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.
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?
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.