Beauty, price of bento lure French palates

As appreciation for Japan's food culture has blossomed around the world, the term "bento" has become common in France and other countries.

The artfully arranged boxed meals are also receiving renewed attention at home.

Lifting the lid of a plain wooden box releases the aroma of yuzu citrus, revealing a gorgeous meal inside. The Bocuse d'Or is an international culinary competition that judges participants' French cooking skills. The contest was held in Lyon, France, in January, where the yuzu bento created by Noriyuki Hamada of Hoshino Resort won first place for fish courses.

Although Hamada's creation differs from what most Japanese consider bento, "the excitement of removing the lid is the essence of the bento," said a person closely related to the competition. "As a French cuisine, it was a novel presentation. And judges must have felt its typically Japanese beauty."

Joel Robuchon, a well-known French chef with several restaurants in Japan, is enthralled with bento. Last December, he published a book on the subject in Japan and hopes to release a French version soon in his home country. "I want to tell people in France how great Japanese traditional home cooking is," he said.

An interest in Japanese food has led to an understanding among Parisians of the bento concept. People like the idea of a small box packed with a variety of dishes arranged beautifully.

"A bento is cheaper than going out to eat, so it's become popular among young people whose finances are tight," said Yoshimi Uchisaka, a culinary researcher who is knowledgeable about the Parisian food scene.

Kyoto-based Bento&co sells boxes for bento online to customers in 80 countries. It launched a French website in 2008 and an English page in 2010.

The store ships at least 1,000 boxes every month, mainly to Europe, the United States and Australia, but recently orders have started coming in from the Middle East as well.

The bento is also experiencing a renaissance in Japan. A series of lectures titled "Oishii Kyoshitsu" (Delicious classroom) organised by famous designers and the general public and held in the Daikanyama district in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, from June to December received a lot of attention.

Masamichi Toyama, a business owner in the food industry, organised the lectures. Seven guest speakers gave presentations, including designer Akira Minagawa and graphic designer Taku Sato.

Participants brought their own bentos and explained them to the class while the others sampled them. Bungeishunju Ltd. published a book on the best bento to come out of the series last month, titled "Misetakunaru O-bento 100" (100 bentos you want to show off). The book focuses on the beauty of bento, but does not include recipes.

"I came to realise the freedom associated with this little box, which I want others to enjoy, too," Toyama said.

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