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Review: Face Food Recipes

The Christmas rush is catching up to me and beating me on the head with a rolled up newspaper, so I haven’t been making bento as often as I’d intended. Despite thinking that I was almost done Christmas shopping, I instead discovered that my list of people left to shop for was actually rather lengthy, which isn’t a good thing on December 9! Our office holiday party is today, so there’s no bento to be had. I do however, have more book reviews for you all to consider for holiday shopping.

Face Food Books

When I first got into bento, there were very few bento books out there. In fact, the only three I can remember were The Manga Cookbook, Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go, and Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes. Since I’ve never reviewed the original Face Food, I’ll give my thoughts on both that and its follow up book, Face Food Recipes, which was just released this month.

I bought the first Face Food earlier this year and was pretty surprised by how small the book is. I don’t know what it is about bento books published in the US, but everyone seems to go with small. Both books are 80 pages long and 7×5, making them the size of your typical paperback. Both are hardcover, which actually makes them hard to keep open. While achingly adorable, Face Food is actually little more than a coffee table book, offering you pretty pictures and fascinating stories about home bento makers in Japan, but essentially no recipes.

That being said, it’s a really spectacular coffee table book. The bentos featured in this book are nothing short of amazing and you’ll no doubt have tons of fun showing it off to friends who have no idea what you can do with time and food. If you like to look at bentos more than make them, this is the perfect book for you.

Mark Batty Publisher provided me with a copy of Face Food Recipes for review and when I first heard of the book I was truly excited because the title and marketing material obviously pitch it as an instructionall guide for making the kind of wondrous bento we saw in the original book.

“Face Food Recipes shows every person outside of Japan how a little time and love can transform something as simple as lunch into pure edible cuteness. You needn’t travel to Tokyo for personal food craft lessons from humble housewives. I did that. Now everyone can use Face Food Recipes to have a little fun designing food in their kitchen!”

Unfortunately for aspiring bento artists that hunger for the secret knowledge of the elite charaben artists of Japan, this book doesn’t do what it says it will in the way you’d expect. For one, with the word “recipes” in the title, you probably expect actual recipes. Instead, we are given sketches of the bento along with little notations on what each piece of the charaben is made of and no information on the foods that surround the actual character. From what I can see, there was only one recipe in the entire book, which is found in the glossary in the back.

The first part of the book explains that you can’t “teach” people how to cut nori or fishcake in intricate little pieces and arrange them in perfect order, which I agree with to a certain extent. I do think though, that there is a LOT to be learned by actual instructions into methods. I have a Japanese bento book that I look into for inspiration all the time and in the back of that book there were photos of how to make flat sheets, how to dye them certain colors, how to dye rice, how to cut out the perfect Pikachu, etc. If I’d had the instructions in English, I’d have found that insanely valuable to my bento making. Instead, I had to stare at the pictures and figure it out for myself. With that in mind, I find this “how-to” guide doesn’t actually show you how to do anything. Perhaps it’s because the author doesn’t actually make charaben himself? I’m not sure.

That’s not to say that I don’t like the book though, I simply find the marketing to be misleading. I’m also not sure why Mark Batty chose such a drab and dainty cover. Their winter catalog featured a different cover with a collage of the adorable lunches within and I really feel that this cover would have attracted many more people to it. The current cover makes it hard to tell it’s a bento book at all.

You can see the sketches in the picture above. There are also more scans available on Amazon. Practically every bento has a sketch like this, though since they are obviously done by the same artist, I am assuming that the sketches were based on the lunches, not the other way around. With a little “paint by numbers” diagram to go with it, you get to learn what the characters are made of. As I mentioned though, there is no information on how these artists actually cut things out. Is it freehand? Tracing paper? What do they use? Some charaben artists use toothpicks while others use paring knives, but this information doesn’t appear to be present. One exception is the Mice Rice bento, which gives you details on how to make the mice.

Many of the charaben artists in the original Face Food make a return in this book and they have clearly advanced their skills, as the bento in this book are even better than the ones in the first. Most of the text on the page is dedicated to giving you background about the actual character, which is interesting, but not what I was expecting or wanting. I do love the little purple ribbon in the book’s binding that provides you with a built-in bookmark. That was a nice touch!

In summary, Face Food Recipes is a stunning follow-up book to the original Face Food, taking the concept used and improving upon it with the diagrams and sketches, but ultimately does not deliver the “how-to” portion of recipes that most of us here in the US want to know. Just how did they do that?! How the heck do they cut out nori glasses in the exact same shape as the cheese glasses?!? How do they get their riceballs so smooth on the surface?!?

Buy Face Food Recipes if you enjoyed Face Food because this book delivers the same coffee table appeal, but if you’re looking for the inside secrets to making charaben, you’ll just have to be a little more patient.

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  • I always wanted to order that book, but the reviews on amazon didn´t satisfy me. After reading yours I feel more encouraged to spend the money, because it just will look great on my coffee table 😉

  • Kelly

    I am always happy to read another of your book reviews. I tried the Dango recipe from The Manga Cookbook and it was a spectacular failure! the measurements seem to be wrong. Have you tried any of the recipes?

  • Naw, I haven’t had a chance to yet, but many of them were simple enough where I knew that the ingredients list was fine. The dango is something I actually have never made on my own. My cousin has a microwave recipe, I’ll ask her for it and try it out!

  • Leslie

    I want to thank you for your book reviews. They are always very helpful. After reading the review of Face Food, I am encouraged to buy it. I have not made any beautiful charaben, but I have made a few creative bento for my lunches at work. Several people have commented on them. I would love to be able to show them what some of the experts can do with food! They would be shocked :-).
    Also, I am going to order this and the “Bento Love” book as soon as I get a little extra cash. I am always on the lookout for some new and simple recipes.
    Thank you for the time you spend to educate the rest of us! I, for one, appreciate it!

  • You’re welcome Leslie, I’m glad you find my reviews helpful!!

  • That book looks like so much fun to read!! I don’t have the artistic talent to make faces on my bentou, but it doesn’t mean I’m not interested in looking at them! (Or eating them… Hmm…)

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  • Thank you for your comment on my review of the book. I have added your link as well and this review is very useful for me to read. I do not own the 2nd book yet and now I know I don’t have to fall in the same trap again. I probably will not buy the 2nd book unless I can get it really cheap.