Food Can Be Art: Kumamon Character Bento

Personally, I never cared much about the appearance of food. I come from the land of balut (fertilized duck egg) and dinuguan (pig’s blood dish) and where free lunches are commonly served in a styrofoam tray with the main dish and rice all mixed up together. Good food is good, no matter how seemingly unpleasant it is to the naked eye. But here in Japan, it’s a little different. Just try and go to the nearest convenience store and grab an obento (ready-to-eat meal) of any kind. You’ll see each ingredient is carefully placed in a certain position and they make it a point to separate the dish from the rice. They sometimes even put fake leaves to decorate the meal – what a luxury! They pay attention even to the smallest detail. As a foreigner, I see it as an admirable aspect of their culture. But it also a little intimidating: can I ever make something so excruciatingly detailed like their obento?

But one Sunday, I successfully created a chara-ben with the help of Noriko-sensei. Chara-ben originates from two words: character and obento. These are packed lunch boxes which feature a certain character – be it from an anime or a mascot, in the form of food. This time, we created a Kumamon bento, which features the cute mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture. It seemed so difficult at first, especially when she handed me the instructions. We had so many things to prepare and so many ingredients to put and all I could think about was, “Why do the Japanese even bother doing this?” Noriko-sensei explained that this is one form of how Japanese mothers show love and affection to their children. These mothers want their kids to eat healthily and the best way to do that is to create colorful and exciting obentos that the kids can enjoy. No more vegetable leftovers if the carrots are star-shaped!

We first had to prepare the Japanese egg omelet (tamagoyaki) which is made by rolling several layers of sugar-seasoned eggs. Yes, they’re sweet and fluffy and totally feel like a mother’s love. Then Noriko-sensei taught us how to slice them into shapes forming hearts, flowers, etc. Afterwards, we prepared a side dish of chikuwa (tube made from fish paste) seasoned with mayonnaise, soy sauce, and dried seaweeds and while we warmed it up in the microwave, we sliced little sausages into funny shapes like octopus, stars, and flowers and grilled them up. But we weren’t finished just yet. We proceeded to the main event which was creating Kumamon itself. For that, we mixed ground sesame seeds with Japanese rice, formed it into a ball and put some salmon flakes inside. You’re probably thinking, “How about its eyes, nose and all those other tiny details?” Well, for the linear shapes like the eyebrows, Noriko-sensei used dried seaweeds and for circular ones like eyes and the mouth, she used cheese. After forming the character, all we had to do now is to place the ingredients in the lunch box and decorate it as to our hearts’ desire.

“It’s too cute. I can’t it eat.” These are my initial thoughts after having prepared everything. But then after taking a few shots of the masterpiece, I also realized that I was the one who made it. I did it. I created an obento and I was so proud of it. I took a bite and eventually finished everything in minutes. With just one class, it didn’t feel so intimidating anymore. What I liked most about Noriko-sensei is that her way of teaching specifically caters to foreigners. She speaks English fluently, the instructions are easy to understand and the process is not overwhelming. I felt very appreciative of how she effortlessly bridges the gap between Japanese culture and foreigner so it’s not only about experiencing the culture but also becoming a creator and a producer of that culture. Whether it is the Japanese people’s attentiveness to details or their thoughtfulness to their children, I’m certain you’ll discover something exquisite in learning how to make a chara-ben. So put that apron on and see how you can make hearts and flowers out of an omelet that your loved ones will surely like.

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