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Posted on Sep 2, 2008 in Amorette, Bento, Decorative | 23 comments

A little bit about oekakiben

A little bit about oekakiben


Please welcome guest author Amorette (Sakurako Kitsa), who is writing a series on how to make decorative art bento lunches. ~Biggie

First of all…thanks, everyone, for the warm welcome! I’ll do my very best to keep you entertained until Biggie returns. Biggie mentioned, I do oekaki (picture) bento. It’s not nearly as well-known as kyaraben, those amazing and intricate renderings of anime characters in lunchmeats, fishcake, egg products and nori. Whereas kyaraben take a great deal of patience and a deft hand with teeny, curl-prone shreds of dried seaweed, oekakiben are the refuge of rule-breakers like myself :-) Instead of reproducing a popular image, we just make up our own, with whatever’s at hand.

Like kyaraben, the oekakiben I do can sometimes take a while to put together, and people often ask me how long an assembly usually takes. I try to spend less than an hour making each bento, because after that it’s no longer fun. Ideally, if I already have an idea in mind, I can get the entire meal together in well under an hour. Like Biggie, I have a few speed tricks up my sleeve: making rice-backgrounds ahead of time, for example, so that they’re well-cooled by the time I need them, or having hard-boiled eggs at hand so that I have quick and easy access to cooked egg-white.

A very common misconception is that I crank these out every single day. I don’t;  these are “special occasion” bento, and the time and effort involved mean more if it’s a once-in-a-while treat. I might get “inspired” and do two or three in as many days, but I also turn out my share of more standard bentos and even (gasp) cellophane-wrapped PB&J if I’m in a real hurry. Having to come up with new, exciting oekakiben ideas every single day could burn someone out in no time. shapes and food-colorings might seem intimidating, but all you really need for making picture bento is a functional imagination. I call it “bento eyes”. Take a few minutes the next time you’re in your store’s produce section and examine a few fruits and vegetables. Does the cleft on the bottom of that strawberry remind you of a bunny’s face? Does the curve of that Roma tomato look a little like a ladybug? That sort of thing was how I got started; I saw food that resembled some object or creature, and then it was just a matter of filling in the blanks. I think everyone can grow “bento eyes” with a little practice.

A lot of it you learn as you go along, or happens when something goes right despite your best efforts. I was trying to make blue rice for a background, and I no the bubbling of the rice cooker water had made the food coloring spread unevenly. When I took off the lid, I had goofed up my blue rice… but I was looking at a perfect cloudy sky. My mistake was better than what I’d had planned, and then the hard part was remembering what I’d done wrong so I could reproduce it!

Many people are put-off by the idea of blue rice (I get a lot of people emailing me specifically to inform me that they would never eat blue rice), but to tell you the truth — blue rice tastes like… rice! Pink egg white tastes like egg white. I try to make use of natural colors whenever I can, but I do use food coloring sometimes. I try to keep things in perspective; food colorings are so ubiquitous nowadays. They’re in everything from ketchup to sodas to candy to cereals… you’d have to try very hard to avoid them if you eat any processed foods at all. It takes very little coloring to tint a batch of rice or give a faint lavender glow to an eggwhite-blossom, and it’s not something I consume every single day. To me, it’s no better or worse than any other product out there that contains food coloring, and I’m ok with using it if there’s no other way to come up with the shade that I need. I guess it’s just a matter of getting over the mental hurdle of eating something that’s not the color you’d expect. Actually, a lot of kids find that sort of thing really fun.

In the coming week, I’ll talk a little more about a few picture-bento tips and tricks, along with some other things I’ve learned along the way, like outsmarting a troublesome seafood allergy. Let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like to discuss!


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  1. Welcome! :D

  2. lovely food! i wouldn’t have a problem with blue rice, so go for it!

  3. Absolutely gorgeous! Looking forward to learning some “special occasion” bento tips from you! :)

  4. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. I had discovered your bentos a while ago and I’m looking forward to some tips on how to produce some of your beautiful work.

  5. I have had your flicker site bookmarked for some time and it’s a pleasure to have you write here. I do have a quick question. How do you make the diferent decorations stick? Nori is easy, but if you want to use cheese or egg whites to decorate, what do you use to keep them on?

  6. I would just love to know how to make the ladybug!

  7. Wow, those bentos are all so beautiful, I’ve definitely been inspired to make some fancy ones of my own!

  8. I love the little garden path bento! My son does too, but unfortunately for his bentos, he’s not allowed to have anything with red and/or yellow food dye in it due to allergies. ;) (Which means no purple, no orange, and no green either!) Blue rice we could do, but the poor kid is only ever allowed blue “treats”, so the novelty of blue is gone already at 6 years old. :(

    It’s funny you mention the food coloring as it’s been on my mind a LOT lately - it’s the one thing we’ve had so much fun with in the past - Lucky the Naughty Leprechaun used to tint my son’s milk green when no one was looking on St. Patty’s Day and he sprinkled everything in the fridge with green and gold Leprechaun dust. (Edible glitter.) Now the naughty little stinker tints the toilet water green and throws real green and gold glitter all over the bathroom floor instead. ;)

  9. We made blue rice just for fun one day, and ended up eating very little of it! It just wasn’t appetizing, especially when it was paired with a sour soup of pork and green leafy vegetables (what we happened to have for dinner that day). Haha.

  10. They look great!!
    I like the garden path. How and of what did you make all the flowers?

  11. Haha, while I can’t say I’d go out of my way to make/eat blue rice, like you said, it’s just rice… I can’t believe people email you just to tell you that! Bwahahahaha… I just think they’re too pretty to eat :) And I hadn’t realized charaben didn’t just mean all of the bentos that look pretty, it’s only for character-bento (which makes sense, given the name, duhhh). Great stuff btw.

    To the mom whose child is allergic to certain dyes - this is also a good way to get him to eat veggies if he doesn’t already - I believe if you grate carrots into your rice cooker, the rice turns a bit orange, not full on Halloween orange, but it’d give it a bit of color. Beet juice will give you red… there’s all sorts of natural ways to dye food that shouldn’t trigger his allergy :)

  12. I love your bentos, they’re beautiful. I would use India Tree food coloring (natural) as they seem to be the best. Staying away from petroleum products like food coloring is very easy as long as you know where to look. We use and their food lists. Plenty of packaged things and my kids don’t wet the bed, have asthma, or wig out with ADD anymore.

  13. oh also, I’d love to know what the sun is. It looks like a nice free range organic egg yolk but it looks raw because it’s so shiny. It’s beautiful.

  14. ChrissiHR

    Just Bento has an entry dedicated to all natural food coloring. Here’s the link.

    Hope that’s useful.

  15. That’s a great site. Also, I THINK it’s Japanese but I’m not sure. We toasted black sesame seeds and ground them up with salt. It tastes soooo yummy and looks beautiful with the sides of onigari dipped in it. Don’t laugh if I didn’t spell that right. I’m NEW!!

  16. kia - some adhesives I use: agave nectar, maple syrup, ketchup, cream cheese.
    Mustard is too strong a taste for most things I make for my kids.

    ChrissiHR - for red/pink coloring have you tried beets, cranberries, cherries?

  17. We’ve only just recently (a few months ago) learned that he has to avoid red and yellow dyes, so we haven’t done a lot of experimenting. He’ll eat chicken curry, couscous, and all sorts of weird non-kid things, but he has his limits and prefers plain old organic PB&J on multigrain bread. :P Boring. ;)

    I wish someone would post a blog about how to get started doing bentos. (And how to get kids to like them.) We’re not doing the best job of it ourselves so far. ;)

  18. Welcome! And you’re bento are cute, I know them through flickr. I turned out to be vegetarian and I would be interested by vegetarian cute bentos…How to replace the ham cut outs? (for example)

  19. Amorette, thank you for the excellent post explaining what oekaki-bento are, as opposed to the more well-known kyaraben. I think you’ve given oekakiben a whole new audience outside Japan!

  20. We do have blue rice here in Malaysia.But it usually makes an appearance only during the Hari Raya Festival. It’s called nasi kerabu. It’s coloured with blue flowers. And it taste just like rice. Cant taste the flavour of the blue flower cos the spices kind of cover it up. Not that I imagine it to be anything bitter.

  21. hi, i would like to know if you have any ideas for insects out of food

  22. Sure! Try this one…

  23. My daughter has dairy and peanut allergies can you please come up with a tutorial for people who have diary and/or peanut allergies. And can you make the tutorial in the next 2-3 weeks because my daughter is going to be getting a bento box.