Special Feature Review: Tsukuro! Obento! (Make it! Bento!)

Today we’re very fortunate to welcome our very first guest reviewer to Oyatsu Break, Jocelyne Allen! Jocelyne is a friend of mine and a translator, and she’s had the [mis]fortune to accompany me through dozens of convenience stores across Japan, looking for cool candy. She and her partner Todd encountered a pretty unique candy of their own, and they were nice enough to document their ‘create your own candy’ exeperience for the site! You can check out more of Jocelyne’s writing at brainvsbook.com.
– Chris, OyatsuBreak.com

Review: Tsukuro! Obento! (Make it! Bento!)
Review by Jocelyne Allen, with thanks to Todd  Ferguson

When partner-in-crime Todd and I spotted the bright orange and busy packaging of “Tsukuro! Obento!” in the snack aisle of the T&T Supermarket, more than one question jumped into my head, but I guess one of the first was, “Are there English instructions?” Thanks to my powerful bilingualism, I could immediately understand the name of this treat: Make it! Bento box! And even the tiny letters on the back detailing each step of making it were no mystery to me. But, I wondered, what about the non-Japanese speakers that were likely in the majority in this supermarket and indeed, in the city? How will they make their own bento?

The answer, I learned, is simple: They won’t. The only instructions for this questionable treat are those tiny letters on the back of the box, and these are half-covered by a sticker in English detailing the nutritional value of the contents of the box (hint: What is the nutritional content of 100% sugar?). So if you are considering a trip to T&T Supermarket to procure your very own sugar bento, be forewarned.

Fortunately, my aforementioned Japanese super powers meant that the lack of English was no barrier, and in a moment of ill-advised spontaneity, we paid the $3.99 sale price for the “Kracie Bento Soft Candy” and ran to the nearest kitchen, eager to create our own lunch made of fructose and variations of glucose.

The bento features onigiri (rice ball), tamagoyaki (fried egg) broccoli (seriously), kara-age (deep-fried meat), napolitan (spaghetti dish), an octopus wiener, and panda onigiri. Opening the box, we discover that the plastic acting as the second wrapper (because in Japan, one wrapper is not enough) also doubles as the “box” for our bento. We briefly debate getting an actual bento box out since we are doubtful that we will be able to achieve optimal piling without the walls of the box to hold our creation up, but eventually agree that it would be a shame not to use the cheerful yellow drawing that we paid almost four dollars for.

Naturally, inside the plastic “box” wrapping, more packaging awaits. It’s starting to look like we are in over our heads, but in the end, the basic idea is quite simple. Take packet of processed sugar, empty into the appropriate part of the plastic tray, use the plastic triangle cup to measure in the right amount of water, stir awkwardly with an awkwardly tiny plastic fork (stirring with a fork you can barely hold in your hand is not the greatest idea) until it gets gross. And with each food item, the making gets progressively grosser.

We follow the instructions and start with the broccoli. The smell when the water hits the sugar powder is overwhelming. My entire kitchen smells like a bubble gum factory. Todd stirs diligently until things start to gel up. There is the question of whether or not this candy is vegetarian since we are of the vegetarian persuasion. Fortunately (?), it’s not gelling up with crushed horse hooves (aka gelatin), but agar, so we are safe.

The egg and the octopus wiener are basically the same consistency as the broccoli, and the same overpowering sweet smell. But things change when we get to the onigiri. It has a texture. It rolls up into little, surprisingly rice-like balls. It also smells like a bubble gum factory. And instead of leaving it to set, like the other bento ingredients, we are instructed to shape it following the size guides on the side of our plastic bento “box”. I get to work on the panda, Todd takes care of the onigiri.

The nori (seaweed) stumps us for a moment. So far, everything we’ve done has required water, but this step just has us dumping black powder into parts of the mold. We question our understanding of the instructions, nervous about wrecking everything when we’ve come so far. We take the leap and forget about the water, press our rice balls into the black powder. The panda has eyes! The onigiri has a faint strip of nori! We spend a few moments back-patting.

The kara-age, as Todd notes, looks and feels very much like its real world counterpart.

We are both slightly disturbed at how well real food products can be mimicked with a mixture of sugar and water. Happily, the napolitan is very far away from its real world counterpart. Ostensibly spaghetti with tomato sauce, what we produce is a pile of red-orange goo. Todd remarks more than once that this would be the best thing ever if we were seven.

After everything is set and gelled, we pile our lunch into our box. And realize two things. One is that the picture on the box is not made from the same stuff our lunch is made from. And the second is that we are going to have to eat this oozing mess. We try the onigiri, both panda and regular, first.

The smell of cheap bubble gum is hard to get past, but we manage to bring fake rice treats close enough to our faces to take a bite. The texture is, oddly enough, like old bubble gum, crumbly and clumpy. The taste is chemically sweet, much too sweet. Even Todd, who enjoys nothing more than a supermarket birthday cake, grimaces at the sugar explosion.

The kara-age is less cloying, but with a similar texture. And like the onigiri, we can’t get past one small bite. Next, Todd takes on the egg, reports that it’s slimy and not delicious in the least. I tackle the wiener, which is supposedly strawberry flavoured, but I taste nothing even vaguely resembling a strawberry. It is also slightly slimy, like melting Jello. Todd screws up his courage and eats the entire piece of broccoli. It too does not taste like the muscat grape promised on the box, a flavour we wouldn’t have recognized even if it was there, but fortunately, it tasted like the chemical sugar goodness of all the other lunch bits.

Then it is time for the spaghetti. I pick up the tiny fork and pull a bite off the pile of goo in the corner of the bento box. The consistency is much less slimy than the wiener, but softer than the onigiri. It’s just thick enough not to be runny, and reminds me of a kind of chewing gum that I used to get when I was a kid, that started out as a semi-liquid and then firmed up in your mouth. (Does anyone know what this was called?) It’s probably the most palatable part of the bento, although it doesn’t taste anything like the grape flavour it is supposed to be.

In the end, all we have to show for our efforts are sore bellies and a pile of garbage. And Todd’s mouth is kind of a funny colour from the broccoli.

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