Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cook Book Review: Hello, Bento!

Hello, Bento! - A Collection of Simple Japanese Bento Recipes is all about making a packed lunch, Japanese style.

I give this book a reluctant six out of ten, as it has a lot of good staple recipes but to me, but is far from becoming a regular on my cookbookshelf.  It reads more like someone's second draft but with some (considerable) editing, has the potential to be an excellent introduction to bento cooking.

Written by a Westerner for the Western market, this book aims to be an introduction to making healthy, appetizing  lunches to go.  The recipes chosen are those that appeal to North American tastes and are usually what one thinks about when one thinks bento.  The recipes are simple to make and seldom require unusual ingredients.  Because it included all the bento staples, from onigiri to tonkatsu, it get's an extra star.

There is a culture here in North America that worries about food spoiling.  I mean, we keep eggs in the FRIDGE!  This is a side effect of the industrial food system that, despite everyone's best efforts (I'm sure), deadly pathogens creep into our food.

This fear of food spoiling is so deeply ingrained that... well the conversation I had yesterday with a random stranger about cheese.  Apparently even leaving brie out on the counter for 20 min. to soften before serving constitutes a call to the health authority and a trip to the hospital.  (this is not an actual need, brie is quite safe and tastes best if allowed to soften or ripen for up to several hours, weather dependent, prior to serving.)  But the fear we have here is hammered so strongly into our culture that people cannot seem to think clearly about food safety.

Before refrigeration was common, there were many methods to keep food from spoiling.  Although pre-industrial revolution statistics are hard to come by, I feel very strongly that the per-capita incidence of food poisoning was a great deal lower than it is today.  People knew that cooking meats with salt and vinegar reduced spoilage.  There are all sorts of methods that one can employ to keep food fresh at room temperature for at least long enough to call it lunch.

Problem these days, is that most people in the West don't know about them.

Hello, Bento!  is all about cooking up some food, plopping it in a box, and eating it for lunch.  And yet, many of the recipes have reduced salt content compared to the traditional foods these are based on.  There is no discussion on how to keep your bento lunch safe.  (see for a nice overview on how to do this).

For me, not including Health and Safety in a bento cook book is tantamount to a crime!

The recipes included are the basic bento staples.  Everything on how to wash rice, to tonkatsu are included.  Some of the ingredients are a little hard to come by, but can be ordered via if you live in the US and don't have a near by Japanese grocer.  Those of us in Canada are a little less lucky (unless you can tell me a good place to mail order Japanese ingredients within Canada, please!).

The instructions in most of the recipes are a bit hard to follow even if you are familiarly with Japanese cooking.  The sentence structure and general language usage is, well, as bad as mine.  But then again I'm seriously dyslexic and this is a blog.  This is little better than a second draft.  You don't actually have to pay me to read this (all four of you).  A published book usually requires higher standards (even an ebook).

Vegan friendly?: some is, some isn't.  It's up to the educated young vegan about town to decide which recipes are animal friendly.  There are very few indications within the book itself

Allergy Friendly?: sigh, I would have to say no.  The recipes in this book are not easily modified for people with allergies.  Many of the ingredients such as soy act to preserve the food, as well as add flavour.  Because of the safety issues surrounding bento lunches and the lack of information included in this book, it makes it difficult to adjust for allergies.

On the whole, I feel this book needs to be reworked.  It has some great ideas in it, but the work is rather shoddy and basically yells self-published rush job.  But, if it could be expanded and edited properly, it has the makings of a fantastic cook book.

Hello, Bento! - A Collection of Simple Japanese Bento Recipes
by Cooking Penguin
ebook format only at the moment
6 out of 10

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