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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004
'O-bento' -- the food chain in a box
By AMY CHAVEZ
You know you've turned Japanese when you can eat everything in your "o-bento." Especially if it's a funeral o-bento, built to last for three days, like the one I received recently at a "hojii" ceremony, which are like followup funerals. Today, I invite you to a grazing session through my o-bento.
First, we open the o-bento box, which looks much like a square briefcase. Personally, I wish o-bentos really were served in briefcases so you could leave the lid up for privacy while hovering with chopsticks in hand, picking through your food while wondering, "What the hell is this?"
The o-bento is divided into sections, like a high school cafeteria tray. To the foreigner, at first glance, the o-bento looks like it tipped over in the briefcase and scattered the ingredients. You'll find small portions, such as five white beans, sitting in a piece of foil. "Where are the other beans?" you ask. The answer is "nowhere." All five of them are there. The o-bento is an attempt to fit the entire food chain in one box.
First, you should eat the "tsukemono," which in this o-bento is small pieces of taxicab-yellow pickled thingies. This stuff will take your taste buds for a ride.
Next, I usually go to the section of the o-bento I call the fish pond. Here, you'll find fresh raw fish sitting on top of a mound of shredded radish. Next to the fish is the pond, an indentation in the tray that you fill with soy sauce and a dab of wasabi. This soy sauce pond is the last dip the fish will take before entering your mouth.
Next, let's head over to the other side of the o-bento to the vegetable garden samples. Here you'll find one mushroom, one half-boiled tuft of broccoli and a small slice of lotus root full of holes. They're not keen on substance here. Remember, it's the thought that counts.
Next is the household section. This is where you can eat things like sponges and dish towels flavored in sweet "mirin." And you didn't even think such items were in the food chain! "Konnyaku" is often thrown into this section too, as no one really knows what "konkaku" is. If you can't eat this food, you can always use the leftovers for household cleaning.
Moving on, we head to the second fish section. This one has a fried shrimp and some baked fish. You'll also find a boiled shrimp, in a full bow, ready for sacrifice. This is where you dive into your o-bento and become one with it. Sever the head, peel the shrimp and dismember it completely. This is no partial sacrifice. Don't worry about covering up the spare body parts -- just leave the cannibalized portions on the tray and move on to the miscellany section, which is food that is unexplainable but still eaten. Things in peanut sauce, things tied in bundles, or just plain alien food can be found grouped together here in hopes of being eaten. If you're Japanese, you'll eat it without asking, or caring, what it is.
You'll be very happy by the time you get to the fruit section -- wow, something familiar! This section offers a brief mouthful of fruit, such as one slice of apple with the peel cut like a flower petal, or an orange slice.
Last is the semi-Western food section, where meat makes a cameo appearance in the form of one shy meatball in the corner atop of a few strands of spaghetti, a stray mini-sausage link, a thin slice of ham and one fried chicken nugget. They've covered the farm animal requirement. You'll find some plastic grass strewn about the o-bento to give it that pasture feel.
Congratulations -- you're finished grazing!
E-mail: email@example.com Web site: www.amychavez.com