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An amazing book that transformed my lunchtimes
on 15 July 2013
For years, I'd taken the same old boring lunch to work - ham sandwich, crisps, yoghurt, maybe some fruit. I knew that Japanese bento lunches were fare more exciting than my usual midday fare, but like many other people, I'd always been daunted by the effort. Looking online seemed to justify my fears - if I tried this, would I spend my days decorating rice balls with faces and cutting out sandwiches in animal shapes?
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go, and it was fortunate that I took a chance on Makiko Itoh's Just Bento Cookbook. Ms Itoh's philosophy is that you shouldn't spend hours on the presentation - what you really want is something that tastes delicious.
Which is not to say that the bentos presented in this book don't look great, but that the focus is quite rightly on a selection of recipes that aren't too hard to make. Yes, there is some startup cost involved in buying a few bits of equipment and sourcing Japanese ingredients (although over the past couple of years more supermarkets have begun stocking the essentials), but once you taste a few of the recipes, you'll realise that it's worth the effort. The book offers a range of both Japanese and non-Japanese bentos, usually consisting of several components. There are plenty of variants to try out, and having worked my way through the book, there were only a couple of recipes that I really didn't get on with. In fact, for the most part, it's taught me new dishes that I don't just rely on for lunch - I've served them to friends for dinner as well.
Of course, preparing a bento is always going to be more effort than making a sandwich, but none of the recipes in this book are particularly long or complicated, and most of them can be made a night or two in advance, or even put in the freezer so you have a ready supply of bento dishes for busy weeks. And don't worry if you feel like you've done the book to death - Makiko Itoh also runs a Just Bento website packed with even more recipes to try.
All in all, this is probably my most-used recipe book, and certainly one of the best investments I've made. If you're considering trying out bento, or even if you just want to try a few easy Japanese recipes, this is definitely the place to start.