Book Review of Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook
Bento lunch cookbooks can be challenging to put together. Should they focus more on standalone recipes or an arrangement of full lunches? Decorative food or speed? Bento lunch principles or practice? Japanese-language bento cookbooks are often highly visual, with color photos on each page that both stimulate and inspire the reader while informing them of how-to steps at a glance.
Up to now, I haven’t seen books in English that capture the spirit of a Japanese cookbook for children’s fun bento lunches, making Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook: Fun Lunches for Kids the first example to date. (Read on for the full book review.)
The title and cover convey the book’s approach of making playful bento lunches for children with a mixture of Asian and Western food that are characteristic of Hawaii. You’ll find 60+ recipes for a variety of American, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes as well as some classically Hawaiian ones like kalua pork and spam musubi. You can browse the inside of the book here at Amazon, and view the full table of contents and indexes. The US$14.95 book is 144 pages long and is spiral-bound, making it easy to cook from as it lays flat in the kitchen.
1. The Book Structure
The book is split into two main sections: 1) recipes, and 2) the bento lunches themselves with big color photos and step-by-step instructions on how to create the decorative food art. There’s also a short glossary and a page about bento tools in the back, but they’re pretty brief. The book’s main focus is on kid-pleasing artistic bento, with pretty straightforward instructions on how to create little food sculptures like a ballerina, owl, panda, penguin, ladybug, etc.
Although there is a basic glossary, the author assumes that the reader has a certain level of bento knowledge. The Penguin Spam Musubi recipe, for example, starts out with the following sentence: “Using a nigiri sushi mold, make 3 musubis.” You’ll be fine if you already have a decent understanding of Asian foods and bento gear such as a nigiri maker, musubi maker, cutters, etc. But be prepared to do a little online studying if you’re walking into it cold. You’re reading this review on a bento website, though, so you already have a head start!
One thing I really enjoyed was seeing how inventive the author was in using different shaped cookie cutters to create other shapes, as in the Japanese Girl bento photo above. Yuen uses a circle- and a rabbit-shaped cutter to create an entire little girl, which she does with other cutters and designs throughout. Very creative and inspiring, showing that you don’t have to have a drawer full of specialized cookie cutters to make different designs.
2. The Food
Author Susan Yuen has a culinary background, having worked as a sous-chef at restaurants in Hawaii and co-owning a catering company. She has two children, and makes bento lunches for her 6-year-old daughter.
The recipes themselves are a little simplified but manageable, making it a pretty friendly entrance point to bento foods. Once you’ve mastered the basics, though, you may want to invest in more advanced cookbooks for each cuisine. But if you look at this cookbook as a visual collection of inventive, kid-pleasing food art with simple recipes and how-to steps for food art, I think you’ll be satisfied.
I add the caveat about the recipes as I notice that they’ve been simplified, but not necessarily fatally. For example, the tonkatsu recipe doesn’t include tips like cutting incisions into the fat around the edges so the meat doesn’t curl up when frying, and the spam musubi recipe repeated in numerous bentos often doesn’t mention common ingredients like teriyaki sauce or furikake. (See my spam musubi recipe.)
3. The Bento Section
The section on bentos has photos and step-by-step directions on how to make the decorative food art. Her designs are quite cute and I think you’ll get a number of good ideas for little edible characters from it. My main concern is that there’s no guidance on how to keep decorations in place. So once you make a cute creation and your child shakes the lunch around on the way to school, odds are good that your hard work will be destroyed by the time they sit down to eat.
I put together a list of tips for stabilizing edible decorations to supplement the cookbook, with help from well-known oekaki (picture) bento food artist Amorette (Sakurako Kitsa), who recently ran a series of guest posts on decorative food art here on Lunch in a Box. Here’s the full list of anchoring tips and edible glue ideas.
Overall, I found Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook to be a fun little cookbook with appealing decorative bento ideas. I probably won’t cook from the recipes that often, but will definitely flip through it when I’m in the mood to make simple food art that will amuse my preschooler (granted, that’s pretty rare for me, but still). It might make a good holiday gift for the bento-lover in your life (Amazon link here). Thumbs up.
(Disclosure: I received a free review copy of the book from the author.)