This is a simple Japanese recipe book. It’s simple in many ways. The very word bento gives an image of a neat and simple lunch box. The recipes are about everyday home cooking. The simple dishes that mum cooked when the author was little. The step by step instructions with pictures are laid out on no more than two pages. Every recipe has a related little story on the opposite page. They’re small incidents of life, nothing dramatic or exotic. Classmates shared their lunch when she forgot hers. A local farmer gave her a tour of the farm but it rained. She ate cat-food sausage by mistake because her husband left it with a bowl of fruit. She felt uneasy having lunch alone in the office but received unexpected kind words from a boss. The book has a feeling of classical Japanese literature, like a dragonfly dips its toe in the mirror-like water, tiny ripples glitter in the sun.
I have tried making a few dishes already. My husband played along by arranging super neat lunch boxes for me (photos below). The seasonings remind me of my mum’s way of cooking: rice wine and sugar are used a lot. I remember soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and salt are the essential seasoning in my mum’s kitchen. After I moved to the UK, I copied her set-up in my kitchen, but soon found that white sugar was solely for tea, rice wine was only needed to deal with smelly meat. So I moved sugar to stand with tea bags and rice wine in the cupboard. They’re back next to my hob now.
One complaint I have with British recipe books: the list of ingredients is listed separately from the cooking instructions. So it would say something like “add herbs, sugar and vinegar when it boils”. I then have to go back to the top of the page to look, what and how much of each herb, how many tsp of sugar and vinegar. I don’t like it. But recipes in this book are arranged in my preferred way. There is a list of ingredients and seasonings needed (I take them out and lay on the counter). Then the amount of seasonings is specified along with the cooking instruction, e.g. “add 2 tbsp miso, 1 tbsp rice wine and 1 tbsp of light muscovado sugar”.
One thing I realised quickly was that the amount of ingredients is not specified at all. I was a bit unhappy with that at the beginning. How can you not tell people how many aubergines and how much pork to use to cook a Miso Aubergine Pork dish? So I had to guess at the beginning and note down my own number along the way. Then I remembered my mum used to ask me before she cooked, would you like a very meaty aubergine or a veggie aubergine? I realised for this type of cooking, the amount of ingredients is flexible to a certain degree. So the specified seasoning is more a guide of ratio, so the example above can be read as “2 part miso, 1 part rice wine and 1 part light muscovado sugar”.
Vagueness is quite common in Chinese recipes as well. You see “add a little bit of crushed garlic, sliced ginger and chopped spring onion to oil” all the time! So in that sense, following a British recipe (esp. dessert recipe) is easier and the likelihood of ending up with something that looks like the picture is higher. But if you ask a Chinese mother, she’d definitely say it’s a tedious thing to follow a British recipe and measure everything out in exact amount. She’d say cooking Chinese dishes is easier. Because she knows the taste she wants and the seasoning she needs accordingly, just add everything TO TASTE!
I’m on a new cooking adventure, surprised with and delighted by many new flavours. One person who benefits most is of course my husband. He’s in love with me all over again I think because of the smell of deep fried eggy tofu on my clothes. Smell of everyday life is better than artificial perfume I guess?