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Posted on Sep 10, 2009 in Bento, Decorative, For Kids, Review | 26 comments

Book Review: Kawaii Bento Boxes

Book Review: Kawaii Bento Boxes

Kawaii Bento Boxes coverThere aren’t many bento cookbooks written in English, so of course I’m curious when a new one comes out. I’m a big fan of Japanese-language cookbooks for their glanceable step-by-step photos and intuitive graphic presentation of complex material. Kawaii Bento Boxes: Cute and Convenient Japanese Meals on the Go, newly published by Japan Publications Trading’s Boutique-Sha, really captures the essence of fun, kids-oriented Japanese bento cookbooks.

As I was leafing through it, though, something started to seem oddly familiar. A quick browse through my kitchen bookshelf revealed why I was experiencing deja vu: it’s a straight translation of the same publisher’s Japanese-language cookbook Ichinenju Yakudatsu Tsuen Obento: Daisukina Kondate ga Ippai: (“Children’s Bentos that are Helpful Year-round: Lots of Favorite Menus”), with identical photos, layout, and text.

Now, there are both good and bad aspects to a straight translation of a bento cookbook written for the Japanese market. It’s extremely well suited for bento enthusiasts or Japanophiles already familiar with Japanese food, but may miss the mark for others…

Like Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook (see my full review here), Kawaii Bento Boxes is aimed at parents of young children who want to add playfulness to packed lunches, with simple recipes for very Japanese bentos that can be prepared in 20 minutes or less. You can browse the inside of the book at Amazon, and view the full table of contents and sample pages. The US$18.95 book (currently $12.89 on Amazon) is 82 pages long and in soft-cover magazine-book (“mook”) format.

1. The Book Structure

Kawaii Bento Boxes opens with some brief but solid introductory material about bento basics, including an overview of bento gear and how to pack a bento (browsable in full on Amazon).

Most of the book consists of photos of cute sample lunches with short recipes and a time estimate of how long it will take to prepare the bento (usually 15-20 minutes, assuming you’ve got staples like cooked rice already made, fresh or frozen). Every other page has an abbreviated step-by-step tutorial with photos, like the section on how to make rolled pancakes below (very helpful). These lunches are further divided into types, such as rice, sushi, bread, pasta, warm-weather, cold-weather, favorites, and picnic bentos. Here’s the pancake page:

Pancake lunches (Kawaii Bento Boxes)

Throughout the book are a number of sections showing variations on a theme, that may inspire readers to think outside the box with their own creations. Here’s a page with differently decorated onigiri rice balls (see below) and a sample lunch.

Onigiri rice ball variations (Kawaii Bento Boxes)

Here’s the same page in the Japanese original, so you can see they’re identical.

Onigiri rice ball variations (Ichinenju Yakudatsu Tsuen Obento)

And a few pages of food art accents made with eggs, sausages, fruits and vegetables.

Cute bento accents (Kawaii Bento Boxes)

Note the classic apple rabbits! (See my apple rabbit tutorial for detailed directions.)

Cute bento accents #2 (Kawaii Bento Boxes)

At the end of the book is a visual, color-coded index of additional recipes, organized by the main color of the dish: brown/black, white, yellow, red, or green. This makes sense when you think of the five-color rule of thumb for bento composition. You know how a colorful meal is a healthy meal? Including a variety of different colored foods in a bento helps ensure a balance of nutrients, so it’s handy to have a glanceable index of recipes sorted by color. Staring into the fridge and can’t think of, say, a red/orange dish? Leaf through some cookbooks organized like this and you might get some quick ideas.

Color-coded recipes (Kawaii Bento Boxes)

2. The Nitty Gritty

My main hesitation about recommending this book for everyone is the food itself and the lack of background information for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Japanese food. It includes unusual ingredients that may not appeal to the average American child, like gobo (burdock root), natto (fermented soy beans), ume (sour plum), and eel.

To get some perspective, I showed this book to a couple of mom friends (American and English) who pack lunches for their kindergarten-aged children. Their take was that they might use it for inspiration and general ideas for ways to pack bentos and what to include, but that it looks time-consuming so they’d probably apply their own food. The dishes seemed unusual to them and geared toward a Japanese audience (yakisoba sandwich, anyone?), and they didn’t always understand what some of the bento accessories like sauce containers were, mistaking them for actual food. Japanese readers wouldn’t necessarily need an explanation, but non-Japanese would definitely benefit from more background information or the inclusion of slightly different dishes that are more common here.

Overall, Kawaii Bento Boxes is quite professionally done, but with some omissions that may make it a little confusing to a Western audience looking to quickly prepare recipes with ingredients already in the kitchen. Look at it as inspiration, though, and you’ll come away with a lot of fresh new ideas for lunches you’d like to prepare using foods your family already enjoys.

Ichinenju Yakudatsu Tsuen Obento cover

If you’re already familiar with bento lunches and Japanese food, however, I think you’ll really enjoy this little gem. The Japanese version has been one of my favorites for a while now, so I’m pleased that it’s now accessible to English-readers.

FURTHER READING:

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  1. Kawaii desu ne!

    Read about you in G&M — fun stuff. I’ll look for this book.

    Thanks!

  2. I completely agree with your review… I used the photos as inspiration as opposed to actual recipes I should follow.

  3. Thank you for the review! I am thinking of getting this book since I have no Bento books :) Are they just geared for kids or can this applied for adults as well?

    and Yakisoba sandwich sounds DELISH!

  4. I second your review. I just received my copy in the mail and I LOVE it! I don’t even have children and I’m excited to try many of the decorative/packing ideas. I’m really getting into Japanese cooking so the unusual ingredients and recipes are a huge bonus for me.

    Thanks!

  5. @3 from Sonya: This is geared toward children (thus the “cute/kawaii” focus), but I don’t see why it couldn’t be applied to adult food as well.

    Yakisoba sandwiches fall into the “starch on starch” category of sandwiches you see in Japan sometimes. You know, like potato salad sandwiches sold in convenience stores over there. Not overtly terrible or anything, but it kind of clashes with my own personal idea of what a sandwich should be. To each his own, though!

  6. New to your blog and I love it! My husband and I stumbled on bento lunches last year in the (now defunct) Wondertime magazine and my husband especially loved the whole idea. Our daughter just started preschool this past Wednesday and I ordered a laptop lunch box “system”. Today was my first attempt and the most creative thing I did was use a heart cookie cutter for her PB&J. lol I have high hopes to improve though and your website is giving my tons of ideas. Thanks so much!

  7. People used to think me odd when I made spaghetti sandwiches when I was a teenager, using leftover lightly-sauced spaghetti.

    But why is is any different than having a breadstick with pasta anyway?? Yakisoba sandwich does sound tasty ;)

  8. I wandered over here from Vanilla Garlic a while ago, and I need to thank you. I use to feel like I was starving my children, but your blog reasured me that the serving sizes we use are ‘normal’. As well, I find myself being more creative with their lunch presentation. I am enjoying making the lunches AND my children are eating all of it:) Thank you so much.

  9. added to the wish list! Super excited about this one.

  10. @9 from gamene: Some of the recipes can also be a bit off from a Western perspective as well. As Pikko (aibento.net) points out in her review, this book’s recipe for spam musubi shows the spam just cut and made into sushi RAW, without frying or additional flavoring. Hmmm…

  11. Hello, my name is Ashley Barton, and I’m from Greenwood High School in Indiana. For a project I’m doing on Japanese Food Culture, I have to get an interview from someone knowledgeable in the field. Could I perhaps have a short interview with you? Answer the following questions, if you could please:
    1. What are some of the staples of Japan, food-wise?
    2. What are some similarities between Japanese and American food culture?
    3. Some differences?
    4. Is Japanese cuisine healthy?
    5. What are some things that are normal to eat in Japan that would be unusual to Americans? Vise versa?
    6. How often is sushi usually eaten by the common Japanese person?
    Thank you very much for your time. Also, could you tell me your name, please? I need it for my works Cited Page. Thank you so much.
    - Ashley Barton
    (By the way, I got my first bento box today in the mail. I’m going to be starting my own bento blog. :D)

  12. Biggie,

    I wanted to let you know that those super rare lock & lock bento sets have appeared for sale again:
    http://store1.globaleasysell.com/Items/1311031873
    http://store1.globaleasysell.com/Items/1311012929

    But…
    1) They are crazy expensive, also, expect to pay between 7-10 dollars for shipping (per item!).
    2) It can take weeks to months to get it
    3) Google reviews has some people saying they never received the stuff and the customer service is shoddy, so buy at own risk!

    I did order one, so hopefully they come! Last time I bought one of these sets, they came in the larger size, so if that’s the case, I will let you guys know what’s up with that :).

  13. Silly question, but I’ve noticed that in quite a few bento photos (ex – the rolled pancake on the left side of the 1st book photo), the items stick out of the box to be photographed. They look like they would be pretty smashed in the box once it’s put in and closed. Or is that just my imagination?

    Thank you for all your great bento knowledge!

  14. I’m sooo inspired by your blog. Having kept pushing back bento thoughts, I have decided to step up onto it and head out full force with bento lunches :)

    Thanks for all the wonderful tips from your blog!

  15. Yeay! Another bento book! Thanks!

  16. Someone left a comment on our blog today pointing us to your blog and the Kawaii book too. Glad they did because we love your site. We haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on our short list now for sure. Here’s our post on Bento lunch boxes if you’re interested: http://www.fivehens.com/go-bento/

  17. I purchased this book recently as the review here was good and I’m new to bentos and thought it’s a good start. I’m Asian, so the pickled plum or lotus root ingredients didn’t bother me, plus, I could substitute at will. No kids here, but cute lunches do perk up my office cubical living ;)
    I’ve read the book cover to cover and thought some of the recipes look good and it’s a great jumping off point to personalize with favourite ingredients.

  18. Great review! My girlfriend also decorate the bento boxes with accessories she bought from otakubaka.com

    They’re so cute! :)

  19. We just got our copy of this book a few days ago. It has inspired my picky twins to try some of the things Mom and Dad like and one of the boys loves anything with instructions.

  20. Thank you for reviewing this book! I lived in Japan but am not good enough at reading Japanese to get all of the recipes in my bento cookbooks. I have been looking and hoping for a book like this – just Japanese translated into English ~ This has been on my “watch list” for a while now. I’m always unsure about bento cookbooks for the American household and was pretty disappointed with my 501 bentos book. So I’m very excited about this after your review and will definitely pick it up. Thank you!

  21. Great review! Thanks for all the detail. I recently bought La Carmina’s “Cute Yummy Time.” It too focuses on Kawaii inspired meals. La Carmina has a great personality that shines through in her book. Recipes look very do able and appropriate for the american/english markets. Check it out!!!

  22. thanks so much! that book is on the way (shipping) and i am glad to know about it.

  23. i just bought this book! there are a lot of strange ingredients, but fortunately for me i’m interested in trying new things. i haven’t been using my bento lately because i wasn’t sure what to put in it, so i’m really glad i picked up this book (as well as some bento accessories) at a local anime convention :)

  24. I just got this book a on Yesterday! It’s really cute and has some inspirational ideas. The only thing that I didn’t like too much was the amount of processed and commercial food in it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a health nut, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel too good after eating so many sausage flowers, octopi and crabs… ^^;

  25. Really good article, it thought me alot, thanks!

  26. I just got this book a on Yesterday! It’s really cute and has some inspirational ideas. The only thing that I didn’t like too much was the amount of processed and commercial food in it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a health nut, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel too good after eating so many sausage flowers, octopi and crabs… ^^;