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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
What in the world would motivate a busy mom to get up extra early every morning to make teddy bears, cartoon characters and anime figures out of rice, carve vegetables and fruit into fanciful shapes and dress up last night's leftovers in unbearably precious little segmented boxes?
For O'ahu's Crystal "Pikko" Watanabe — bento Web master (www.adventuresinbentomaking.com) and co-author of "Yum Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches," due out in spring — the purpose was weight loss. A Japanese bento box is to an American lunch box as a New York apartment is to a French chateau — a practical lesson in portion control.
For Susan Yuen, a chef, bento blogger (www.susanyuen.wordpress.com) and author of "The Hawai'i Bento Box Cookbook," the motivation came from her children, Paige, 8, and Sean, 3. Her daughter wanted "cute and fun" themed lunches — cars, animals, Sanrio and Disney characters — like the ones a classmate's mother made. Yuen soon realized that making bento allowed her to steer her daughter in the direction of healthier eating,
For both women, bento-making developed into a creative outlet, a sort of meditation in motion each early morning.
In Japan, kyaraben (decorated bento) has a dark side: Moms actively vie to out-kawaii (cute) each other and there are even national bento-making competitions. Sales of bento-phernalia are big business (plug "bento boxes" into Google and you get 800,000 hits).
And then there is, as any bento maven will tell you, a sort of insanity that develops.
In the case of Watanabe, who lives in Waipi'o with husband Randall, daughter Kami, 5, and son Brandon, 4, the insanity takes the form of bento boxes.
She has about 200 of them. Plus nori punches, musubi presses, animal molds, a state-of-the-art rice cooker that looks as though it could launch into outer space, a Japanese flat omelet pan, straps to hold bento boxes closed, vegetable cutters, doll-size plastic sauce bottles, various forms of food coloring, mini muffin tins for quiche and meatloaf, and a plethora of ingredients from hana-ebi to ume-flavored powdered sushi vinegar. She even recycles Yogurtland plastic spoons and uses oversized bubble tea straws as mini cutters.
Watanabe stands in the midst of her galley-size kitchen, every inch of counter space covered with the tools of her unpaid trade, and laughs at herself. "I can be a shining example of how to be obsessed. This is what you should NOT do."
Her smile is even more broad as she explains that, unlike most, she doesn't make bento for her children. Her son's preschool program includes meals, so he doesn't need them. And her daughter won't let her.
Early on, Watanabe made an over-the-top frilly pink Girls' Day bento for her daughter to take to school. The other kids laughed. Kami drew the line. "Just plain sandwiches, Mom," she demanded. When Watanabe packed a lunch for a recent field trip, Kami had to inspect it — "to make sure there were no teddy bears hiding in there."
Ironically, Watanabe's first bento box was a pink Hello Kitty container given to Kami by her teacher. Now Watanabe — whose alter ego, acquired in the computer game world, is Pikko — has everything from formal black lacquer boxes to molded plastic containers in big-eared animal shapes. Her co-workers at the University of Hawai'i clamor to see what she's brought when she sits down to lunch.
Yuen says bento-making is love's labor not lost. "(Decorated bento) encourages them to eat and sometimes can make a boring sandwich or leftovers fun. It's also a different way of sending love along with your child's lunch, like a love note," she said.
The former sous chef at Kincaid's and Palomino Euro Bistro, and a stay-at-home mom since 2002, Yuen fondly recalls her own mother's bento, carried along on picnics, field trips and summer beach excursions. "She never made anything fancy but the food — musubi with ume, Spam musubi, tama-goyaki, noodles, chicken karaage — was always delicious and neatly prepared with care."
Yuen started her blog in 2008 after her book was published, as a way of making herself available to answer questions her readers might have. Her second book on Island-style bento will appear in the spring.
Over the past five or six years, bento-making has exploded across the U.S., with Americans putting their own spin on the tradition, tucking sandwiches and meatloaf and beef stew into Japan-made containers. "I am amazed at how large the online bento community is and how popular bento-making has become" — even in communities where Japanese food is little understood and largely unavailable.
Watanabe gets 200 to 250 hits a day and feels as though she needs to post daily — which means rising at 5:30 a.m. to make something, photograph it and get it online before she heads off to work. She has made green, black and white ones for UH games; red, white and blue ones for the Fourth of July; and a "Lost" musubi for the premiere of the show's final season.
Despite its frivolous nature, Watanabe said, "bento is a really good way to eat healthy because color is really important. You don't get a lot of color from junk foods. You get it from fresh ingredients" — carrots, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, Okinawan sweet potato, takuwan and so on. You can even use brown rice; she recommends genji-mai, which cooks rapidly and is tender.
She also likes to frame her bento by laying a piece of lettuce in the bottom of the box; this she eats with a little dressing after she's consumed the entree, which is usually something left over from last night's dinner.
Both Watanabe and Yuen say that when you're getting started in bento, you shouldn't let yourself go crazy, buying up every possible accoutrement. Start with your own plastic containers and ingredients you have on hand. Learn to make a good rice ball. Learn some cutting techniques. Check out Web sites for ideas (see box with links).
Oh, and one thing to be aware of, said Watanabe, looking about at her trashed kitchen after a photo shoot: "If you don't like to wash dishes, this isn't for you. Making bento makes LOTS of dishes."
TIPS FROM BENTO BLOGGERS
Crystal "Pikko" Watanabe and Susan Yuen offer these tips for bento beginners.
• Beware of overbuying; start with what you have in both ingredients and containers.
• Check out Marukai, Don Quijote and Shirokiya for supplies, but also Pricebusters, Savers, Ross and secondhand stores.
• Avoid eBay, where prices for bento supplies are often inflated.
• To move tiny decorative pieces, wet a good-quality, round toothpick; the water will cause the item to adhere.
• Try to include four or five colors of food in every bento.
• Don't think only of Japanese ingredients; for example, cheese slices are readily cut into shapes.
• To color rice, 2 drops of food coloring to 1 cup rice, added when the water goes into the rice cooker.
• At Marukai, find powdered sushi vinegar; it turns rice pink.
• Line bento with leaf lettuce; it frames the bento and adds a "salad" to the meal.
• Mini muffin tins can be used to shape foods, make meatloaf or quiche.
• Be on the alert for new uses for familiar items: shaped pasta can be cooked and used to resemble flowers; katsuoboshi makes great "fur."
BENTO BLOGS AND WEB SITES
Check out these sites for inspiration and links to the broader bento world:
• www.Adventuresinbentomaking.com: Crystal "Pikko" Watanabe's site
• www.Susanyuen.wordpress.com: Susan Yuen's blog
• www.Justbento.com: Excellent guide to basics, getting started
• www.Lunchinabox.net: Popular U.S. bento site with store locator and detailed, multilingual links guide
• www.Jlist.com: Online store specializing in Japanese products