Bento Bliss: Competitors Study the Art of Lunch

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The Epicurean Cooking School in Rice Epicurean on Fountainview was at its maximum capacity of 40 on Saturday, February 25. The big draw: the Bento Contest, which was organized by the Consulate-General of Japan at Houston. It was sponsored by The Epicurean Cooking School and Satake USA, Inc., which makes, among other things, high-tech rice-milling machines.

A bento is simply a meal artistically arranged in a box. The box can be something as simple as a plastic food container with a lid. Bentos can be multi-level, with trays inside the outer container. They can even be tall cylinders. A traditional meal includes rice, cooked meat and vegetables, and it may even have a dessert and condiments such as soy sauce or pickles.

Why a bento-making contest? Vice Consul of Cultural Affairs, Ayako Koide explained, "The Consulate is always looking for new ways to share Japan with the community. As bento are both fun and delicious, we felt that Houstonians, known for their appreciation of diverse cuisine and fine arts, would enjoy learning more about this part of Japanese culture." The Vice Consul also hinted that this may become an annual event.

More than 25 people entered, submitting photos of bentos they made at home, as well as a picture of themselves holding their creation. The grand prize they were competing for was a bento box from Japan. Five were selected as finalists to come compete at the cooking school in person.

The five finalists included high school students, college students, and even a professional chef. The chef's entry was the one hand-picked by the Deputy Consulate himself. The finalists won these preliminary categories:

• Masao Oida: Most Delicious • Devon Francis: Most Creative • Yunn-Hwa Tyan: Most Healthy • Kenny Porter: Most Traditional • Derek Yeung: Most Comical • Chef Brent Scharbor: Deputy Consul-General's choice

The final challenge was to create bentos in about 10 minutes from an assortment of meats, vegetables and rice that were placed on the worktables in advance.

Chef Brent worked in Japan for two years, so while it seemed like he was going to be a shoo-in as the overall winner, there was an upset. Chef Brent's bento was lovely, but Derek Yeung proved that in bento-making, beauty can't overcome rampant cuteness, as shown by his winning entry with the sliced ends of a hard boiled egg turned into adorable... ghosts? Whatever they were, they were irresistible, so Derek won as the overall champion.

Following the assembly of the bentos was a presentation (in Japanese, with a translator) by Masae Inagaki to give the attendees helpful tips on how to make bentos. Bentos are as much an artistic endeavor as a culinary one, as shown by her guidelines:

1. Bentos must be safe. In other words, all hot foods should be cooled to room temperature before assembly. In addition, this prevents condensation in the closed box, which can make crisp foods soggy. 2. Use a rainbow of colors. Bentos that are just brown and green are dull, so use fruits and vegetables in yellows, reds, greens and oranges to make the box visually pleasing 3. Separate foods that are of similar hues. "Imagine you are looking at the boxes in only black and white," she said. The issue is that of contrast, and putting bright foods near dark ones makes the box more appealing.

Inagaki went on to show diagrams of various placement techniques for where to put the main ingredient and side dishes in a bento. Later, she demonstrated some of the clever tricks that make bentos irresistible, like how to make heart-shaped, hard-boiled eggs and oblong sausage slices strategically cut to look like crabs.

Bentos may sound like they're all fun, but there are some very serious reasons behind them. According to a survey cited by Inagaki, the number one reason people make bentos is because they are economical. I didn't quite understand reason number four, "communication," until I read further on the concept.

The kids section of the web site web-japan.org explained it well: "When a person eats a box lunch prepared by a loved one, the preparer's feelings are transmitted through the food. In other words, the bento serves as a vehicle for communication between the maker and the eater. A bento prepared at home is imbued with the love of the eater's family."

Other web sites describe the aisai bento, or "loving wife lunch." The site peterpayne.net says "If a married man is eating bento and a Japanese person passes by, there's a 74% chance they'll smirk and make a snarky comment about how jealous they are that you're eating aisai bento and they're not."

So, bentos are not nearly as simple as they sound. Testimonials abound on how bentos have helped people with weight loss due to the inherent portion control, or with managing diabetes due to the forethought needed in planning food intake for the day.

It was an educational afternoon, and it wrapped up with the attendees getting to make their own onigiri (or rice balls) and munching on the leftover food not used in the competition.

I'm sold on the concept of bentos. All I need to figure out now is, do I choose the pig or the samurai warrior bento?

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