| Lunch |

Food, Art and Love: Notes from the 2nd Annual Bento Competition

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The Consulate-General of Japan at Houston and the Japan-America Society of Houston hosted its second annual bento competition this past Saturday, along with sponsors H-E-B's Sushiya, Satake USA Incorporated and Glen Gondo of the Greater Houston Partnership.

It was held in the Community Room at the H-E-B at Bunker Hill and I-10. Five finalists from an initial call for entries were selected to prove who could make the most attractive, fun and nutritional bento. The competitors had no idea what ingredients they would have to choose from until they arrived at the site.

Bentos (known as obentos in Japan) are portable boxed meals, but they are far different from the "box lunch" you might have had at a corporate meeting. The artistic aspect of the contents, as well as the container, is considered to be important. The time and care put into making a bento represents a show of love and caring to the recipient. Moms make them for their children and wives for their husbands. Of course, sometimes people make bentos just to have a nice, healthy lunch. Bentos are also helpful for people watching their weight, as they assist with portion control.

In order to compete in the finals, each contestant first had to win a category in the semifinals by sending in photos of the bentos they completed at home. The finalists in each category were:

• Colleen Feasel -- Most Traditional • Sara Stewart -- Most Delicious • Kenichi Kawazoe -- Most Healthy • Sarah Nguyen (with teammate Tea Lim Roh) -- Most Creative • Sayaka Stephens -- "Bento of the Month"

Some of the competitors let video games be their inspiration. We spied more than one Pac Man-influenced bento. The winning bento, created by Colleen Feasel, was a bit reminiscent of the old Rayman Raving Rabbids game with its bunnies cut from melon. The winning bento also sported big, googly eyes made of halved, hard-boiled eggs and a bright red mouth of halved grape tomatoes.

One of the best parts of the afternoon was the bento seminar given by Noriko Komatsu. Komatsu cooked in Europe for three years and emigrated to the States where she was exposed to the concept of vegetarianism. She was able to draw connections between that and traditional Japanese cooking, as well as concepts like macrobiotics.

Komatsu demonstrated several techniques to make bento dishes fun and attractive. Cutting into the brown top of a cremini mushroom and letting the white flesh show through allows you to make small designs. A baby "snake" made from the curl of an orange peel paid homage to this year on the Chinese calendar ("Year of the Snake").

Our instructor also discussed how to hollow out cucumbers and peppers and create small, edible containers. The hollows can be filled with rice, potato salad and many other ingredients. Sliced hot dogs or sausage slices can become crabs, octopi or flowers. (When fried, the pre-cut "arms" or "petals" spread apart and curl in a convincing way.)

There are tons of decorative cutters on the market used to punch whimsical shapes from firm slices of fruits, vegetables, slices of cheese, sausage or even meatloaf. There are also special nori punches, or you can just cut shapes out of them as our instructor did.

Komatsu "sliced" a hard-boiled egg into two nest-shaped halves with a toothpick and an attached thread. She pushed the threaded end of the toothpick to the center of the egg and wove the string up down and around in "V" shapes to split the egg. The whole process took perhaps 10 seconds.

The afternoon concluded with attendees making their own rice balls (onigiri) with the help of a little plastic wrap, pickled fruits and vegetables (such as umeboshi, or pickled plum) and furikake (Japanese rice seasoning that may include ingredients such as nori, sesame seeds, bonito and/or salt).

Ready to bento? Here's some advice on getting started. Speaking from my own shopping experiences, it is important to consider the age and appetite of the recipient. There are some really cute bentos out there, but some of them are child-sized. On the other hand, you might be surprised at how much food fits into a "medium" bento.

Some close tightly on their own, but many of the ones with stackable layers need some type of tie to keep them together. Furoshiki, or wrapping cloths, do double-duty in this regard. You can tie them around the bento, and when you're ready to eat, they double as table mats.

After last year's competition, I was inspired to purchase a few bentos and a book I really like called The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh. It's perfectly geared for beginners with few, if any, hard-to-find or intimidating ingredients. The web site is chock-full of information as well.

Happy bento-ing!

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