Bento comes in many forms. To take away or served at a high-end eatery; for carnivores, vegans or vegetarians; tight-wad cheap or wallet-tinglingly expensive. The word refers only to the meal’s convenience. A series of small bites packed in a lacquered or wooden box (or at least a handsome plastic one), bento is among the world’s most sensibly presented foods.
Traditionally it’s a very seasonal combination of food items, and can include any number of elements. In Japan you’ll find bento at your local 7-Eleven and at the even more ubiquitous Lawsons convenience stores. But bento can hit full-on kaiseki-style (traditional Japanese haute cuisine) heights. It’s a free-for-all.
But while there are no limitations, bento is rarely exotic – this is comforting, nourishing food that celebrates the familiar. A common bento might include salmon, either grilled or steamed, or meat that's been marinated in soy, sake or mirin, a couple of sides, some rice and a bowl of miso.
At fine-tuned Japanese diner Kisume, even though you’ll encounter a traditional-ish sushi counter the moment you push open that heavy glass door, the vibe is as much New York as it is Neo Tokyo. That’s thanks to owner Chris Lucas, who challenges tradition at each one of his manically popular restaurants (Flinders Lane line-magnet Chin Chin, Kong barbeque, Richmond pizzeria-and-more Baby, and buzzing Windsor diner Hawker Hall).
In line with this, head chef Yonge Kim is no purist when it comes to the art of bento. His aim is to create something fulfilling, but also quick – all going well, your bento box will hit table within 10 minutes of ordering.
To get a better understanding of Kisume’s bento, let’s break it down bit by bit.
Generally considered the main event, meat or fish usually takes up the biggest quadrant of the bento box, which starts at $38.50. Choose from pork katsu, miso-marinated black cod, beef tenderloin with foie gras and sea perch. The vegetarian option is kakiage, a mix of seasonal produce such as eggplant and corn that’s moulded into a cylinder before cooking. The chef cuts it in half before serving, revealing a pretty mosaic of vegetables inside.
The sea perch is the more deluxe of the five. The delicate white-fleshed fish can live in Australia’s cold southern oceans for up to 60 years, and comes with an ochazuke topping (a kind of umami crumble made from tea and three different kinds of rice crackers that provide an earthy tone and crunch). Underneath it is miso combined with anchovies and olive oil, and on top is smoked salmon roe from the Yarra Valley. If that’s not luxe enough, there’s also a cube of raw tuna, another of wasabi tofu, some scallop sushi and a Moonlight Flat oyster from the Clyde River in New South Wales.
Regardless of your protein choice, with all that fat and oil going on you need some acid to shear through it like the fabled blade of Musashi. That’s where Kim’s house-made pickles come in. Finely sliced cucumbers are rested in salt, then tossed in amazu, a sweet-sour vinegar. After all the liquid is squeezed out, the emerald-coloured pickles are parked in a small bowl alongside some greens. The discovery and enjoyment of a good pickle is a rare and subtle occasion. This is one of those.
Miso is an extraordinarily important element of any self-respecting bento (or Japanese meal full stop), and choosing a miso is a mark of personal taste. At Kisume, Kim uses aka, or red miso, for its balance in terms of salt, texture, weight and flavour.
He combines this with a light shio broth that’s bumped up with a bit of dashi made from finely shaved bonito. This gives Kisume’s miso soup a complex, clear and earthy quality. When it’s ready to serve, a line-cook sprinkles in more shaved bonito, the dried and fermented fish flakes dancing as they hit the heat.
The Japanese make a fine art of rice preparation, using it not only as a staple carbohydrate but as a generative flavour, whether in fermented rice drinks such as amazake and sake, or in koji, a naturally occurring enzyme used to ferment soybeans for soy sauce.
And while there are as many different rice varieties for as many imaginable applications, Japanese rice tends to be on the shorter side – unlike the longer, thinner basmati used in India or the fragrant jasmine preferred in Thailand. At Kisume, Yonge opts for a traditional high-end short-grain rice that’s washed, steamed and served in its own bowl, needing little else for maximum deliciousness. Chopsticks are provided at Kisume, but in Japan it’s common to BYO rice-eating implements.
A Japanese lunch is great with Calpis (a milky, uncarbonated drink with a flavour somewhere close to Yakult) or Pokari Sweat (a sports drink that tastes exactly how it sounds), but I recommend a beer alongside your bento.
Japan has developed an arguably unsurpassed expertise in all things beery. Broadly speaking, Japanese brewers’ talents lie in crisp, dry and very clean brews that pair well with food by being tasty but non-intrusive.
But there are exceptions. Hitachino Nest’s White Ale or Non Ale are both excellent choices. Established in 1823 as a sake brewery, Hitachino began making beer in 1996 when Japan relaxed its laws on craft brewing (previously, it was limited to the Big Four brewers). By ’97, Hitachino was winning international awards for its esoteric, funky beers that don’t compromise on clarity. The Non Ale is hard to find but very tasty, particularly considering it doesn’t contain alcohol, and the White Ale has hints of orange and coriander. A Sapporo or a schooner of Asahi will do just fine, too.