So what is this 'bento'? 'O-bento' is what the Japanese call a packed meal, usually lunch. Bento boxes have internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments. (This is nice if, like me, you don't necessarily like to mix flavours!) The whole thing is usually wrapped together with chopsticks in a cloth or special bag, and the goal is to make the whole package as attractive as possible - from considering the colour combinations of the food and presenting and garnishing it as neatly and artfully as you can, to co-ordinating the box, chopsticks and wrapper, and any other items like paper napkins, knife and fork or spoon, drink flask or thermos. Bento boxes themselves range from handsome lacquered wood boxes, with which you may be served in a nice Japanese restaurant, to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon (anime) character art. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls. As with so much of modern Japanese culture, the aesthetic (especially for children and young women) is strongly based on a compact cuteness. The base of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles - the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. In addition, there's okazu - side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, try to have one 'protein' item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties - this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!
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