bento boxes

Today I was feeling feisty and ventured to a ramen restaurant in Istanbul for lunch. I ordered the “Red Beef Special" — just feast your tastebuds on this mix: hot sauce infused broth, soybean sprouts, seemingly authentic-yet-obviously-artificial noodles, pho-style medium-rare beef. In a culinary experience that sprinkled in unique flavours with a generous serving of cognitive dissonance, I couldn't help but run through a mental log of all the ramen I've had in the past to stack rank the new specimen. In the end, my spice-covered lips creased into a smile of satisfaction, knowing that my craving for chaos was satiated once more.

This piece takes this ramen chronicle and abstracts out a few interrelated topics: taste, comfort, order. What are the most important ways to shape our own tastes and preferences? How do we balance the cognitive ease of comfort with the growth benefits of discomfort? When does it make the most sense to inject more order into our lives? To navigate this soup of flavourful questions, I want to introduce another of my favourite dishes of all time. Simple in execution, yet with the potential to be complex in tastes, textures, and layers...

The bento box. The bento is a well-balanced, single-portion meal. On the surface, it covers all the essential food groups. Below the surface, it gifts a principle of keeping you 80% full — just enough for the next meal. The bento can be aesthetically plain, as just a vessel that transports the love baked into the meal. Or, the bento can have a personality, elaborately arranged and decorated to mirror your favourite anime character. The bento is an additive meal. Each ingredient contributes more to the overall flavour and enjoyment. Consider my attempt at a poetic rendition of the classic 4-boxed bento:

"The carb, main, sides, and fillers coalesce into a neat and vibrant rainbow of inputs. The possibility of protein is endless: a classic weave of teriyaki chicken, a mound of deep-fried karrage, plump pieces of gyoza, or a broiled salmon shining with glaze. A fluffy, supportive bed of jasmine rice serves as the equalizer; yakisoba or yaki udon for a saucier type of friend. Contours of crunchy tempura liven up the sides, sometimes contrasted with the subtle yet sharp sprinkles of agedashi tofu. A colourful cast of extras brighten up the box: blanched broccoli, cherry tomatoes, boiled eggs, pickled salad, green bean gomaae, edmame pods. In just four partitions, you get so much from so little." - Saucy Sam, 2021

A layup from French author & philosopher Ronald Barthes: "Distinct contents of a bento box are a multitude of fragments or ornaments that are thrown together to beautify each other".

You might already guess where I'm going with this: the bento box is yet another delicious metaphor to organize our lives; an interface to think inside the box. The beauty of the bento is that it is both customizable and composable. With tight parallels to life, we have agency to design and direct the things that matter the most to us — ensuring we keep eating from a balanced diet. I'd argue that embracing this approach helps us address the three questions from earlier: develop tastes, enjoy comforts (but also reserve the option to swap for new discomforts), and create order.

How do we see this in practice and how can we use the bento in our every day? One approach is to see and cultivate a wider definition of the self. There is a clever applied acronym named bentoism: BEyond Near Term Orientation, referring to the theory that "self-interest is multi-dimensional". In other words, adopting the bento expands our lens of what the Self is, separating key need states into four pieces (2x2 matrix): Now Me, Future Me, Now Us, Future Us. We can then begin to plot our decisions and activities into the quadrants, which helps structure our thinking on identity and interest. A constant stream of nutrients for self-development, geared towards long-term emotional health.

The thing with food is that it's best enjoyed with the company of others. Food is largely communal — ritualistic in many cultures. So if the bentoism framework bestows us any gift beyond the useful mapping tool, it's a broader philosophy of sharing your intentions & interests with others. That's how we simultaneously open the doors of greater independence and greater intimacy, staring out with keen hawk eyes into the possible futures we can create for ourselves & others.

Ultimately, there's flexibility in the bento format. Everything is neatly packed together, whether it's our entire personal compass or simply a delicious lunch!

A personal mission: find a style of the bento flair & flavour everywhere I visit!

Published by Sam (samwong) 6 months ago on Sunday the 14th of November 2021.

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