Bento is a Japanese term for a box lunch. Kyaraben or charaben is the term for a box lunch that is styled to look like people, animals, pop culture characters, or something else besides food. However, in American usage, the term bento has become an umbrella term to mean an artfully sculpted and arranged lunch. These came into being to get children excited about eating a packed lunch. As parents became more skilled at making these boxed lunches, they became an art form that appeals to those who never need to pack a lunch or eat a packed lunch. Here are some of the modern artists who excel at bento.
1. Mike Kravanis
Mike Kravanis makes bento lunches featuring characters from Disney films and other cartoons and video games. The precisely-cut and placed eyes make them so faithful to the characters! I particularly like his lunch version of Prince John from Robin Hood. See more of them at his Tumblr blog OMGiri.
Japanese Twitter user Sasariri posts an occasional impressive bento creation. Last year, she made a series of educational lunches for her children that illustrate each of the 47 different prefectures of Japan! Each contains the outline of the area, some cultural reference, and the name in Roman letters. That must have been a lot of work, but had to have helped the children learn all of them.
3. Sumiko Sarashima
Sumiko Sarashima is A Japanese Gourmet in London. She also posts tutorials on food art at Instructables under the name A Japanese housewife. Her instructions for making this LEGO bento box teaches us a lot about the food that goes into it as well as the craft.
4. Beau Coffron
Beau Coffron is The Lunchbox Dad. He creates surprising and artistic lunches for his three kids and helps the rest of us learn to do it, too.
This Star Wars Storm Trooper lunch is an example, and he includes instructions for making it at the post. The helmet is a tortilla, laid over black beans (meat and cheese are hidden underneath). The TIE fighters are made of cucumber chunks and snap peas
DeviantART member Minicuteclub creates needle felted plush animals and food art, both cute as can be! Here is her Totoro bento box, with characters made of rice and eggs. No food coloring was used -the blue egg was colored with a natural dye made with red cabbage. There’s a video tutorial on the process of making this bento box, as there are for all her bento projects.
6. Heather Sitarzewski
Heather Sitarzewski at Lunch Box Awesome makes bento boxes for her son’s lunch at school. She learned from following internet tutorials and now specializes in Disney and other pop culture characters. I adore this bento sandwich that looks just like Tigger!
DeviantART member Oliko is a Polish anime artist who also creates bento boxes. She has a blog dedicated to her bento art, in Polish. The Garfield on the Moon bento pictured is quite impressive. Oliko also has bento boxes that feature internet meme faces in her food art gallery.
8. Hotaru Yamakawa
Hotaru Yamakawa of the website Pouch made a series of three horror bentos featuring the faces of a zombie, a ghost (pictured here), and Frankenstein’s monster. The faces are rice, the bulging eyes are quail eggs, and the rest is a blend of foods that will taste good together even though they don’t look so appetizing.
The real challenge to making a horror bento is balancing the image with the taste. In other words it should just look like death, not taste like it. Because of this you can’t just go around sloping ketchup “blood” onto white rice. You’ll have to blend the flavors better. This was particularly on Ms. Yamakawa’s mind as she felt she would probably have to eat these herself after no one else would, and so she came up with these three dishes.
See them all, along with details of their composition in case you want to try this yourself.
DeviantART member mindfire3927 makes bento boxes that look as if they were hand-drawn, but each piece is carefully cut and arranged, using seaweed or spinach for the outlines and various foods and food coloring for the rest. This lunch featuring Belle from Beauty and the Beast is made from sliced turkey, nori, and tortilla, among other foods.
10. Rico & Coco
Then again, bento boxes do not have to be cute, and do not have to portray pop culture characters to be impressive. Japanese artists Rico & Coco made bento boxes featuring recreations of objects as mundane as hand cream and health tonic bottles, and they were still impressive works of art. See more of their work at RocketNews24.
11. Metal Gear
This box is a little different, because we don’t know who made it, but the results are almost photorealistic. Metal Gear video game developer Hideo Kojima was presented with this bento box featuring his game characters at a special event celebrating the anniversary of the Metal Gear and Final Fantasy franchises. Kojima had to take pictures of it. The faces are made of mashed potatoes, the hair is made of green onions, and the eyes are quail eggs. Yes, he ate it.