When I was a child, lunchtime was a time for socializing with friends while eating a sack lunch. My lunch was made and packed by my mom – a sandwich, fruit and veggies and a small treat. Sometimes, I’d get a Lunchable (pepperoni pizza was the best), and a note of encouragement from my mom. Food and words of affirmation were my love language then, and not much has changed!
In Texas, that was an appropriate lunch. In Japan, she would have felt some major lunchbox shame. You see, in Japan, moms spend up to an hour each day crafting adorable bento boxes for their children – a visual proof that the child is loved.
I’m always excited to learn about new cultures’ foodie habits. I’m even more excited when that culture values cuteness as a factor in their food presentation. I teamed up with Traveling Spoon to learn how to make a cute character bento box.
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Totoro bento box
There’s a worldwide cult following for My Neighbor Totoro… but I never got the memo. In fact, I didn’t know who Totoro was until I moved to Melbourne, Australia. Now, I smile every time I see that beady-eyed magical creature. I’ve seen him as a stuffed animal, a keychain and even as an adorable ice cream sandwich. And now, as a bento box.
Our amazing teachers, Saori and Hatsu, prepared everything for the class, and coached us through every step.
To start, I ground sesame seeds, which were added into the rice to create the grey coloring of Totoro.
Next up, learning how to make Japanese omelettes in a rectangular pan. Y’all… Japanese omelettes are sweet!! You have no idea how happy it made me when we dumped a bowl of sugar in with our eggs!
For this chara-ben, it’s important to roll the omelette, which will soon be sliced diagonally to become a heart. Another rectangular omelette is folded in half, with slices made in the ‘spine’ of the egg. This formation is rolled to become a flower.
Little wiener dogs were (not so gracefully) pushed through plastic molds to become another type of flower.
Rice is molded in plastic wrap and placed in the box for spacing purposes. Once the plastic comes off, the fun really begins! Add Dust Bunny (salmon flakes and rice wrapped in seaweed), egg and hot dog flowers and a forest floor of broccoli. Soon, the bento is complete – it’s time to pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
The box is complete. The photos are on the camera. And the table is set. But there’s still one thing left to do. In Japan, before you eat, it’s customary to press your hands together in prayer position, do a slight bow and say “Itadakimasu.” It translates to “I humbly receive” and is used as a sort of “Bon appétit.” It’s a little more than a “happy eating” phrase, though. This saying encompasses the Buddhist respect for all living things. By uttering Itadakimasu, you’re thanking not only the people who prepared the meal, but all the elements that went into the meal too.
Once gratitude is expressed, it’s time to eat. Yes, it will be difficult to devour that adorable box, with both Totoro and Dust Bunny looking at you. But once you take a bite, and that umami joy washes over you, you’ll have no trouble at all!
Traveling Spoon offers local foodie experiences all over the world, so whether you’re in Japan, Argentina, Tanzania or Switzerland, this company will get you eating like a local in no time!
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