Starry, Starry Bento: A Twitter Challenge

Sunday, July 3, 2011 26 comments
Tangled Bento

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are."

The answer to this innocent musing depends on one's preference: warmly sentimental or coolly factual.

On the warm and fuzzy side, a star is something we wish upon, thank for our good fortune and observe intently in hopes that our fates are revealed in its movement. Stars represent secret dreams, auspicious destinies and plain old good luck, and we gaze upon them with a twinkle in our own eyes.

On the cool and practical side, a star is actually an enormous flaming ball of gas, floating in the infinite inkiness of outer space. No fairy dust here: the shimmering, glittering pinpoints in the evening sky are just the result of visible electromagnetic radiation distorted by the Earth's atmosphere. As a couple of astronomers have observed, apropos of the rhyme above:

"Opaque ball of hot dense gas
Million times our planet's mass
Looking small because you're far
I know exactly what you are.

"Fusing atoms in your core
Hydrogen, helium, carbon and more
With such power you shine far
Twinkle twinkle little star."

Read the rest of this scientifically-accurate nursery rhyme by Julia Kregenow, PhD & Jason Wright, PhD.

While dry scientific fact and other scholarly studies provide utmost value to our store of knowledge, they can put a damper on more starry-eyed perspectives.

Constellation Bento
Bento: Lessons in Cuteness

For instance, consider bento (formal: obento), the Japanese boxed meal for one consisting of rice, protein, fruit and vegetables, arranged with varying degrees of intricacy in a sturdy container. While many bentos made for adults may be as aesthetically regular and mundane as any home-packed lunch, those made for children are les enfants adorables of the food world - sometimes too cute to stand, often obviously labor-intensive and always 'awww!'-inducing.

Just as we gaze upon a clear night sky a-glitter with stars and see magic, not nuclear fusion, we can marvel at the unbearable cuteness of bento without discerning hidden meanings in its composition. But just as a powerful telescope reveals the true nature of stars, somber interpretation of bento uncovers a lot more to these kids' meals than cartoon characters rendered in artistic edible form.

In an article for The Japan Times, Makiko Itoh of the superior bento resource, Just Bento, wrote of how these school-bound lunches provide not only necessary nutrition, but also valuable social lessons for little Japanese kindergarteners. Referring to a national education directive known as Shokiuku Kihon Hou, or Basic Law on Nutritional Education, Itoh explained:
"Presently, the term 'shokiuku' has come to mean educating yourself by being aware of what you eat . . .
"'It really isn't just about eating a nutritious lunch, though that is very important, of course,' says [kindergarten principal Sumie] Kato. 'The children learn about appreciating their parents for providing and preparing food they are given. They learn basic etiquette, such as saying itadakimasu and goshisosama [expressions of gratitude before and after the meal] properly. And most of all, they get to experience how fun mealtimes can be.'"¹

Boxed In: Childhood, Motherhood

But in an essay considered essential reading for students of sociocultural anthropology and gender studies, Duke University anthropology professor Anne Allison argues that bento represents much more than early childhood training in food appreciation and etiquette in Japan. Writing in "Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus", Allison posits that this very common foodway serves as a tool of cultural and gender indoctrination aimed at children and women, as situated in the context of kindergarten education.

For the child, it is a comforting bridge between the familiarity of family and home, and the strangeness of the outside world, while also helping to teach "the rules and patterns of 'group living' (shudanseikatsu), a Japanese social ideal that is reiterated nationwide by political leaders, corporate management, and marriage counselors, [that are] first introduced to the child in nursery school."²

For the mother, bento represents her primary societal role - that is, the responsibility of positioning her child on a course toward lifelong success. As summed up by Allison, "If the child succeeds, a mother is complimented; if the child fails, a mother is blamed."³ In this regard, bento during nursery school is a first step. Expectations are simple and straightforward: a child should eat his or her meal in its entirety, and a mother should ensure this by preparing an appetizing, easy-to-consume bento. Their mutual cooperation in this endeavor is key to their successful joint conformation to social expectation⁴.

Reaching into her own family's experience as foreigners in Japan, Allison recounts being taken aback by the emphasis her son's teacher placed on her youngster's eating habits. In time, she began to understand that his complete consumption of bento wasn't as trivial as it seemed:
"David's teacher marked his successful integration into the school system by his mastery not of the language or other cultural skills, but of the school's daily routines... My American child had to become, in some sense, Japanese, and where his teacher recognized this Japaneseness was in the daily routines such as finishing his obento."
That's putting a heavy load of meaning in some heart-shaped carrots and a ball of rice shaped like a panda.

Allison emphasizes, however, that very few of her informants expressed any unhappiness or sense of oppression from bento-making⁶. In fact, most of them found great satisfaction in it, not only as a way of nurturing their children, but also as an expression of their own creativity and playfulness. And that's precisely what I see in the boxes displayed by bento-making blogger moms and aficionados such as Sheri of Happy Little Bento and Yuri of Chef Pandita - artistry and fun combined in edible form.

It was also the directive when my dear friend Jenni of Pastry Methods and Techniques set in motion a Twitter event: #bentocuteness (and its off-shoots #badassbento and #halfassbento), in which we were challenged to muster as much food imagination and cuteness that could fit into a lunch box. So, while I can appreciate a factual and theoretical perspective, it's so much more fun to look at the world with stars in my eyes.

Starry, Starry Bento

Although #bentocuteness' only guideline was to enjoy our bento-making, I couldn't help but take note of Allison's observation of three 'codes' of food preparation in Japan. The first calls for "smallness, separation, and fragmentation"; the second, for opposition in color, form, texture, etc.; and finally, for naturalness, or evoking nature⁷. With these in mind, I put together my two-tier bento.

The bottom tier held three molded stars made with steamed white rice mixed with a bit of soy sauce and garnished with bits of celery, julienned carrots and black sesame seeds, and surrounded by mini-star cut-outs of cucumber and carrot.

In the larger section of the top tier, I made a simple omelette accompanied by sliced cucumbers and carrots, and more star cut-outs made from vegetable-studded Lyoner (a type of German bologna). For dessert, fresh kiwi flanks two satisfying bites of strawberry cream-filled sponge cake.

For more #bentocuteness, please visit Yuri's round-up of all the contributions.


1. Itoh, Makiko. "The best kindergarten lessons are at lunch time" The Japan Times Online. 7 Apr 2011.
2. Allison, Anne. "Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State ApparatusAnthropological Quarterly. 64:4 Oct 1991: pp. 199
3. Ibid., 203
4. Ibid., 200
5. Ibid., 201
6. Ibid., 203
7. Ibid., 197

Wrap It Up: Furoshiki

In the course of reading about bento, I came across mentions of this traditional wrapping cloth used for everything from gift-wrap to shopping bag. While paper and plastic have replaced them for most uses, furoshiki are still used to carry bento, with the added convenience of serving as place mat for the meal. If you're interested in an eco-friendly alternative to paper or plastic bags and wraps, check out this handy diagram on how to use furoshiki. Thankfully, there is no specific standard for size or material - it just needs to be large and sturdy enough for the purpose in mind, such as the rectangular cotton dishcloth used here. Have cloth, can wrap!


  • Annapet said...

    How were you able to leave this beautiful bento alone? You have another one you kept eating!

    I would love to learn the art of bento and furoshiki. Thanks for sharing, Tracey!

  • Elizabeth of AsianinAmericamag said...

    This is an amazing post! And you went through a lot of effort to do research and share this with all of us. Love the bento you made. Now I'm hungry again, and I just ate. It was fun doing the bento challenge with you. Here's to many more!

  • Nancy said...

    Fascinating. I had wondered, was there some undercurrent to all this cuteness? Your explanation(expose?) of the social contexts at play in the worlds of mothers and their young kids was really interesting. Though the specifics manifest very differently in my NYC suburb, where there are few if any moms slicing veggies into stars (or guitars) in the wee hours before school, I must say I DID recognize the pressures on moms to correctly position our kids on the right path. I also recognize and LOVE YOU for your choice to stay "starry eyed"--for this moment at least!! Thank you for sharing a wonderful bento and insighful post.

  • Anonymous said...

    No #procrastibento here, you have shared with us great info on bentos! Your bento is kawaii and really enjoyed reading this post. My grandmothers did the whole furoshiki thing, I think I need to get in touch with my roots. If I ever have kids I'll definitely make them bento for school :)

  • Happy Little Bento said...

    Um, okay. Not only do I love your bento, but I love your taste in bento resources, and I can relate to your style. It resonates with me, down to the furoshiki finish. Very wonderfully well done!

  • Jenni said...

    Oh, Tracey--you are so wonderful! I know I will always, Always learn something when I come to see you. And bento as indoctrination into Japanese culture certainly counts! Thanks for all the research and time that you put into your posts.

    Now, about your Obento: Cutest! I love all the wee stars, and I would like some of that strawberry cream filled sponge cake, please! :)

    Twinkle, twinkle little lunch, Upon you I will like to munch.


  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hi everyone and thank you for your lovely comments!

    Annapet - Fortunately, I munched on the extras as I was putting it together! This was my first ever bento & I thoroughly enjoyed. As for Furoshiki, I think it's such wonderful utilitarian art form! 8-)

    Elizabeth - Thank you! The Allison article has been a favorite since I first read it for a sociocultural anthropology class. I'm so pleased to finally be able to reference it in my blog! And I do hope we can keep up with more the bento challenge. 8-)

    Spud - Thanks! I predict there is mashed potato bento in the very near future... 8-)

    Nancy - Thank you & so great to make a new friend during this challenge! Your badass bento was so original - I can't wait to see more! 8-)

    Yuri - Thank you so much for putting together the roundup and giving us all the encouragement to make our bentos! I hope that we can keep this going - it is such a fun and delicious way to express ourselves! 8-)

    Vanillasugar - Apparently so! I found them at a Narita Airport giftshop - beautiful fabric being displayed as gift-wrapping. But I didn't realize how versatile they are! 8-)

    Rebecca - Thank you! I love sharing what I've learned! 8-)

    Bergamot - Some bentos out there are such works of art! I hope I can do future bentos justice. 8-)

    Cherrie - Thank you! I found the information fascinating. As for having a dessert section - but of course! I couldn't imagine not having a little bit of sweet after a meal... 8-)

    Sheri - Thank you! It means a lot coming from a pro bento maker such as you! I truly enjoyed making it and hope to continue. It's a pleasure to have met you through this challenge! 8-)

    Jenni - You started it all! Thanks for being such an joyful spirit and great friend. You're the one who gets the rest of us into all sorts of food-related Twitter mischief, but it's such great fun! 8-)

    Your bento poem will now be enshrined on this blog! 8-)

  • Marvin said...

    Awesome, I've never heard of furoshiki before, but have since successfully folded a dishcloth thanks to you:) Not sure if I did it right though.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Midge - Hello & thanks! It was fun to make. 8-)

    Joy - Hehe! Don't wait - just go ahead and make one for yourself. Consider it fun practice for when she's ready for school. 8-)

    Marvin - LOL! It would be such a shame to go through all the effort of making a kawaii bento and then throw into a plastic bag. I don't think there's a wrong way to fold - unless it opens up in mid-carry! 8-)

    Kelsey - Thank you! This was my first ever and I probably took longer than necessary because I was munching as I went along. It's almost too much fun to play with the veg cutters and rice molds. 8-)

    Mardi - Hehe! Thank you so much! Who knew there were such nefarious meaning in innocent bento? As for 'gorgeous food', I only wish Tastespotting thought so - the good ol' *composition* rejection! 8-)

    Mrs Lavendula - Thanks! Now, I'm tempted to buy up all the cute boxes at P88 store in Glorietta & just serve bento for all meals! 8-)

  • Amy P. said...

    Hmm, maybe if I make my kids foods cuter, they'll eat it? ;-) Fascinating to hear the background about bento, the presentation does make them enticing.

  • Dee said...

    Oh, Bento, my Bento! You have stolen my imagination on this one. I have long been on the Bento trail. I only wish I had discovered the bento world while my daughters were young enough to enjoy them. I do enjoy carrying my lunch to work with me. I am thankful for this beautiful tradition the Japanese have gifted us with. Your post is wonderful.


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