I’ve never considered myself especially Japanese. I grew up in a largely Caucasian and Hispanic agricultural community in California, cooking meat and potatoes like everyone else. I never liked following the rules, and math was definitely not my strong suit — both of these, decidedly un-Japanese traits. Still, there are some aspects of myself that are undeniably Japanese.
When it comes to food, Japanese people are fanatical about seasonal and local delicacies. It’s like a DNA coded timer, signaling birds to migrate south, or driving bears to find a cozy hole to curl up in. Something just clicks in your head, and the next thing you know, you’re on a bus to New Jersey to pick up the tastes of fall.
Newly dug Satsumaimo (sweet potato), sweet orange Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), gingko nuts, and chestnuts are just a few of the earthy toned flavors that define fall. When the days start growing shorter, I crave these foods like a tree yearns for the first cool gust of autumn. It’s not logical, but it’s a call that must be answered. That’s why I prepared a bento box chock full of seasonal goodness to take on this post-summer picnic.
Bento (弁当) is a centuries-old way of packing a boxed meal. Over time, it’s evolved from a practical way to carry lunch, to an artform, complete with extensions of popular culture. Every region of Japan has a signature bento which changes with the seasons, and they can be found in train stations, depachika (department store food courts), and specialty restaurants all over Japan. But despite being widely available for purchase, many home-makers still take pride in assembling bentos for their loved ones every day. There’s even a rivalry amongst school kids on who brings the coolest kyaraben (character bentos), which are edible dioramas depicting characters from popular cartoons.
While the contents and containers may vary, one thing they all have in common is that they contain a wide assortment of seasonal delicacies. Perfect for an ADD eater like me, who bores of a dish after just a few bites. I’m always on the lookout for the next tasty bite to please my palette, and there’s something very gratifying about having one bite of something and wishing there was more.
Before I made my bento, I had to find a bento bako to put it in. A bento bako is a box, with compartments to store rice and a variety of okazu (side dishes). There’s no rule that says a bento has to contain rice though, and yōshoku, or western style bentos come with sandwiches, and sometimes even pasta. The bento bako I ended up getting at Korin in Tribeca, had two tiers, and cute little critters painted on top.
When you open up the lid, you’re presented with the first tier. I filled it with a mix of grilled, fried, pickled, and simmered items with flavors varying from sweet to savory to spicy. Starting from the top left and working clockwise, there’s a stick of immitation crab, a skewer of edamame fishcake, pickled burdock (the long orange sticks), spicy konnyaku, sweet chestnut, sweet beans, simmered turnips with carrots and snap peas, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), sauteed turnip greens, and grilled salmon.
I filled the bottom tier with Takikomi Gohan (recipe here). It’s the Japanese version of pilaf, with mushrooms, veggies, and rice cooked in dashi. I topped this one with some Shimeji mushrooms sauteed in butter, carved carrots and ginko nuts, to make it present like a patch of fall mushrooms, surrounded by fallen leaves and acorns.
For dessert I fried up some Japanese sweet potatoes (satsumaimo), until they were crunchy and then tossed them while they were still hot in honey and sesame seeds. This caramelizes the honey, giving each crunchy morsel a sweet nutty coating and a pillowy soft interior. A couple bottles of green tea and we were good to go.
Since I was in the kitchen all day cooking, I realized there wasn’t much daylight left to have a picnic. Thankfully, I live in New York City, and there’s a beautiful riverside park just blocks from my apartment. If you’ve never been, the waterfront along the Hudson in the Battery Park neighborhood is the perfect place to get away from the city. With your back to the city, there’s a watery vista highlighted by the Statue of Liberty to the south, Ellis Island ahead, and Hoboken, New Jersey to the north.
One area in particular that literally sticks-out, is a chunk of land that looks like it was torn from the Dingle Peninsula and transplanted into the heart of Manhattan. It’s a little too crowded to have a picnic in, but there are lawns and benches just around it, and it makes for a great sunset stroll.
After our picnic and stroll, we stopped by the movie theater in the World Financial Center to catch Wall Street: Money Never Sleep, which was full of scenes depicting a very different take on the neighborhood we’d just spent our afternoon in.