Back from Japan, and some thoughts about bentos
I'm back from Japan after a 3 month stay, minus an unplanned trip to New York for a family emergency in February. The first part of my stay was totally taken up by keeping my just-out-of-hospital mother company, as well as work for my upcoming book, including a marathon photo session and lots of editing and re-writing work. (Incidentally, the book now has an official title: The Just Bento Cookbook. I know, not that imaginative, but straightforward, yes? I'll put up an image of the front cover as soon as it's available!) Then there was that emergency trip to New York. So couldn't get all the things done that I wanted to, but I did get to do quite a lot of research related to bentos. See my Bento supplies shopping guide in Japan for example, which involved dozens of trips to various stores. I did get to do a little sightseeing, mostly in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, but I also spent a week in Kyoto. I'm posting my trip reports over rather slowly over on Just Hungry.
One conviction that I came back with, and a principle that has guided this site since its inception, as well as the content of my bento book, is that for those of us who live outside of Japan, a bento is not about trying to emulate made-in-Japan, Japanese bentos. It's about taking the concept of a healthy, homemade (or at least mostly homemade) meal that is packed into a compact, portable box so that it appears delicious and appetizing several hours later. Of course I do and will continue to post bento-friendly Japanese recipes to this site, as well as general Japanese recipes to Just Hungry - after all I am Japanese, and many Japanese recipes are of course very bento-appropriate, and are easy to make even outside of Japan. But many more foods that are just taken for granted in Japan are either hard, or even impossible, to find outside of it (except in some regions with large Japanese immigrant or expat populations), or are simply too expensive. While it's fun to emulate 'authentic' Japanese flavors once in a while, bentos should, in my opinion, be above all practical and economical.
So, I have a renewed enthusiasm for finding or coming up with recipes that are not necessarily Japanese, but are still great for packing into that little box - as well as adapting the ingredients that we can get easily to Japanese cooking methods and flavors. I hope that you'll find it fun to come along with me on that journey!
300 yen for a zucchini?!
By the way, as I mentioned earlier, the photos for the book were all shot during a 2-day marathon session in February. I had to shop for and prepare all of the food by myself basically. Almost half of the recipes are not Japanese, and I'd devised them while living here in Europe as well as a few weeks I spent last year in New York visiting my dad. (The kind of vegetables sold in western Europe and the east coast of the U.S. are fairly similar.) I was careful to stick to widely available, not too expensive ingredients of course.
But that became an issue in Japan, especially in February. Things like zucchini, bell peppers, and even celery stalks were prohibitively expensive. A plain old greenhouse-grown pepper, which even in Switzerland (often cited as a very expensive place to live) is only about $3 for three big ones, costs 200 to 300 yen each ($2.20 to $3.30 or so). A single celery stalk (yes...a single celery stalk) is around the same price. And zucchini, a vegetable that is a perennial standby for me, was an astonishing 300 yen ($3.30) for a single, smallish fruit. (Note: they were still around that price in the 2nd week of April, shortly before I left.) On the other hand, in-season, fairly locally grown vegetables like turnips, spinach and daikon radish were cheap and delicious. Button mushrooms are expensive and sold arranged like little jewels in a single layer, while shiitake mushrooms are sold in sacks for a lot less.
I guess the moral of this story is that the availability issue goes both ways, at least for those of us on a budget!
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