Not long ago, I was obsessed with the bento.
Like the quiet bachelor in Haruki Murakami’s short story, 'The Year of Spaghetti', I made one dish to live, and lived to make one dish. But rather than plates of steamy, garlicky spaghetti that filled the protagonist’s solitary evenings, the bentos were what spoke to me.
Bentos with red dahl.
Bentos with stewed eggplant and zucchini.
At the start of last year, I’d bought a clear, no-nonsense lunch box from my favourite Japanese homewares store. It was collateral for a new era of frugality. One where my freelance wage would stretch beyond the bounds of imagination – exactly how, I didn’t know. But it would start at the new office; where for once, I was determined not to get involved in another sordid bain-marie relationship with the work canteen.
In Japan, almost five billion bento lunches are made at home every year. I picture the vast, sea-hugging prefecture of Niigata, home to the country’s most avid lunch makers, where nearly one in three has a delicately packed meal greeting them every noon. I think of the bento cooks – mothers and wives, likely – who wake up to peel eggs and sculpt cocktail frankfurts in the soft, candied light of dawn. Limits of rice, tofu and fishcake strips that bridge “the exquisite and the practical".
These are devoted love notes.
But sometimes a brasher, more complicated language slips through. I learn about Shikaeshi Bento (仕返し弁当), a mid-fight ‘revenge lunch’ packed by angry partners who air their frustrations with edible black hearts, nori-laced insults or rows of ruby umeboshi – sour enough to bring grown men to tears.
Whatever bento genre, however, it seems a shame that they are made mostly for others, even though no modern meal was more clearly designed for one.
My bentos, I decided, would be different. That I lived completely on my own and had no one to air my subtle food feelings to was unimportant. The main thing was that like Murakami’s spaghetti-making hero, I would turn my lunch-packing into a quaint, but dignified hobby like archery or tennis.
In Japan, almost five billion bento lunches are made at home every year.
In the early days, when people asked about my new office life, I would occasionally forget that it was the focus. In my private world, big shifts were happening in the kitchen. Suddenly, I became an owner of grown-up seasonings — spicy shichimi togarashi, nori flakes, furikake. And I had jars of pickles and kimchi as far as the eye could see. Packets of rice and noodles piled up. My fridge was plump with eggs, tofu and hardy vegetables. A miracle – considering I had little storage and rarely thought beyond the day’s meal.
My clear, no-nonsense lunch box had turned me into a planner.
In the evenings, I cooked for two. I cracked an extra egg into an omelette. I wondered what tomorrow-me might like – a hearty stew? Or something sesame-strewn and cheerier? I swapped the acrid, teary taste of umeboshi with a single cherry tomato. The ripe fruit bursts in the microwave, sweetening the rice around it the next day.
Turns out my bentos weren’t so much love notes, but Post-it notes of good intentions.
Philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm calls this kind of gentle, quotidian care “productive orientation”, where love isn’t idealised as “a passive abstraction but an active responsibility”. In other words, no manic grand gestures – only the quiet resistance of showing up.
I think back to my third year of living on my own – when I was learning to relish the fragile happiness of the single life, where melancholy and joy often “dance a close quickstep” in your blood.
That year, I had a breadwinner to cook for. Lunches packed for the person who might wake up sad, happy, often slightly difficult – but at the moment of opening that beautifully made box of food in the office, who understands that she is nonetheless, loved.
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Character bento is where the children's lunch box meets art. Using simple techniques and a bit of personal creativity, every lunch box can be a blank canvas.