Japan’s lunchbox fare pleases eye, palate

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FUKUOKA, Japan – ”Tadaima!” (I’m home!) Yuriko and Satoshi
Kawasaki cry as they remove their shoes and tumble into their
house after a hard day at kindergarten. ”Okaerinasai!” (Welcome home!)
replies 40-year old Misako Kawasaki. She empties their school bags and
brings their Ultraman and Hello Kitty lunch boxes into the kitchen.

Early that morning, Misako Kawasaki spent almost an hour
preparing their lunches. Having spent more than five years living in
Boston, she knows how crazy this must sound to Americans. ”I
could never give them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of
fruit, carrot sticks, cookie, and a juice pack in a paper bag,” she
says. ”The teacher and other mothers would consider me lazy.”

Instead, four times a week (”every day would be too much”) she
crafts exquisite, colorful lunches arranged artfully in cute little
lunchboxes. She turns tomatoes into tulips, hard-cooked eggs into
chicks, and rice into soccer balls, complete with roasted seaweed
cut into little hexagons.

A colorful, enticing meal is important in Japanese families. The
Japanese learn early on to ”eat with their eyes,” Kawasaki says. A
elaborately crafted lunchbox or a multi-course dinner may not be a
sure sign of a mother’s or wife’s love, but it is seen as an indication
of her efforts, to be recognized by others as well as her family.

She’s not alone: There are endless books and magazines exhorting
her and other Japanese moms to make these lunchtime treats for
their children. And close to half a supermarket aisle can be devoted
to supplies for the project. Choices, of course, get increasingly
sophisticated as the diner ages – and that includes husbands as well
as adult children living at home.

To that end, this mom spears glazed meatballs with ”Hello Kitty”
picks for the lunchbox, and cuts strawberries into the shape of a
fan. Her idea of a peanut butter sandwich would be to carve it into
the shape of a teddy bear.

At times these lunchtime art projects spill over into competition
among mothers and kids. And there is always some mild complaining.
”I am so tired of this I can’t think about it anymore,” says Eiko
Takahata. Her third child, Yoshi, is a middle school student who
prefers his mother’s cooking even though lunch is provided at
school. Although Takahata no longer makes cute lunches, she still
applies many of the same aesthetics.

She opens the freezer and pulls out a package of frozen
Japanese-style vegetables – six individual portions in little foil cups.
With homemade rice, a pork cutlet, and pickles, she has nothing to
be ashamed of. By the time Yoshi eats lunch, the vegetables have
thawed, and who would know they weren’t mom-made? In fact,
that’s what the package says.

Prepared foods are everyone’s secret: Tiger shrimp ($6 for four
servings), seasoned mini-hamburgers on buns ($5 for four),
seaweed salad ($2.30), and cheese croquettes ($4 for six) are not
cheap, but not prohibitive for middle-class families, especially
considering that women are working now, and after-school activities
are time-consuming.

Families may have only one meal a week together. There are
”kaginoko” (latch-key kids), and some fathers so caught up with
working late and dining with colleagues that they’re referred to as
”Sunday friends.”

In Japan, the best extensive displays of packaged foods are in the
lower two levels of the department store. These food halls are
bustling with shoppers and concessionaires hustling for the
consumer’s attention.

”Come on, ma’am,” says a gravelly-voiced vendor with a cloth band
tied over his brow. ”You couldn’t make it any better! Don’t you need
a break?” The housewife joshes with him: ”Sure I can, but today I’m
doing you a favor!” She tucks eight shrimp dumplings in her cloth
shopping bag.

Like many moms, this consumer probably goes food shopping on
her bike. She also takes food home to refrigerators with less than
half the capacity of a typical American refrigerator and limited
cabinet space. But the appliances will be the latest models.

And if lunch sounds elaborate, you should see what the Kawasaki
twins had for dinner on a recent weeknight: simmered vegetables
steeped in a traditional sauce; grilled mackerel; deep-fried ginger
chicken; spinach with a sesame-seed dressing; vinegared cucumber
and crab salad; a light broth with slivers of wild mushroom; crunchy
pickles; steamed white rice. Carrots were cut into cherry blossoms
and shreds of scallions were tied into knots. A simple plate of
steamed green beans with wisps of shredded ginger and a
sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds finished the meal.

And there were no other moms around to see what she had made.

(Japanese-style squash)

In this simple dish, acorn squash is simmered in dashi, a fish stock
made from dried bonito, available in Asian markets. Serves 4.

1 small acorn squash
1 cup dashi or water
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon sake
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Pinch of salt

1. Halve the squash, remove the seeds, and cut the flesh into 2-inch
pieces. Peel off some strips of skin so the squash looks striped.
2. In a large saucepan, combine the dashi or water, 2 tablespoons
of the sugar, and the sake. Add the squash; bring the mixture to a
3. Lower the heat and simmer the squash for 10 minutes, or until it
is tender and the liquid is almost entirely absorbed.
4. Add the soy sauce and salt and taste for seasoning. Add the
remaining 1 tablespoon sugar, if you like. Let the squash cool.
Serve at room temperature.

Adapted from ”Japanese Family-Style Recipes”

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