When I first started making bento lunches for my husband because of a food intolerance that ruled out most restaurant meals, I used to look at photos of cute, ornately decorated lunches sculpted to look like cartoon characters and wonder why someone would spend so much time crafting these. Now that my three-year-old is in a Japanese immersion preschool, though, I’m starting to understand the motivation to thrill your child when they open up their lunch. (I’m still too lazy to make them, as regular readers of Lunch in a Box know from my focus on speed bentos, but I can appreciate the food porn appeal of kyaraben.)
Not well documented in English books, gorgeous Japanese kyaraben (or charaben, short for “character bentos”) are at once stimulating and intimidating, so I was really excited to check out the new food art bento book Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes. Author Christopher D. Salyers has even started his own Face Food Bento blog with more detail on the kyaraben artists featured in the book.
First off, let’s set expectations about what this book is, and more importantly, what it is not.
It IS a compact little coffee table book with beautiful pictures of ornate bentos, a few brief interviews with the parents who make them for their children, and a brief introduction about kyaraben. It is NOT a cookbook or a detailed source of information about what foods make up the different bentos. While each photo has a brief summary including the bento title and a list of food inside, the food lists are somewhat incomplete and vague for the bento maker looking for a how-to guide. I showed this book to some of the second-generation Japanese moms at my son’s preschool, though, and they thought it was adorable, with cute ideas for bentos that would appeal to their daughters.
What I found most interesting were the interviews with the bento makers, with snippets of why they make kyaraben, their schedule for designing and making them, and the challenges they face making their edible art. One point that resonated with me was that parents found that kyaraben lunches encourage their children to eat more, and a variety of different foods, as discussed in my post on bentos and the picky eater. (Most of the parents in the book make elaborate kyaraben only about twice a week, so aspiring bento artists shouldn’t feel pressure to make a masterpiece every day.) Our own Sakurako Kitsa, well known on the Flickr bento photo communities, even has her own section in the book under the name Amorette Dye, showing off her Goose Hunt, Mock Lobster and Spa Woman bento creations. Way to go! She’s in good company with the creme de la creme of Japanese kyaraben artists featured in Face Food.
This book may provide some inspiration to bento makers who are familiar with Japanese food and already have a pretty good sense of what they’re doing. If you’re looking for how-to advice in English, though, try the Bento Corner blog, Cooking Cute’s archives, Sakurako Kitsa’s favorite kyaraben creations, or Pkoceres’ Flickr photos. You can even use machine translation on some of the Japanese character websites (such as e-obento, Kyaraben Club, or the longer list of Japanese blogs on my Lunch Links page) to get some inspiration and rough guidance on how to make fantastic creations of your own.
Face Food will be available on Amazon on March 15, 2008, with pre-orders receiving an additional 5% discount. I’ll be giving away my review copy of this book to the author of the most creative organization solution for their bento supplies (contest details here). Deadline for entries is Friday, March 14, and I’ll present a round-up of the different posts and announce the winner on Monday, March 17, 2008. I’ve got a number of submissions already, so keep ‘em coming!
- Japanese children’s bento cookbooks in my kitchen
- Japanese speed bento & freezing cookbooks in my kitchen
- Bentos and the picky eater
- Biggie’s list of top speed tips, tutorials and equipment reviews