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Out of the box

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Food in the bento tastes better. When you are on the go, opening one becomes quite like discovering a treasure chest of kinds. Bite into this: succulent sashimi, sushi and teppanyaki grills accompanied by bowls of miso soup and rice. And what with a bit of red here, a dab of orange there and a splash of mellow yellow, an unexpected burst of flavours, taste and texture comes through.

Now if you don’t know about the bento, it is simply a Japanese lunch box and is a variation of the tiffin boxes you carried to school — only it’s usually filled with better booty. It was once commonly eaten at the hanamis, or the Japanese tea parties of yore, but today the bento box has turned out to be all the rage during lunch hours in fine-dining restaurants.

At Pan Asian, the ITC Sonar Calcutta restaurant that takes you on a Pan Pacific journey, its signature dish ‘The Best of Pan Asian’ is a big hit. “People order it for the bento box. Need I say more?” says Chef Ramesh Javvaji, the hotel’s executive chef. An added incentive: the prices do not really pinch. Pan Asian’s bento is priced at Rs 750 excluding taxes.

On Delhi’s fringes, at the Trident Hilton’s Konomi, the bento accounts for nearly 75 per cent of lunch sales. “It is not only popular with our Japanese clientele but also with Indian and European guests looking for a quick and light gourmet meal. Also, a bento signifies a minimum fuss meal, especially during a business lunch. Everything is served in one go,” says Chef Ravitej Nath, executive chef, Konomi.

‘Everything’ traditionally refers to set helpings of rice, fish or meat, pickled vegetables and a side dish served in attractive hand-crafted lacquer-ware rectangular boxes with lids.

But Bento lunches differ across the eateries. And this is how. There are five different bento boxes for the diner to choose from at Tetsuma, a Japanese fine-dining restaurant by Aditya Kilachand and Vickrant Chougule of Chateau Indage in the swish Colaba area in Mumbai. Any bento here comes with three main dishes, two salads, a bowl of miso soup and teppanyaki fried rice. Price: Rs 500-Rs 900 plus taxes.

All bento boxes at Konomi consist of miso soup, teppanyaki noodles, Japanese sticky rice, imported Japanese pickles, Japanese salads, a tempura and a main dish. It offers a mean Tori Katsu Bento, which is about crumbed chicken and chicken tempura and the Buta Shoga Bento that has prawn tempura and teppanyaki pork. If the bentos come here at a higher cost — Rs 1,295 to Rs 1,495 inclusive of taxes — there’s a reason. All fish and seafood is flown in from the famous Tsijiki market in Tokyo.

The bento from the kitchen of Chef Nariyoshi Nakamura, Master Chef at Sakura, The Metropolitan Hotel — ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500 — runs along similar lines.

Remember there are ways to figure out whether you have a good bento laid out before you. What matters most is the ease with which you can go through its contents as also its visual appeal and health quotient. “The bento is healthy even when fried foods are thrown in because you are given different food groups — carbohydrates, starch and proteins,” says Mako Ravindran, manager at Harima on Residency Road in Bangalore that specialises in bentos and serves them up in wooden boxes.

That said the signature bentos are the ones to look out for. Konomi makes theirs with red snapper and seafood tempura while at Tetsuma you can choose from its signature dishes such as Beef Bulgogi and scallops to be part of your bento. Pan Asian’s signature lunch box has sushi, sashimi, tuna maki rolls and Californian maki rolls accompanied by gari (or sushi ginger, essentially pickled ginger often eaten after sushi).

Now for those who like to devour little cakes of rice topped with a fillet of raw fish, bentos packed with a selection of sushi are a big incentive to sample these Japanese convenience platters. The Oriental grill at TK’s in Hyatt Regency, Delhi, serves four different kinds of sushi including maki rolls and nigiri rolls for Rs 950 along with taxes. The sauces are served in a bowl alongside the box. There are more on offer at Tetsuma — almost seven or eight sushi come together with a bowl of miso.

The bentos are but strictly non-sushi at Harima. “The reason being that we are worried about the sushi going wrong if kept for more than two to three hours,” says Ravindran. Their speciality is that they even offer smoked eel imported from Taiwan in their six to seven choices of bento lunches. And they have priced their bentos between just Rs 350-600.

So here’s to the conveniently priced convenience box that promises a bite of Japan with every nibble.

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