So, I'm trying to get my head round this bento box thing. There are, as you have pointed out in your millions (okay, in your tens) an awful lot of specialist bento websites, run mostly by shy but dedicated Japanophiles.
Looking at them, and thinking about them in general, it's hard to know whether a bento box is more an issue of style rather than cookery.
I hesitate to say this, for fear of being ritually disembowelled the next time I go to Atari-Ya, but is this just a lunchbox? Isn't having a bento box just a sophisticated way of taking your lunch into work - traditionally a slightly hippy thing to do, practised by non-smoking, pacifist super-polite types, who are usually also the Union representative and cycle everywhere?
I suspect it is, because a bento makes that stereotype redundant. Because Japanese stuff is cooooooool. Unscrewing this bright pink, tactile cylinder from Aladdin (available here) complete with removable compartment, and second screw-on, screw-off tier, is a million miles away from unpacking a couple of cheese-and-pickles on brown from a Lock N Lock.
For example, how much cooler was Molly Ringwald than Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club when when she unloaded her sleek little bento box for lunch, while he unwrapped eight peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a carton of milk and a huge banana?
The bento is stylish. No question. But what do you put in it? It's been a while since I worked in an office but what I remember mostly about it was that a) you don't want to make your lunch first thing in the morning when you could be asleep, having paranoid dreams about being late for exams and b) you don't want to make your lunch the night before when you could be knocking back a lot of cheap white wine in front of Mary, Queen of Shops. Or asleep, having paranoid dreams about being late for exams.
But there doesn't seem much that will do a bento justice that doesn't require a bit of effort. For example, the arrangement above is a buckwheat soba noodle salad in one compartment with a pile of teriyaki chicken next to it. But it took me a while to make and it required a fair amount of ingredients, which I would not be arsed to shop for, if I had a lunchbreak.
So I've really badly failed my brief to make something easy or something that can be made in large batches. I guess you could make this in a large batch but do you want to eat the same thing two days in a row? Maybe you do if it's nice enough.
Just for laughs, this is how to make the soba noodle salad. All ingredients are available from Waitrose.
1/3 packet buckwheat soba noodles
1 handful coriander, chopped
1/2 chilli, chopped
1/2 spring onion, chopped
1/2 carrot, julienned
a sprinkling of sesame seeds
2 broccoli florets, quartered
1 tbsp sesame oil
juice of 1/2 a lime
splash of mirin (do I need to explain that this is rice vinegar?)
a sprinkling of sugar
1 Boil the soba noodles for 8 minutes and then rinse to remove the brown scummy stuff. Put in a mixing bowl and pour over the sesame oil immediately because what buckwheat soba noodles really love to do is stick to each other and then turn to cardboard.
2 Boil the broccoli for 4 minutes and run under cold water
3 Put everything in the mixing bowl and shift round a bit
4 Combine the lime juice, mirin and sugar and sprinkle over. I tried to find a small bottle that could hold the dressing separately but couldn't get one small enough. One of those little soy fish that comes with a Pret Sushi box would be perfect.
The teriyaki chicken went like this
1 Chop up some chicken brest or thighs into approximately 1in square pieces. Put in a bowl and shake over some bottled teriyaki sauce. Leave for a few minutes. (Normally I wouldn't recommend using some crapola bottled sauce, full of E numbers and shite, but I'm not about to make teriyaki sauce - although I'm sure one of you knows how.)
2 Fry the chicken pieces very hot and fast in groundnut oil.
It was all very tasty but would I cook it all at 9pm for my lunch the next day? Not a chance.
Back to the drawing board.