My personal biases about kyaraben (charaben)

In response to the picnic bento I posted yesterday, Zoé asked:

Really cute! Hey, I read on your blog that you aren’t keen in cute cooking…was it a joke ;)

Good question! I thought I’d qualify what I meant when I said that cute kyaraben (charaben) are not really my style.

First of all, I am in awe of those bentoistes who make the time and effort to create such amazing visual masterpieces. I’ve featured many of them here in past posts, to pay homage to them.

What I do have a bit of problem with is the tendency of quite a few Japanese kyaraben makers to go a bit overboard with the visuals. In many cases, it seems that taste and nutritional balance take a backseat to the way things look. If the bento were just made for exhibition purposes that wouldn’t be an issue, but if they are real bento that are meant to be eaten, usually by kindergarten age kids, that doesn’t quite seem right.

A lot of kyaraben rely too much on the infamous wiener sausage. Wieners and franks, especially if they have certain chemicals and dyes in them, have that wonderful pink color, which can perk up a bento quite easily. Using them sparingly isn’t a big issue - I use them sometimes myself (ones without any dyes in them though). Using them all the time, is a bit of a problem. The same goes for other processed meats that are astonishingly pink or red, or using food dyes to color foods, or bright yellow plastic processed cheese. I guess it’s a matter of how often such things are used. I sometimes makes cupcakes with colored icing, but that’s maybe once or twice a year.

For me, food is first and foremost about taste; nutrition comes a close second, and how it looks after that. I know that a lot of readers are very interested in kyaraben information from Japan, and I’ll continue to report on the subject, as well as how-tos and tutorials that I can muster. But, I guess you should know my biases; this is why I like to dig out information like natural ways to add color to bento.

For the bentos I make myself, my aim is for them to be attractive and colorful without over-relying on dyes and unnaturally colorful foods. The bright red of tomatoes, the natural pink of shrimp, the sunny yellow of real egg, the bright green of snap peas - my sometimes inadequate technique aside, I can’t think of anything prettier.

(Check out Zoé’s blog for some examples of healthy but cute kyaraben/charaben.)

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I think you hit it just

I think you hit it just right: real food looks much better, I think, not always in terms of visual appeal but of sensory appeal, if that division makes much sense. As in, the adorable bentos you find on bento livejournal communities are gorgeous…almost so you don’t want to eat them and wonder how exactly they look like that. Yours are well-arranged, neat, and pretty because of the natural things and appeal to the eyes and the other senses as well.

Maybe not entirely sensical, but I do love seeing your bentos!

I agree completely

I love adorably cute bento, and occasionally (when I have time, which is almost never!) indulge in visual art, but nutrition and taste come first for me too. Personally, in addition to the horrible preservatives and dyes in mini-weiners, I think they taste disgusting. I do admit to having edible food markers for decorating boiled eggs, and a ridiculous array of nori-punches and stencils for furikake.

Mixed feelings

As a parent of a toddler, I have mixed feelings about kyaraben. A couple years ago, I slaved away on a cute kyaraben bento for my 3 year old daughter, and she completely ignored it. I was heartbroken! She prefers simplicity. With that said, I, a grown woman, am a total sucker for cuteness. I just purchased that Hello Kitty Bento Decorate Set! In reality, kyaraben is fun to look at, and I have high hopes of making them some day, but my bentos are usually thrown together in 5-10 minutes, before the caffeine in my coffee kicks in. Not much time to use a nori punch!

Food looks great as food

As a person who reads “food porn” cook books and magazines, one of my favorite things to look at is food that looks delicious. Your bentos look tasty, so they’re visually appealing to me; the kawaii bentos look interesting but not necessarily delicious. To each her own, but I’m on the foodie side of things myself!

i agree to a degree

With small children (son 3 and daughter nearly 2) being the main recipitants of my bento’s I quite often looked at some japanese bentos and wanted to do some of the more exciting elements but couldnt bring myself to put hotdogs or processed cheese slices for them but the recipes here (natural food colourings) and elsewhere have allowed me to get close to some of the things in them without having to put ‘undesirable’ foods in. I can make pikachus out of homemade organic omlettes now ;)

too cute

Taste is the priority for me. That said, a beautifully presented meal enhances the experience of eating it. For me, a kyaraben bento while fun to look at, doesn’t inspire any desire to eat it. In fact the opposite occurs. Many times the ingredients don’t harmonize with each other and I loathe plastic cheese. I pack my bento for flavor and nutrition. I try to make it look nice but if I fail at least I know it will be good to eat!

If I had a small child who was interested, perhaps I’d try to make “cute” bentos. I love the daisy sausages and have made them before but no dyes and no preservatives.

Ahh..I wouldn’t have

Ahh..I wouldn’t have thought that my comment would give such an answer. I hope you haven’t misinterpreted my comment.

I completely agree with you (and perhaps you saw it on my blog), as my main goal is healthy homemade but prettily set meals. Sure, some bentos you can see on the web can seem really pretty but when I read that to stick some cheese on some salty sandwiches they use honney…well, it’s no more yummy!

I think that setting in a cute way the food, while taking into account flavour, and healthiness, is a good way to enhance your meal. And for a person like me who enjoys so much cooking, the only way I can spend time in the kitchen without having too much to eat at the end of my play time is to spend time in the presentation. (Knowing that I don’t enjoy throwing out food and that I don’t have any freezer, I have to be carefull not to prepare too much to eat!) Think, I’m cooking for one or two and spend something like three hours in the kitchen at least per day. I’m a bit even more aiming at healthiness and money sparing as I like to prepare most of my food for the start (I do the pasta for the gyoza, I usely eat fresh pasta or homemade tortillas). But, I agree, you can do that only if you don’t have a family to care of.

Just like you said unnatural dies are okay once or twice but no everyday. I just appreciated your tips to colour rice naturally with beetrut, carrot, or other natural recipes with “real” food. Your recipes permit to go towards cute cooking, and have healthiness in mind. And I enjoy following your blog and seeing your bentos. For me your previous bento was so cute (and healthy) which was a nice change! I was teasing you… All the best

Zoé, your question gave me

Zoé, your question gave me a good opportunity to clarify my thinking on the subject of kyaraben, so I really appreciated it!

Maybe the last sentence was

Maybe the last sentence was not properly expressed: I mean that usually your bentos seem really yummy but you don’t play with cutouts and these stuffs. And this last bento was really well presented! I jsut wanted to point that out! Hey, and it was you who convinced me to try out bentos for the portion-control part and your healthy balanced meal post convinced me. And playing with food is the best way I found to eat less, manage to loose weight without frustation, and still spend time cooking!

Okay! Then, I’m really

Okay! Then, I’m really happy you made such a big post of my little remark! Huhuhu!

Guess it depends on who you make it for

I make Bentos for me and my husband (no kids) and do so to make sure we have healthy lunches. So I agree with you that taste and nutrition come first.

I think that when it comes to the elaborate character bentos, it’s not so much about “lunch” and more about “look at this”. Those are beautiful and the kids probably enjoy them, but they don’t look very practical or healthy to me.

Since I make mine for adults (well.. we’re adults in number of years!) I don’t see myself spent 1h punching eyes out of a sheet of nori. I DO put a lot of efforts to make it look attractive, but in a “food” sort of way, not in a Pikachu (however you spell that) or Hello Kitty sort of way.

I think those would be awesome for special occasions though… a birthday for exemple!

I agree whole-heartedly

Although bento boxes do need to be attractive to the eye, it’s primarily about taste, surely! Real cheese tastes so much better than the processed kind and all food if properly proportioned can look cute!

I cut my omelettes etc. into cute shapes to make them fit the kyaraben cute style rather than change the nutritional value of the box!

As a mom........

…….I really appreciate your approach, which is part of why I frequent your board more than some others. I have a younger boy who might find cuteness okay, but my oldest would likely be teased mercilessly if I made cartoon characters and the like out of his food. In addition to the health aspect (which is really why we bento anyway) and the time aspect, going natural ups the chances that my kid will eat his lunch.

aesthetics vs taste

I had a discussion like this just the other day with a bento lover in Seattle. She was more into the aesthetics, I was more into the food. It was a great conversation.

great, indeed…i love food,

great, indeed…i love food, but you must agree that the presentation and amazing compartmentalization aspect of the bento is quite appealing.

very appealing,

but a bento without food is just a place to put your change, or maybe hang on a wall. Alas.

alas, indeed...

so, i’ll be amenable. can we have a bento for our change, a bento on the wall, and a bento with delicious (and aesthetically pleasing) food within?

(to be clear, i love a minimalist but beautiful bento. car shaped sausages or teensy crableg anime heads are not quite my thing…odd, that…)

curse you...

and your amenable reasonableness. You drive a hard bargain, but it’s a deal.

But does this mean I can’t make my elaborate bento Pokemon battle scenes? This is going to be a problem.


if i can have my change, wall, and food bento, i’d have to say a pokemon bento battle scene is compulsary. but you must know that my wasabi and pickled radish superwoman will certainly kick your pokemon’s ass…

My thoughts

I’ve thought about them several times, not any of them I had reached some sort of conclusion, until, by coincidence, a few days before you wrote this entry. Since my english food-related conversation skills are not that good, I’ve been trying to formulate it right, so here it goes.

My idea of a good charaben is a perfectly healthy bento, like the ones you make, that has a 2D image on top of the rice. Why? It doesn’t unballance the food too much, the healthy food is still there and still 100% tasty looking, and the charaben doesn’t ruin the presentation, also adds the cute factor for those who love it. Did that make any sense? Also, my idea of a good bento is one that’s healthy and that looks just as good if it doesn’t have the character, coloured or shaped rice.

I’ve seen lots of good charabens that if didn’t have coloured rice, great looking nori anime characters, would show that they aren’t healthy and most times wouldn’t be very appealing; a whole lot of times I’ve seen characters and cutelly shapped coloured rice covering that up.

And I guess it’s not what anyone wants…

Also, I’ve seen great charaben that were healthy and tasty looking, for the character/cuteness they just had the 2d character on the rice, or flowers spread around etc. This being about simpler bentos, about the cute and healthy rice sculpted bentos…. they’re hard for most people, and generally, have waaay too much fried food, wich can be replaced, so…

Just wanted to say

Very nice!!

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