Saturday, February 23, 2008

So what is a bento anyway?

The question has been posed: "So what the he** is a bento anyway?" While I am at it I might as well answer the next question, "Ok, so what the he** is a tiffin and how is it different from a bento?" (Additional commentary from this friend included that I have way too much time on my hands and that I am completely mental. In all fairness both are completely true statements.)

So what is a bento really? It's essentially a Japanese style lunchbox that predates drive throughs and lunchables by at least 800 years. In true Japanese fashion, a culture that thrives on order, neatness, rigor, and rules, bento traditions have evolved from simply prepared, but compact and portable meals to go to the more elaborate and ornately decorated meals that are de riguer at the moment. You can read more about bento history in the Wikipedia entry here. The premise of the bento is that it is a single serving meal that is well balanced and appetizing to be consumed outside the home. It's the original takeout container. The Japanese were way ahead of their time even then.

Specifically, there is a strong cultural tradition of bento preparation, known as obento in Japan that is directly proportional to a mother and a wife's self worth. Mothers apparently get very competitive in preparing cute and appetizing bentos for their tots. Bentos for school age children must follow strict dietary guidelines for the proper proportions of grains, proteins, vegetables, etc. Furthermore, mothers are encouraged to prepare and decorate the contents in fanciful ways so they appeal to pipsqueaks who must eat them. This link to a PBS article has some very cute bentos.

For adults there are also dietary guidelines for proper bento preparation. They, too, should follow specific dietary guidelines, presumably following the Japanese government issued food guide, the spinning top, which looks like an inverted version of the American food pyramid. For adults, the premise is that if the bento is properly prepared, then the caloric content should be the same as the size of its container, which is calculated in mL. So for an adult who is using an 800mL bento container, the meal, if prepared according to the proper proportions, should be roughly 800 calories. This blog has some terrific information and guidelines about size, proportions of bentos. The benefit of bento is not only portion control, but nutritional balance as well, which is something everyone could use more of.

Bento containers, called bento boxes, like the tradition of obento, have also changed dramatically over time. Once simple bamboo containers that were small and portable, modern bento boxes are made of plastic or aluminum. Elaborate and decorative bentos are often made of highly polished lacquered wood. They are typically two or three tiers of containers, one of which might be sectioned, to hold the food inside. They most often stack or snap together for easy transport.

A tiffin is an Indian (subcontinent) version of a lunch box to go. Like a bento, it is a means of transporting a single serving meal for consumption outside the home. Also, similar to a bento, traditionally Indian mothers, or more likely, servants, prepare tiffins for the children and parents who work outside of the home. A less compulsive version of the lunch to go, tiffins normally contain a bread, rice, dal, and perhaps a potato or egg side dish. There are no governmentally issued dietary guidelines, but any kid's tiffin is probably exactly like two dozen or so of his classmates on any given day. Indian children often complain about the lack of creativity in their tiffins.

Tiffins prepared for adults usually contain the same or similar items to children's tiffins. However, in certain parts of India, most notably Mumbai, there has been a longstanding traditional system of tiffin delivery and pickup by designated couriers called dabbawallas or tiffinwallas. Their processes are low-tech and old school, but masterfully efficient, so much so that books have been written about the process and tradition. The fact that these delivery systems still thrive in today's modern Indian society is a remarkable juxtaposition and reflection of what India has become: a contrast of old and new.

A typical old school tiffin consists of small aluminum or metal containers with lids that stack and snap together with a carrying strap or latch mechanism. Modern tiffins can be found made of melamine or plastic, but the style is reminiscent of the traditional round metal ones that many Indians remember from their own childhoods. There are very decorative tiffin boxes out there, some with stamped designs or carved textures on the outside, others with utensils that attach to the outside.

The main difference that I see between bentos and tiffins are the rules and order, which one can attribute entirely to cultural traditions. Japanese are culturally very ordered and regimented which is a hallmark throughout their history, so it is only fitting that these sensibilities are applied to food preparation. Indians tiffins, on the other hand, are all about simple comfort foods that remind us of home, which is the same for everyone, regardless of caste, education, work position, or social status. Tiffin food by definition should not be elaborate or fancy. However, in theory, the same meal that would feed villagers or peasants is welcomed in the executive offices of titans of industry.

Whether you are packing a bento, a tiffin, or just a good old American lunch, doing it yourself is going to be more economical and nutritious in the long run and way better than the drive through.

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