in the September 2008 issue of Country Roads
Upon entering the workforce, I quickly discovered that lunch was often a mixed blessing—a daily break that quickly gives way to a dull ritual of eating the same things with the same people going back to the same office. Usually you have the requisite sandwich place, lackluster Americanized Mexican restaurant, maybe a Chinese buffet within the radius, a brown bagged sandwich or the remnants of last night’s meal congealing in a Styrofoam box as your options. To those of you left unsatisfied with those options, allow me to introduce you to a new word: bento.
Bento is a tradition of Japanese lunches that stretches back to the Kamakura Period in the twelfth century, when Hoshi-ii, a kind of ready to eat dried rice, was developed and stored in small bags for consumption on the road. Over the years, the content and style of bento evolved into the ekiben, or “train station bento” where some form of rice dish, pickled vegetables and dumplings are artfully arranged in a sectioned box which allows easy consumption and separation of sauces and flavors.
The yellow tail roll was simple, just rice and tuna wrapped in nori, but that simplicity trumps the showboating of ornate specialty rolls that are often the stars of a sushi meal. The real winner, though was the crunchy roll, rice stuffed with tempura battered shrimp dolloped with a rich tangy sweet, smoky sauce, almost like teriyaki sauce but thicker and more refined in tenor. It was the rare meal eaten in the Louisiana summertime that I actually felt refreshed after eating. Dessert was a couple scoops of red bean ice cream, another Japanese specialty difficult to sell. It does taste like red beans, but the savoriness that we associate with the Monday night staple of New Orleans is bypassed, bringing out the faint sweetness in the bean. It is a little heartier in texture and less creamy than what you associate with ice cream, but it, like the rest of the meal, it was an example of refinement of ingredients, thoughtful array of textures and flavors and rarified delights, available right around the corner.
The first bento was allegedly sold at the Utsunomiya train station in 1885, and as the trend continued, a family’s wealth could be determined by how elaborate one’s bento was. In the 1920s, the Japanese government sought to ban the practice of bento in schools because it illuminated the economic disparity between the classes, and around the time of World War II, the practice started to disappear.
The advent of the microwave brought the practice back into vogue and with it came the ornate arrangements that characterize the meals today. This trend is not limited to Japan—one only need glance at the BentoLunch LiveJournal group, (http://community.livejournal.com/bentolunch/) where parents proudly display and slyly compete with their dazzling creations. The site offers a bento buying guide should you wish to roll up your sleeves and start shaping rice into molds cute enough for your children to eat and suitable for bragging rights.
Fortunately for me, Koi Japanese Cuisine opened at the north gates of LSU, next to Louie’s Café on State Street, just footsteps from my office, freeing me from the anxiety of competition. Koi has all the comforts one expects in a sushi restaurant, a microcosm of blonde wood and subdued lighting, small tables perfectly arranged along the walls and bar in the back, where one may observe the chefs crafting the precise rolls from their extensive menu. More importantly, they have a sashimi bento lunch for ten bucks.
The lunch comes in a box of lacquered polished wood with each item in its own section. First the miso soup in its small flat bowl sets the mood for the quiet, contemplative act of eating. Miso, a form of fermented rice or soybeans, is suspended in the thin stock, or dashi, in which bob a couple of tiny white cubes of tofu. Miso soup has one of the mildest discernable flavors—a slight saltiness, a wistful memory of mushroom broth at the perfect temperature for sipping. Personally, I like how the crushed miso swirls in the broth—it’s like watching the clouds drift in a spring sky.
The rest of the lunch continues this theme of subtle flavors and artful presentation. My crisp salad came with a shockingly yellow ginger dressing, icy with just a touch of citrus and sharp ginger tang to it. The California roll, rice stuffed with avocado, imitation crab and cream cheese had just the precise measure of sweetness and creaminess without turning it into deli seafood salad. The steamed gyoza dumplings, pork wrapped in thin dough, had the perfect textural balance—solid and hefty enough to allow the pork to saturate in the soy-vinegar dipping sauce yet light enough to leave room for the main course.
I have long given up on selling the rarified pleasures of sashimi, or raw fish, on the weak-willed—they are simply not going to eat it. I’m sure that they will somehow carve out a fulfilling existence without it, but for me, I crave it. Sashimi, when prepared right, is the cleanest culinary sensation one can have. The gorgeous cuts of tuna and salmon, lying seductively on a thin bed of rice, have a unique texture of bite and softness—it tastes uncannily pure. The secrets to great sashimi are freshness and cleanliness, allowing the quality of the ingredient to do all the talking while the chef merely arranges for the conversation to happen. Let’s just say the yellow tail and I had an enlightening little chat.
My wife is not a fan of sashimi, so we went back to sample the other items on the menu. They seated us with a complimentary apple seafood salad, the ingredients shredded and blended into a genius soft, slightly creamy slaw, setting the bar high for the rest of the meal. After a round of gyoza and some iced green tea, we shared a Sushi Roll Lunch B (California, snowcrab and crunchy roll), a Hamachi yellow tail roll and the Yaki Udon. The udon noodles were pan fried and smothered to the precipice of stickiness, and I wisely followed the waiter’s suggestion of getting a combination of chicken, pork and shrimp, which gave this dish a complex savoriness that changed slightly with each bite.