Friday, 11 January 2008

Choosing a container for bento

Bento boxes

It is the start of the new year and 'eating more healthily' and 'lose weight' are on the top of the list of many new year resolutions. I have detailed my own reasons for making bento in an earlier post. Over at the Bento Lunch community, we have been seeing a surge of new members and new posts as more people are getting into the spirit of packing bento for the new year. Over the next week, I will be posting some tips and pictures relating to bento supplies, accesories, food and packing so that those of you who are considering making bento for yourself can get off to a good start.

There is a common misconception that 'bento' refers to Japanese packed lunches in Japense boxes, with super-cute arrangements and presentation, and only contains Japanese or Asian ingredients. It does not help one when gapes in awe at creations like these and these and think - oh my god, I don't have the time/ability/imagination/ingredients/money/skill to do that!

A 'bento' is essentially just a packed lunch. Although the term and concept originates from Japan, a bento can contain any kind of food. As long as it is a meal in a container that you eat on the go, it works. It doesn't have to be cute, it doesn't have to be expensive. It does have to be healthy, balanced and, most of all practical, for your individual dietary and lifestyle needs.

So what sort of container should you use for packing bento? The above picture shows the containers that I use for packing bento. They vary from regular tupperware and Lock n Lock containers to more traditional lacquer-effect boxes shipped from Japan. In my next post, I will write more about the pros and cons of each types of container. They not only vary in terms of cost and functionality, but most significantly in terms of size.

So what size should your container be?

Although many people started to pack bento lunches in the interest of losing weight, almost everybody is shocked at the size of Japanese bento boxes when they arrive in the post (if ordered online) or when they are seen in a shop (if you are lucky enough to find one where you live). The key to packing bento lunches the Japanese way is to pack the food densely with minimal empty spaces. This makes the most out of all available space in a container (even one which looks small) and prevents food from shifting about and mixing. I, too, was dismayed and suspicious when I received my first Japanese bento box, thinking that it must be for a child rather than a grown woman. But after some practice with packing food tightly and filling up all the spaces in my containers, I have been thoroughly convinced. If you fill up a bento box to its capacity, and then tip all that food out onto a plate and arrange it like you normally would for a sit-down meal, you will really see how much food a bento container could hold.

Japanese bento boxes are calculated according to its capacity in milimeters (ml). You can find it on the bottom of the box or its plastic wrapping. If this is not stated, just fill the container with water and empty the water into a measuring jug. This Japanese website provides guidelines for what bento box capacity is suitable for women (pink table) or men (blue table). The columns denote age, height, calories per meal and bento capacity. This is only a guide, of course, and should be adjusted up or down depending on whether you lead an active or sedentary lifestyle, and whether you are tall or short for your age. So as a women in my 20s, I should be fine with a 600ml capacity container. But since I am taller than that stated in the table, I could do with a slightly bigger container, e.g. 700ml. Also bear in mind that these capacity guidelines are for dense food such as rice, noodles, lean protein and vegetables found in most Japanese or Asian diet. Bulky items like sandwiches or salads will take up more space and require bigger containers. So you might need at least two different containers, a smaller one for more dense items so that your food does not slosh or tumble around in it, and a larger one for sandwiches and salads.

The above webpage also recommends an ideal Japense bento proportion of 3:1:2. That refers to 3 parts rice (or similar carbohydrates such as noodles, cous cous, potatoes or pasta), 1 part protein (e.g. chicken, beef, eggs, fish), and 2 part vegetables. Sweets and diary are occasional items, although cheese does feature in many people's bento especially in the non-Asian context. Beware of cute and colourful ingredients that you often see in Japanese supermarkets and bento boxes, such as tempura, croquettes (korokke), shumai, tonkatsu (fried breaded pork cutlet) and store-bought gyoza/potstickers (often loaded with salt and MSG). They are great as an occasional treat but won't help if you are trying to lose weight! The key is to use fresh ingredients as far as possible.

I leave you with a couple of my lunches from yesterday and today:

Bottom tier: sushi rice. Top tier: Two seafood gyoza, garlic and ginger prawns and spinach with crispy fried anchovies.

Pasta with meatballs in tomato sauce, blueberries, rocket salad, mango cheddar and container of oil and vinegar dressing.


Mel said...

Your food photos make me hungry :) Do you ever make lard nar? I order it in a Thai restaurant near me and would like to try to make it sometime ...I enjoyed your blog....


Nilmandra said...

Hi mel, I have never tried Lard Nar myself and had to do a quick google search to see what it is! Sounds interesting. I do like Thai food. I will order it if I see it in a restaurant to see how to taste and then try to make it myself. That's how my cooking experiments usually start! Thanks for the recommendation.

Kevin said...

The seafood bento looks like a really tasty lunch.

Lunch Buckets said...

I really like the way food looks in a black container, but I haven't been able to find a black box. It looks like maybe the shrimp bento is the red box with the bunnies and has a black interior?

Mahek said...

its so great to see your blog
I am from India and i love bentos, i was introduced to them when i read about them on the net. You have such a good site that i am going to read it regularly...
I was so inspired by the bento boxes that i got two from my sis in law who stays in Japan, as i have to pack for my sons school.
Your photographs are the highlight the make you stop and read the whole matter.
Thanks for coming up with such a great blog

Nilmandra said...

Thanks, Kevin, it was yummy indeed. I could eat prawns everyday if it wasn't so expensive and bad for cholesterol, heh.

Lunch Buckets: Yes, it's the red bunny one. There are plenty of black bento boxes available on eBay, mostly shipped from Japan. Unless you have a Daiso store near you? If you send me an email (in my profile page), I can recommend a few eBay sellers that I have had good experience with.

Mahek: What luck to have someone in Japan who can help you shop! Your son is very blessed to get bento for school from his mother. Thanks for your compliment. I do like photography and am still learning to improve. I wish I have a good digital SLR camera but have to be happy with a compact one for now. like to ca

Leigh said...

looks great - you've been tagged! See The Good Stuff for further info!

Nilmandra said...

Leigh: Just checked out the tagging thing on your blog. Sounds like a good way to know more about your fellow bloggers and search out other interesting blogs. I'm in!

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