Americans tend to be a bit unimaginative when it comes to making food. We like to add more of whatever we already have—like more meat on a meat pizza, or more cheese to just about anything (anyone else eat apple pie with a cheddar cheese slice?). Sometimes this turns out okay, but more often than not, we end up with a Taco Town-like abomination. If we can just add more stuff on top of the other stuff, it’ll be even better.
I’ll always be an ardent supporter of the “more stuff” policy, but I think there’s some room for improvement. Following The Bygone Bureau’s recent observances on modern Japanese culture, I’ve been following a couple Japanese food blogs. Anna the Red’s Bento Factory is the most notable, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple things that Americans can learn about making creative food.
Anna makes bento, traditional Japanese lunches that usually come in lacquered boxes. Most bento are compartmentalized so that each food can be accessed individually. My mom, who is half-Japanese, never made them for me. That’s okay though, I always thought they were a little too cutesy for the rough-and-tumble American elementary schools.
But Anna makes more than bento; she makes a kind of bento called kyaraben, or “character bento.” Her bentos are inspired by video games, anime and other popular culture (the Bureau is fond of her Cylon bento), and she makes them all for her boyfriend. They’re elaborately designed, colorful pieces of art that put my mom’s ham and cheese sandwiches to shame. I’d totally trade my school lunch for half of that bento.
I had a chance to talk with Anna about her bento, and she was kind enough to share some insight into her process, inspiration, and Japanese aesthetics.
Anna says character bento isn’t particularly new, but the craft is getting a lot of attention from the Japanese press, which has spurred more moms and dads to try making it for their kids. They’re often incredibly elaborate, involving hours of work. Anna usually sketches hers out the night before, preparing any needed food along with dinner.
Most of her bentos are made from a combination of items, though Anna says that rice is an important ingredient. It’s not only moldable, allowing for a greater sense of dimension, but also easily colored. “You can dye rice naturally using black sesame seed, curry powder (tumeric), ketchup, seaweed, or other furikake [a dry Japanese condiment], or many other foods,” says Anna. She also includes other items like meat, vegetables, or fish. The Tingle bento from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, one of my favorites, has a bright green color that allows the rest of the bento to stand out.
“Usually the more color the bento has, the healthier the bento is,” says Anna, “The only color I avoid using is blue. Blue is an appetite suppressant, so I don’t make a character if it has blue, or I’d use different color instead of blue. I occasionally dye eggs purple, like in the Tingle bento, but try not to use blue-ish tones too much.”
My favorite bentos from Anna are usually the ones that are bright and dimensional, like her Farm bento. Some just appeal to my submerged otaku nature. As a kid, Anna found that she didn’t necessarily eat food that looked nice, but “wanted to eat food that looked fun to eat.” I wonder if that might be true: might I have liked tomatoes more if they were in the shape of a Samurai Pizza Cat?
Modern Japanese aesthetics seems to have inculcated cuteness into its very culture. Living in Japan, Anna recounts daily encounters with cuteness: “Junk food, sponges, air freshener, health insurance, even medicine for constipation.”
As an American, I’ve never understood it, but I don’t think Japanese people equate the cute and the infantile the way Americans do. That might be why they’re more comfortable eating things with little smiley faces.
Anna isn’t the only one who has a kyaraben bento site. Be sure to also check out the winners from the annual Sanrio Bento Contest, 2007 and 2008. Seriously, those bears in the egg holder: I want to nom them right now. Weird Asia News also has a great article on the phenomenon.