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Kawaii Bento Boxes Review

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to do a review on a bento book coming out later this year. Curious to see the latest attempt at a bento cookbook, I of course said I would. The book arrived quickly, taking about a week to get here. This is more than I can say for my copies of 501 Bento Lunches, which is still “in the mail”. *grumble*

My scanner is disconnected, so I had to just take a picture of the cover. I’m at home watching Baby Girl today because she has a fever, so I figured now was a good time to get this out there.

The first thing you notice about the book is the cute factor. It’s got approximately 80 bento lunches, many of them geared for kids and adults. The little section in the front on “Bento Basics” was really informative and there are other aspects of the book I found very useful, which I’ll get into later.

However, after one read-through of the book, something began to nag at my mind. Eventually, I was able to pinpoint that this nagging feeling was the impression that this wasn’t actually a bento book written for a US market, but rather a Japanese bento book translated into English and published in the US. There are several things that factor into this opinion of mine, but keep in mind they’re just my impressions. In the end, I think you’ll agree with my reasoning though.

For one, there’s a little intro on the inside cover that mentions bento is something “Japanese workers have [recently] begun to make”, which struck me as a little odd as I’d thought this was long common practice in Japan. Also note that it mentions “Japanese workers” and not the US bento community. The book is co-published by a company in Japan and the original copyright year is 2006.

The original publishing year begins to make sense when you see the bento boxes used and the tools pictured in the gear guide. As you all know by now, I’m as big a bento freak as they come with accessories and bento boxes. I have practically everything there is to own that’s been on the online markets for the last two years and there are things in this book I simply haven’t seen before, yet look similar to products I have now.

The bentos are split into nine different sections such as Onigiri Bento, Sushi Bento, Bread Bento, Pasta Bento, etc. Each bento comes with a menu box, sometimes a pictured recipe and other times a text recipe. On each photo is a little clock showing you approximately how long it would take you to make each lunch. I’m not sure how accurate these times are though, because some of the more complicated looking ones seem to have a time of 15 minutes, while another such as a quick sandwich bento with no cooking involved has a time of 20 minutes.

This section of the book was the most interesting to me. There were tabs for five different color sections with matching side dishes to fill your bento with. There’s also a pretty cool “quick dessert” page people might enjoy.

The recipes sounded pretty good, but I wasn’t very encouraged when I saw this:

The picture’s not that clear, but I’d like to ask any Hawaii resident what is wrong with this picture that they can tell. I asked three family members the same question and two of them were able to answer right away.

Have you got it? That’s right. THE SPAM IS RAW!!!

This was immediately apparent to me and I was horrified. It makes me wonder if this is why people on the mainland don’t like spam, cause they eat it like this. Anyway, the recipe just says to cut the spam and wrap it with nori around the rice. GROSS! Not to sound nitpicky, but this one thing causes me to question how everything else in the book tastes. If they’re going to tell you to eat raw spam, what else in here is going to be an unpleasant surprise come lunchtime? And even worse, it’s labeled “Hawaiian Musubi” like we eat it like this all the time. Ugh.

If you look at the first recipe picture, you’ll notice cheese sausage sushi. Those sausages appear to be served up raw as well. I’m the first in line at parties when there’s sashimi or raw fish sushi, but raw spam and sausage? I have to pass.

Something else to make note of about this book is that it’s got a lot of very regional dishes that I can’t see even my own kids eating. Things like stuffed shiitake mushrooms, eel donburi, fried squid rings, kinpira, sauteed lotus root, and natto riceballs are just a few examples. Overall, the book has a lot of cute ideas, bento layouts, and mini recipes, but I think people in less Asian-centric communities will find this book difficult to use without a lot of creative replacement on their part, which seems like a pretty big turnoff when it comes to a cookbook’s functionality.

The book is set to go on sale in September of this year for $18.95, which seems a little pricey to me considering it’s only 80 pages. I’m not sure how much success it’ll have being what looks like a regurgitated Japan book in a US market, but I’ll leave that determination up to all of you. 🙂

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  • Monica Romo

    A coworker of mine use to eat Spam raw with bread and butter pickles and raw onions for lunch. It was the most disgusting thing ever! Can you believe it!

  • I dunno, eel donburi is pretty darn tasty. (: Once you can get the kids to try it, you may be stuck with them asking for it all the time! On the bright side, it’s easy to prepare the eel if you’ve got access to a Japanese grocery — just pull it out of the package and heat it up.

    I agree with you that I’m a little uneasy about the uncooked prepackaged meats. I don’t usually cook with spam, but I always reheat any prepackaged sausages I buy. Otherwise they just don’t taste right.

  • @Leanne Oh no, I totally love unagi. I just don’t see it as something the average American kid would go for. It’s all about getting them to even try it right? 🙂

    @Monica That is totally gross!! Was she pregnant?!

  • M

    Now I’ve never had spam in my life, but i thought part of the umm.. “appeal” is that it is cooked?

  • Samantha

    Do you know of any English bento recipe books that have a wider variety of food that we could find more readily here in the US? I’m always looking for books with recipes in them that are just right for bentos, but I can only usually find Japanese books, or books like these, which were translated to English from Japanese.

  • Here in Texas we fry our Spam to a crackly crunch…. and we’re a little leery of ell, we call that ‘cut bait.’

  • Monica Romo

    No she wasn’t pregnant, she was an elderly woman and she was from Texas. Not sure if that is a Texas thing or not…

  • I remembered the first time I encountered “raw spam”. A family friend from Taiwan cut the spam and just ate it like that. The reasoning was that the spam would have been cooked in the tin already so there wasn’t any need to cook it further.

    I had to stop eating spam though. Got diagnosed with high BP and spam has too much salt in it for me. 🙁

  • Molly

    I found the raw spam musubi puzzling because I’m in the tourism industry and Japanese travel books for Hawaii have featured cooked spam musubi, loco moco, plate lunch, and poke for many years. Hawaii is so popular in Japan that many restaurants have clever variations on loco moco and even “konbini” (convenience stores) sell spam musubi in some areas. I can only guess that the Japanese author had never seen a real spam musubi, but had heard of it’s popularity??

  • Bento Buddy

    Not to seem too nitpicky, but Spam out of the can is not raw. I agree that eating it this way is pretty disgusting, even though it’s pre cooked. The “laws of Spam” clearly state that it must be fried or browned before consumption. That photo of the spam musubi really was a WTF moment.

  • Yeah, spam is already precooked so it’s not raw. It says so on the can! There are even recipes on the spam website that call for uncooked spam. I’ve substituted cubed spam for ham in a salad once and it was pretty tasty! But for spam musubi I think it definitely tastes better when the spam is fried!

  • I realize it’s not technically raw, but since it’s “raw” in my mind, it just grosses me out.

  • I have been looking for a good Bento boox and this one looks really good and easy to follow. Think I might get on Amazon and buy myself one. Thanks for the review.

  • Nick

    My 7 year old son loves unagi! So do I though. But he usually isn’t shy about trying new things. We live in Seattle and have sushi often and he loves it 🙂

  • Sharon

    I never thought that Spam (or luncheon meat) will need any other further cooking.. my mum cooks it with fried rice at times but we usually eat it with as a sandwich with cucumber and butter. Maybe its a cultural thing.. I live in Singapore.

  • AYL

    Ok, I thought the sausage roll looked uncooked but I figured well maybe not until I saw the “raw” spam. It is. That look like cheese in there? Interesting. When I was looking at the dishes I thought ok there are things that my kids would eat (not a normal kids palate) and most of those things I won’t eat but it got me at natto rice balls. Only that my son won’t eat, maybe my daughter but I don’t know. It’s definitely a Japan thing. I can’t see some kid in Nebraska eating that much less finding Natto in the store there.

  • Yvo

    Hey to the person who can’t eat spam anymore – there’s Spam Lite!!! or low sodium or something 🙂

    Pikko, great review, I am waiting for my review copy to come in of this very same book. I’m a little sad that it’s not quite what I was hoping it would be, too – someone needs to combine all the great info out there for the US bento market and put it in a really good book with a large portion dedicated to the American palate, to bring awareness that you can bento for the non-Asian palate! And part dedicated to the Asian side too of course 😉
    I have only had Spam a handful of times in my life (and like it fine) but the first time I heard of it being cooked, it was like a light bulb went off in my head and I thought “ohhh, I could see that tasting good…” lol. 🙂

  • Yvo

    PS Proud to say even so I noticed right away the spam musubi wasn’t cooked

  • I got my review copy at the end of last week also 🙂 I probably shouldn’t have read your review before I do mine – lol – but I may refer to your review (or just add a link) when I do mine – I did a quick look through so far but am trying to read through it before I review it and maybe try a thing or two 🙂 I was surprised by how simplistic it seems on first glance, but still see an idea or two 🙂

  • Erm, am almost afraid to say it, but as far as I know most people in Holland eat spam raw. Mainly as a very very cheap sandwich filler. Just slice it up, put it on bread, and done! My dad loves it, I am completely grossed out by it (raw or cooked, I just hate the stuff). The only cooked spam I’ve ever seen in Holland was as a ground beef substitute in tomato sauce for macaroni.

    I like the look of the cookbook, but would say that I’d prefer a bento cookbook with more mainstream dishes. It’s not that easy to get Asian ingredients in my neck of the woods, so my bento’s are not “Asian” usually.

  • pandy

    I’ve made the musubis both ways and I think it depends on the flavor of the spam, as many know, there are diff flavors. The roast turkey is good right out of the tin, but I’d marinate and fry the dickens out fo the regular stuff, the carmelized surface is what makes musubi look and taste the best to me.

  • Carly

    Where do you buy your bento boxes/ supplies?

  • What a fun book! Too bad the times are off…I hate that! At least make ’em realistic, ya know?! Raw spam? Eeeeew!

  • Wait wait wait, Spam’s meant to be cooked? Yeah, no one ever thought to tell me that.

  • I skimmed through your post the first time and realized that from the pics alone it did look like a Japanese bento book but in English. I think its a good start; I know you’re like me and have a ton of bento books at home in Japanese and are trying to figure out what they’re saying by interpreting pictures!

    But you’re right, the spam thing is a little weird. :/

  • I so want this book now, it looks like it would be most helpful.

    My husband likes spam sliced raw on bread w/mustard. That’s the only way he will eat it.

  • hie, my dad used to slice spam and have them raw. I got a taste of it, thanks to him. it tasted kinda mushy. But since mum’s a health advocate, raw spam’s a no-no in our house ever since. 🙂

  • I’ve lived in Japan for six years and have never seen unfried spam in musubi. I also wonder if the writer really has ever made them. Spam has to be bought in international supermarkets or stores with imports.

    On the point about the workers starting to make bentos. A large number of full timers in Japan, Tokyo especially, buy bentos from convenience stores every day – gross! I’ve never actually seen a single guy bring a lunch that he’s made. Now with the economic downturn, even some, but not that many, single guys are bringing lunches.

  • Siegy

    What is wrong with all you people who think raw spam is gross?? It’s good!

    Everyone else I know eats it that way too, I guess it’s just a local thing.

  • BB

    Ha ha, I guess it would be weird if you always eat your spam cooked, but in the UK, most people wouldn’t be shocked. It’s like corned beef! You can eat both from the can. It’s not raw, it’s just cooked ham mashed up.

  • I noticed the uncooked spam in that photo too. But I have to say, until I married a man with Hawaiian relatives, I never knew of any one that cooked it. Growing up in WA state, it was always served like ham, cubed or sliced uncooked. Let me tell you, cooked is much better!
    I have read four or five bento books this year and I think my favorite for the beginning American bento enthusiast is “Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook” by Susan Yuen of Hawaii. First of all, she uses ingredients that are more likely to be available in most US grocery stores.

    I have the “Kawaii Bento” book too and I like it fine, especially the color-coded pages and it was obvious to me that the text had been translated from the Japanese. But it’s good to see how things are done there too.

    Another good beginner book is “The Manga Cookbook” which is for kids as it’s illustrated but has a photo section too (the color is terribly washed out for some reason). The directions are nice and clear though and the recipes are simple.

  • Patrice

    I reviewed the book at Borders in town. I am a pretty easy sell for Bento books since I am new to Bento and highly impressionable. I did not buy the book because the ideas did not seem unique to me. Maybe I surf the web too much but I only liked the section where it catagorized color choices for bento. This section seemed too basic to spark new ideas.

  • missuswing

    i bought this book at the bookstore next to Uwajimaya in downtown Seattle. i had stopped making bento lunches for my family (a teen, a tween, hubby and me) because i was getting so tired of the same things every day. this book got me inspired and made me want to go home and make lunches again. (just in time for school to start)

    a lot of the dishes i wouldn’t do because of limitations – for example, the donburi dishes, i know the winglets would like to have heated up but they don’t have access to a microwave at their school. but the riceballs wrapped in a thin omelette? totally something they’d enjoy, since one of their favorite lunches is soboro beef. i tried making it the last week of summer vacation but messed up on the omelette bit.

    and thanks to this book, i bought a container of quail eggs today. hard boiled them, then made dharma dolls out of four of them for tomorrow’s lunches. *very* cute. i also bought agar powder at the same store, and will be making some jellies soon. (i have little molds from Daiso that say to use only konnyaku in them and don’t know if i can ignore than and use the molds for the agar jellies.)

    all in all, i view this book like the rest of my cookbooks. great to look at, but with only a couple of recipes i’d actually make.

  • You’re totally on the mark about it being a translation of a Japanese bento book, Pikko! When writing a review for Lunch in a Box I realized it was *exactly* the same as a Japanese-language bento book I already had in my kitchen (Ichinenju Yakudatsu Tsuen Obento)! Details here: