One of the most popular breakfasts in the ITC Sheraton, New Delhi is the Japanese bento breakfast. The brainchild of Chef Nakamura, he tells us about what these “Japanese thalis” stand for. Most bento boxes are rectangular and black, with a few being oval, square or crescent moon shaped. Red is an uncommon colour for a bento box, but when a wedding takes place, to have a red and white bento box is to underline the joyousness of the occasion. Conversely, a black and white bento box would be in keeping with a funeral. All bento boxes have a lid which can double up as a stand. They usually have four compartments, but six or even nine are not unknown.
Bento boxes are the Japanese equivalent both of a thali which is composed of several divisions as well as of a tiffin carrier that can be transported around. And just as thalis and tiffin carriers are commonly made of steel, bento boxes are commonly made of cypress wood, more specifically the wood of the hiroki, that grows only in Japan. Chef Nakamura rolls his eyes as he tells us that some South East Asian countries serve food in plastic bento boxes. “The smell of the plastic permeates the food” says he with a heavy frown.
Each meal has a specific ratio of food. Thus, rice and fish is common to all three meals, but a ni-mono or simmered dish is appropriate to be served warm for breakfast, as is tamago or Japanese omelet, miso soup and such side dishes as omeboshi or preserved plum, Japanese style pickles and a few sheets of nori, the black seaweed that is used in maki sushi.
Chef Nakamura is half a chef and half an artist. His bento box looks so picture perfect that we are torn between tasting the delicate morsels and continuing to gaze at them all day long.