So, before I got married, I was a sandwich, carrots, and chips sort of girl for lunch. And that was when I was actually, you know, taking care of myself and not just nibbling (or stuffing myself) on cereal and chocolate. But yeah, if I was to say that I had a specialty (and you can call sandwich-making a specialty… without, you know, feeling total complete shame), that was mine. Here in Japan, while that’s not exactly not an option, when I moved here and got married, I decided that I wanted to give up my sandwich-making days (oh woe is me), up my wifey level, and do “traditional” obento for my husband every day for work.
You may be asking: what is obento? So let me take you down that rabbit hole.
To put it super simply, it’s lunch in a box. Dare I call it… a lunch box? (I do so dare.) Basically, it is a packed lunch, and it’s a pretty big deal here. Packed lunch is a big deal…? I promise I’m not even exaggerating with this one, people. It’s like, a bigger deal than I have the talent for. There are some people out there who go ALL out for their children’s and/or husband’s obento (look up “deco ben,” which means “decoration obento” or “kyara ben,” which means “character obento”… and then be amazed, or you know, mildly hyperventilate like me for a moment because you could never do that). To the degree that I feel like if this was America, there would be some kind of competition show with housewives competing for the most extravagant lunches, all with corresponding themes and prompts. And not only are they beautiful, but they are darn-tootin delicious. So, yeah, lunches are a big deal here.
Cultural aspect of the obento
There is a cultural aspect to it, and a sense of pride in eating a homemade lunch. There is a sense of family, relationship, and health to it. It just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to think about it. This is especially true considering I am American, where eating together as a family or eating a home-cooked meal (let alone preparing a meal for someone in advance) seems to be becoming less and less of a priority (or other events are moving up in priority). While this can be seen within Japan, it seems that in America we are constantly trying to vie for time as life gets progressively busier, and this is on top of and connected to changing trends in the concept of “the family.” (Do some extra reading about this, if you would like, here.) There are less 2 parent households now, and therefore, more single parents. Gender roles are also being challenged, and many women are choosing careers while also choosing to be a mom (or choosing not to be a mom at all). I’m not saying at all that these trends are intrinsically bad. In fact, some I would venture to say that I believe them to be quite good, but to boil it down for the sake of this post, it does have an effect on the family. And therefore, it has an effect on the familial and relational aspects of food.
In Japan, while we are seeing some of these trends pick up speed as well, there are still many who follow along with tradition. And while you can debate gender politics within Japan and their slow progress in women’s rights (to which I will not do and do not have the knowledge to be able to do) and discuss those current sociological trends, the home is still, on the whole, considered something very sacred. Protecting your family, keeping your family healthy, is still something very important here. Of course, there are circumstances where mothers or wives may not be able to (or may not want to) provide obento or dinners, and there is absolutely no shame in that. It certainly does not make them less of a mother or wife and absolutely does not mean they are doing a poor job of taking care of their family due to this. And particularly, as women, I believe that it’s necessary to stand in solidarity and encourage mothers, wives, and women of all walks of life and experiences. We do not have an easy burden as women, but we are blessed in so many ways as well. And this makes it all the more important to raise each other up with our words and actions, take on each other’s burdens, and be able to speak truth into each other’s lives. Rather than being nasty to each other, which often stems out of our own weakness or felt deficit, or competitive with each other in order to try and prove our worth, let us love and extend peace. It’s in our gifting to do so (and each person has a different way to be able to do so), beauties. So, let’s do this.
Ah. Pardon the tangent. Where was I? Oh yes, le obento. (What’s with the French fusion…?)
My story in this
So, while I am not Japanese, I really appreciate that familial aspect, and when I got married, I wanted to incorporate as much of that into my marriage as possible. And over all of that, I sensed a compatibility with my beliefs as a Christian. While I don’t think it’s necessarily required for me to be the one to cook, I do think it’s my privilege to do so and, as I said, I have the ability and the interest to do so. And this has been what has worked for my small family since getting married.
Just to explain something real quick, while I do have a Japanese husband, he in no way required me to make obento in this kind of Japanese formatting. In my desire to make something that he would be happy with and enjoy, my process of making obento is what I decided worked best for us financially, as well as for his personal tastes. And just because, you know, I loves him lots and wants to make him yummy foods (so many plurals…).
My process of making obento
So, here is my basic set up for making obento dishes every week. Usually, I make two or three side dishes (おかず; okazu) and usually one main dish, store them in my fridge, and then each morning I put them in the obento with rice.
An okazu is typically made with lots of yummy veggies, but a meat okazu is never out of the question. For my meat-loving husband, it’s even less out of the question. An okazu can be pretty much anything: potato salad, spinach and carrot dish, cucumber and tomato with dressings, etc.
A main dish is typically a meat dish, or just as slightly heavier dish. This can be something like a Japanese rolled omelette (玉子焼き; たまごやき; tamagoyaki) or half-boiled eggs (茹で卵; ゆでたまご; yude tamago), something fried like fried chicken (唐揚げ; からあげ; kara-age), grilled fish, or anything.
I have several Japanese cookbooks (Amazon links here: book 1, book 2, book 3) that I use in order to figure out what dishes I want to make every week. When I’m feeling kinda bored with those, I switch over to videos from places like Tastemade, Kurashiru, Delish Kitchen, and Tasty Japan (which I often just see on Facebook), or look at websites like Cookpad.
As you might notice, most of my resources are in Japanese. Yes, that is right. That is totally and completely right. I learned how to cook… in Japanese. This basically means that everything I cook takes about double the amount of time that it calls for, because I have to read it… and then read it again… and then Google words… and then read it again… and then stir in confusion. It’s gotten a lot easier over the last three years, and I’m starting to get more familiar with cooking language, Japanese cooking, and just you know, cooking in general, but man, that was a tough time. So, yeah, if you are currently in the midst of that and trying to read recipes in a different language, I’ve got all of the feels for you, man. If, however, you are in the position that you are trying to figure out recipes in Japanese, and you need some help, feel free to contact me. And then we can try to figure out the craziness together.
But yeah, once I decide on what I want to cook, I write up all the ingredients that I need (which I do at the same time that I plan what dinners to have throughout the week) and then buy them at my local grocery store.
Typically, I do all of the dishes all on the same day. It can take three or so hours sometimes, but I actually prefer it that way. Partly due to the fact that our refrigerator likes to keep to subzero degree temperature (this is not accurate) even when we don’t set it that way, the dishes keep in the fridge really well throughout the week. And that way, I already know that there isn’t anything that is going to throw up on me throughout the week (now there’s an image), causing my husband to be without a lunch (which obviously won’t kill him, but I’d rather not… partly because I have issues). Sometimes when I’m not able to carve out three hours one day, I will do the obento sides on two different days. It’s not my preference but totally workable.
And that’s pretty much it! In a very large nutshell… as usual.
A side note
To put it out there, I actually had to tame myself WAY back in what I make. When we first got married, I would spend an entire afternoon and evening making 5~7 different dishes. They were cute; they were delicious; there was variety, but the time spent on it basically sucked out my soul. Zero joy present, people (or at least, very, very little). So, I had to make a health choice for myself (and my family by extension), and I decided to limit it to only 3~4 a week. If I feel up to doing more, than I totally go for it, but I’ve had to learn the hard way that hurting myself in order to please my husband actually has the exact opposite effect. I mean, he likes me even when I’m absolutely insane (this still baffles me), but I think he tends to prefer it when I’m not an emotional wreck because I burnt the fried chicken while making three other dishes all at the same time (while also getting dinner ready, too). So, take care of yourself, lovelies. Take care of yourself, have conversations of vulnerability and potential change with your significant other or some friends, try to be adaptable even when things do not go the way that you wanted to go (or you realized you were not as all-mighty as you thought yourself to be), and find that by taking care of yourself, you are able to take care of them all the better.
So with all of that, let me introduce to you to what I made this week.
This Week’s Obento (Aug. 12~16): 3 Items
- Grilled horse mackerel
- Onion and ginger fried satsuma-age
- Burdock root and sweet potato dark vinegar pork kinpira
Grilled horse mackerel
This was an easy decision. I had some horse mackerel left in the freezer, so I just rubbed some salt and a bit of soy sauce (醤油; しょうゆ; shouyu) on it. I use a gluten-free soy sauce called tamari. Click here to find it on Amazon.
Onion and ginger fried *satsuma-age
Original recipe from Kurashiru found here.
Satsuma-age is “a deep-fried patty of fish paste containing minced vegetables or seaweed.” Usually it has wheat in it, and therefore is not gluten-free; so those on a gluten-free diet, be aware of that. There are several other fish patties that do not always use wheat in them, such as chikuwa (ちくわ). Sometimes they do, though, so be careful to look for wheat (小麦) on the label.
Aaand, it’s totally a possibility that “Aww, shucks, I so wanted a patty of fish paste, but if it has gluten in it…” was not your first impression when you read that. But don’t dismiss it unless you try it. It may not be your thing, but it may also totally be life changing. Explore all the disgusting/delicious possibilitiesssss~
Burdock root and sweet potato black vinegar pork **kinpira
Original recipe from Macaroni found here.
I am mildly obsessed with burdock root (ごぼう). It’s not traditionally something you find at the common supermarket in the States, and I had zero experience with it before coming to Japan… but man, I’m so glad we met. And I have loved burdock root a lifetime’s worth in these three short years… and will continue to love it forever more. Aaaand, we officially got weird, but seriously, I love it.
Black vinegar (黒酢; くろず; kuro-zu) is also a mild obsession of mine… actually, I’m just going to go ahead and say that this is just like, my perfect dish (minus the pork for me). Japanese sweet potatoes are so pretty; you can’t go wrong with burdock root; and dark vinegar makes me stupid smile. The health properties are off the roof, too: cardiovascular benefits, helps sore muscles and fatigue, etc. Check out more about the benefits here. And, it just tastes really, really good. It’s not nearly as strong as regular vinegar, so it’s easier to drink. If you are in the States and interested in getting your hands on it, this one seems to be a good brand off of Amazon US.
Kinpira (金平; きんぴら) is defined as “strings or thin-shavings of burdock root, fried and boiled down in sugar and soy sauce,” and is a cooking technique here in Japan.
This is just the basic structure that I use for my husband’s obento. It’s super standard and nothing impressive, but it gets the job done. There are plenty of different versions of obento boxes, as well — like, an entire aisle of them at the store (I told you, it’s a big deal.) We opt for just a single level (because I’m lazy and don’t like to clean five different little compartment thingies), but there are some that have two or more levels. About 3/4th is rice, and the green-ish looking thing is seaweed (海苔; のり; nori). I wanted something to place the fish on top of, so that’s how it turned out.
And that’s it for now, folks! I hope you feel like you know a bit more about Japanese home food culture. If you are interested, I have attached this post’s Japanese vocab for you language learners below.
Peace to you all, and peace out.
Japanese vocab in this post:
|Vocab (単語)||Kana (かな)||Romaji (ロマ字)||English (英語)|
|茹で卵||ゆでたまご||yude tamago||half-boiled egg|