Bento originates from a culture where ritual and presentation plays an important part of daily life, and where a lot of focus and energy goes into producing, cooking, eating, and talking about food. A bento is a neatly packed portion of food you take with you to work or school, prepared at home or bought ready-made on your way to work. (9)
I can picture my first lunchbox now in all its glory: a canary yellow plastic lunchbox with a Cabbage Patch sticker on it and with a matching thermos inside. As a parent I can see the strategy in giving your child a cool lunchbox — it will make lunch exciting and make the food taste better (fingers crossed). Picky eating has never been a problem for me, so I was always glad to open my lunch and see all the goodies my mom packed. Being a late Gen-Xer I think my lunch looked pretty much like all the other lunches at my school — sandwich (most likely PB &J or some kids had bologna and mayo or plain cheese), carrot or celery sticks, cubes of block cheese (maybe some crackers), yogurt, an apple or banana, and my mom would always add little tins of rice pudding or tapioca. Then when I became a grade school teacher pretty much anything went in terms of lunches. Every shade of homemade or store-bought — I’ve seen it all. As an adult it would give me pain to see lunches go uneaten. Truly a labour of love for some parents because some kids just wouldn’t partake. Now that I’m a parent and my daughter is on the very cusp of schoolhood I’ve made it my goal to pack a lunch that she’ll enjoy.
A few days a week she stays at her preschool group over lunch and I’ve tried the lunch that I ate for many, many years as a kid but for my daughter that lunch is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of prospect. I wanted to get this lunch thing organized before she heads off to school in the fall. And, with the number of allergies in any given classroom anything nut-based is out. In mind my I had come to a conclusion: time to think outside the box (or lunchbox as it were). Maybe it’s time that I look to other’s experiences and expertise when it comes to packing a lunch! This is how I found Sara Kiyo Popowa’s (of the blog Shiso Delicious) Bento Power — a book influenced by Kiyo Popowa’s Japanese roots, dedicated to filling your lunchbox with gorgeous, delicious, and well-balanced meals.
In this time and place where self-care, mindful eating, and minimal/no waste is at the top of many people’s minds I feel that Bento Power checks all these boxes. Throughout the introduction Kiyo Popowa tells her story of growing up in Sweden as a “non-Swedish ” kid (as she had Bulgarian and Japanese heritage). After going to Japan as an exchange student, it was there where she experienced bento through the beautiful and carefully constructed lunches made by her host family mother. Traditional bento consists of a few elements — rice/noodles, fish/meat, and pickled/cooked vegetables. What Kiyo Popowa has done is to take the idea of building a bento box and come up with her own way of creating a bento. What started as an Instagram endeavour has turned into a blog and book. The structure and ritual of a bento is key — but it’s in the ingredients where Kiyo Popowa diverged from convention. Her bentos rely on firmly plant-based ingredients (no meat or fish), and unlike traditional bentos she uses raw vegetables, pulses, and nuts. At the beginning of Bento Power, she takes the time to outline what food/ingredients are used, how the food is packed, what equipment, tools, and accessories are used, and the basics of the ritual that is bento.
One of the initiatives that we promoted at school when I was a teacher was the notion of a “litterless lunch.” Parents and children were encouraged to use more reusable packaging so there was less to throw out. At that time, it was a bit of a hard-sell but as I see now on a daily-basis on Instagram, people are looking for ways to lessen their impact or “footprint” on the environment. Kiyo Popowa goes into length how she is looking at issues of sustainability in her life and how this relates to her lunches. I really appreciate how she motivates people with her ideas of environmental awareness, shopping locally, making what you need, buying in bulk, and plant-based diets. Her discussion is thoughtful and as I read through her book, I began to think about how I could improve.
The recipes are organized into 5 chapters: Base Recipes, Breakfast & Sweet Bento, 15-Minute Bento, Everyday Bento, and Fantasy Bento. Any ingredients she uses which might be new to some she takes the time to explain at the end of the book. I found grocery shopping for the ingredients to be simple. Here in Nova Scotia (which is surrounded by ocean) there is a huge selection of nori, dulse, and the like. Having these ingredients in my pantry already I am glad to find other ways to incorporate them into our meals. And, while Kiyo Popowa gives recipes for all types of different bento combinations there’s no reason why you can’t substitute ingredients should you be unable to find a component. While she adheres to the physical structure of the bento, I feel as though you can customize it any way you’d like.
Back to my quest for building up my arsenal of lunch options for my daughter. First and foremost, I made the cutest, most kid-appealing lunch in the whole book: Fluffy Grain-free Pancakes w/ Overnight Chia Jam. What the recipe title isn’t telling you is that Kiyo Popowa has formed the pancakes into bears while cooking them and then added cute chocolate eyes and a mouth. All things my daughter enjoys eating and packed in a lunchbox making it even better! The pancakes themselves (being grain-free) are made of blended cashews, eggs, baking powder, salt, and water. So, while this recipe isn’t allergy-friendly for school consumption I’ll be using Kiyo Popowa’s idea but making the bear-cakes out of a nut-free recipe.
Another recipe I tried out on my daughter was the “After the Show Bento” consisting of Tofu Sandwich Skewers and Tamago-yaki (rolled omelet). I know that I’ve used some pretty intense skewer sticks in the picture (it was for the ‘gram in this case, but irl I’d use something more school-friendly). My daughter really enjoyed the smoked tofu layered with the cucumber, mint, and mango — what kid doesn’t enjoy finger food. But the real star of this bento is the Tamago-yaki. Made of eggs, water, a bit of sugar, and a splash of tamari, the Tamago-yaki is a rolled omelet that is created as you make very thin crepe-like omelets and roll each layer into the roll until you’ve used up all the egg mixture. Kiyo Popowa has included helpful step-by-step instructions and pictures in the book. Afterwards you tightly roll the entire omelet in parchment paper until it’s cooled. Then you can slice it and pack it in your box. I can’t express how much my daughter loved this! It’ll be something I definitely pack in her lunch.
Even while focusing on my daughter, I’ve found a few recipes to make and enjoy myself. Kiyo Popowa’s Scoop-and-go Overnight Mix is great! While I love overnight oats, I find that at night I’m tired (or lazy) and don’t quite feel like measuring out ingredients. What Kiyo Popowa has done here is to develop a mix of ingredients (oats, almond meal, seeds, cacao nibs…) so that all you must do is take it from the jar and add the liquid. I’ve been making it with homemade oat milk, and it’s been the prefect breakfast for busy mornings. Other breakfast recipes from Bento Power that I’ve been wallowing in are: Sesame Snap Granola and the Breakfast Granola Crumble. Since my daughter is currently in the hate of her love/hate relationship with oatmeal and granola I’ve kept these beauties to myself.
As I’ve learned cooking through Bento Power the act of making a bento is all about love — for yourself and your family. Choosing ingredients, making components, and packing them in special containers is one way to improve your outlook and health, as Kiyo Popowa says that it has done for her and her husband. I really appreciate all the inspiration, delicious food, and information I’ve gained from Bento Power. If you want to see what else I’ve tried then checkout my dedicated Facebook post or my custom Instagram hashtag #shipshapebentopower. As I try more bento, I’ll be adding to these.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Manda Group for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.