshibento (a bento that hung from the waist) was ideal for travellers and comprised the most famous bento food of all: o-nigiri (round or triangular rice balls). Today, bento lunch boxes can be seen at work, school, pre-packaged at stores, at sitdown restaurants and even in vending machines. But ‘school’ bento is where the art is most meticulously indulged – just search the hashtag #bento or #backtoschoolbento and you’ll see what we mean.
Recipe by Leila Saffarian
Photographs by Curtis Gallon
Tokyo bento box: tempura prawns with sticky rice and vegetables
- 16 tiger prawns, cleaned
- 3 egg whites, beaten
- 240g (2 cups) panko breadcrumbs
- vegetable oil, for frying
- sticky rice (see ‘Cook’s tip 2’ below)
- sesame seeds
- spring onions
- sugar snap peas
- soya sauce
For the prawns, remove the heads and shells, leaving the tail intact.
Dip the prawns in beaten egg white followed by panko breadcrumbs.
Fry the prawns in batches in a deep-fryer or large pot at 180ºC until crispy and cooked through, 4 – 5 minutes. Drain on kitchen paper.
Serve the prawns in a bento box with sticky rice, scattered with sesame seeds, spring onions, sugar snap peas and soya sauce.
If you struggle to find panko breadcrumbs, replace with 2 cups of crushed Rice Crispies. Make sticky rice according to sushi rice packaging instructions and wet your hands with water to roll into balls.