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Thursday, March 25, 2004

BILINGUAL

The bento -- a scrumptious expression of love


As the season of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) comes upon us, it's timely to reflect on the single most important aspect of hanami -- the o-bento (boxed meal). I say this because I grew up in a family in which the creation of the hanami bento was so elaborately planned, heatedly discussed and lovingly executed that, to this day, I can't conjure the image of cherry blossoms without madly anticipating what the accompanying hanami bento will look like.

Oh, the excitement of opening the first lid of the jyubako (stacked, lacquered boxes) and getting that full-frontal view of things like onishime (boiled spring vegetables), kara-age (Japanese-style fried chicken) and sweet tam agoyaki (fried egg squares) artfully arranged and nestled together just so, like flowers in a perfect squared garden! Other than when lowering oneself into a hot onsen, this is definitely a time when one murmurs: "Aaah, Nihonjin de yokatta! (I'm so glad I was born a Japanese!)"

If you're fortunate, the quietly frenzied joy of opening a bento lid is an almost daily occurrence. If you happen to be under 18 and are going to a school that requires its students to bring a bento, and if your mum consents to getting up an hour earlier than anyone else in the family in order to make and assemble it, then the bento life is yours to savor and enjoy. Ditto for men who prefer homemade lunches, and are married to gracious and industrious wives. The rest of us, of course, make do with the infamous konbini-bento (convenience-store obento) with its transparent plastic lid (which kills the whole joy and mystery) and factory-made munchies. Still, all is not lost. A growing number of single working women are now carrying what is popularly called the my-o bento (personal boxed lunch) -- a personal meal they make just for themselves and consume with avid pleasure.

The fact is, the obento is an art form that seldom gets the appreciation it deserves. The artist is most often the Japanese housewife. How does she do it, day after day, year after year, making and arranging delicacies with the flourish of a painter at his canvas? Starting with the hanami bento in April, and going on to undokai bento (sports-day boxed lunch) in May, the summertime bento for summer school and then shifting to the aki no kouraku bento (autumn-excursion boxed lunch) in October, there's never any time in the Japanese calendar when a major obento is not in the works.

And let's not forget the pressure put upon her to produce something better-tasting, more colorful, numerous in vitamins, etc. etc., than the family next door. Speaking from a child's point of view, there are few things in life more humiliating than showing up for a school event with a less-than-illustrious lunch, and having to sit next to someone whose mum got up at 5 in the morning to make some ebi-furai (deep-fried breaded prawns), now resting obsequiously on a bed of lettuce next to the rice. That's when you are forced to pull the old futa-sakusen (lid strategy), which consists of covering the bento box with your hand and lid so that only a fraction of space is visible, and then blindly poking your chopsticks into this opening to pull out the morsels.

A run of bad bento days forces a mother-child confrontation. The standard child complaint will be that so-and-so's bento was so much more sexier than theirs, such as the coveted omuletsu (omelet) adorned with the kid's name, written out in ketchup. Why is it that my bento is always so boring and . . . brown? The mother will then retaliate by pointing out that though she was obligated to make the bento, she will be damned if she has to wash out the box as well: having to wash the soiled box drains her of the creative energies needed to make a good bento. Indeed, the unwritten Japanese societal rule is that whoever eats the bento must wash out the box afterward.

In our household, if the box was left lying around the kitchen sink, or worse, still wrapped in a Snoopy hankie and festering in the bottom left-hand corner of your book bag, then that was it: no bento for the offender the following day.

That said, the bento remains one of the things Japanese love best about their country. And often, it constitutes one of the strongest links between families and lovers. A woman I know makes obento every weekend to bring to her boyfriend, no matter how tired or pressed for time. "Obento sae tsukureba kimochi wa tsutawaru (As long as I make the obento, he will understand how I feel about him)." Lucky guy.



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