Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook
Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.
With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.
Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.
Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.
Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.
In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)
The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.
In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.
The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages