This post is a part of the What’s On My Plate series
Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva
The Japanese bento box; my personal favourite of the lot
I’ve been ranting and raving for a while now, about how Vivanta by Taj in Panjim has miraculously emerged from the shadows, to become this complete front-runner when it comes to the world of food and beverage, over the last year. Make no mistake, there have been more promotions in that property alone, than probably the rest of the major chains in the entire city, put together. A lot of these initiatives have come down to a change in philosophy as far as the powers that be at the property are concerned. However, just as much credit needs to go to the Executive Chef at the property, Sahil Dessai, whose enthusiasm for food has never waned.
Vivanta by Taj in Panjim also plays host to what I believe is the best sushi in Goa, courtesy ‘Tamari’, the property’s oriental-themed restaurant. So naturally, when I heard that the latest developments of the property had Japanese leanings, with its foray into a ‘bento box’ concept, my excitement knew no bounds.
But first, let’s for a brief second look into what Bento is all about. It is effectively a single-portion take-out or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento holds rice or noodles, fish or meat, with pickled and cooked vegetables, in a box. These bento containers range from disposable mass-produced to hand-crafted lacquer-ware. While bentos are readily available in many places throughout Japan, most Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy on a carefully prepared lunch box for their spouse, child, or themselves.
We’re not so far from the bento concept ourselves, in India. After all, that is essentially what the British-inspired ‘tiffin’ really is. In similar vein, there are other forms of boxed lunches in Asian countries, including the Philippines’ ‘baon’, Korea’s ‘dosirak’ and Taiwan’s ‘biandang’. Hawaiian culture has also adopted a version of bento, which is natural, given that there’s more than a century-worth of Japanese influence in the islands.
The origin of bento can be traced back to the late Kamakura period, dated 1185-1333; but to this day, in Japan, it is common for mothers to make bento for their children to take to school. Owing to the fact that making bento can take a while, some mothers will prepare the ingredients the night before and then pack everything the following morning. In modern times, it has become a social expectation of mothers to provide bento for their children, to create both a nutritionally balanced and aesthetically pleasing meal.
There is a whole range of bento, including one which has a white background with a red circle in the centre, made to resemble the Japanese flag, called ‘Hinomaru bento’. The name was taken from the Hinomaru, the Japanese flag. There is another, known as ‘Kyaraben’, a bento made for children with the contents arranged to look like cute characters. But for me, personally, the buck stopped at ‘Shikaeshiben’ a ‘revenge’ bento, where wives get back at their husband, by writing insults in the food or making the bento inedible.
But now, back to the important stuff…the food. The stunning red and black bento boxes on offer come across four different ethnic cooking styles, representing different countries across South-East Asia: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and naturally, Japanese. Each of these is further available in a vegetarian and non-vegetarian option, with certain dishes, such as dessert, sometimes overlapping.
The Chinese box has the following dishes – ‘Clear Chicken/Vegetable Noodle Soup’, ‘Kimchi Salad’, ‘Chicken/Vegetable Spring Rolls’, ‘Hot Garlic Dip’, ‘Sliced Fish/Chicken/Exotic Greens in Chilli Lime Sauce’, ‘Burnt Garlic Chicken/Vegetable Fried Rice’ and ‘Daarsan’. Now I love Chinese in its authentic form. The jury on Indo-Chinese on the other hand, despite years of experimentation, is still out. The flavours in the box are more of the latter, and despite the dishes being on point in terms of flavour, this box was definitely in fourth place for me.
The Thai box has the following dishes – ‘Tom Yum Chicken/Vegetable’, ‘Som Tam Shrimp/Vegetable Salad’, ‘Chicken/Tofu and Vegetable Satay’, ‘Peanut Sauce’, ‘Chicken or Fish/Vegetable Thai Red/Green Curry’, ‘Jasmine Rice’ and ‘Thai Coconut Pudding Cake/Mango Sago Pudding’. My wife is a huge fan of Tom Yum, and a chef, so when she gives something a thumbs up, it’s usually well beyond expectations. Her only critique (and having tasted the soup, this is something that I concur with), is that the flavours would best be served by replacing the chicken with shrimp, for that greater-bodied flavour. The rest of the box, is exactly how a well-balanced bento box should be – with a little bit of various elements representing what they aim to. But owing to the fact that there were two other boxes which were way ahead of it, this one was third on my list.
The Vietnamese box has the following dishes – ‘Pho Ga/Tofu and Mushroom Pho’, ‘Smoked Salmon and Fish Roe Roll/Fresh Rice Paper Roll with Water Chestnuts’, ‘Tender Fried Baby Squids/Tofu with a Salt, Pepper and Lime Dip’, ‘Sambal Oleek’, ‘Vietnamese Chicken Red Curry/Vietnamese Yellow Curry with Potatoes, Okra and Eggplant’, ‘Jasmine Rice’ and ‘Chè Chuối’. This is the second favourite on my list, owing to an outstanding ‘Pho Ga’, the freshness of the salmon roll, and a red curry that literally screamed, “Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!” The ‘Chè Chuối’ too, a pudding-like dessert made from banana, tapioca and rich coconut cream, was so good that I needed to plead for seconds, a request to which Chef Sahil duly obliged.
The Japanese box has the following dishes – ‘Miso with Shrimp/Tofu and Wakame’, ‘Salmon Sushi/Crisp Vegetable Roll’, ‘Prawn/Vegetable Tempura’, ‘Wasabi Mayonnaise’, ‘Teriyaki Chicken Gohan’ and ‘Green Tea Caramel’. This was my favourite box of the lot, as I expected it to be, with virtually every dish winning me over, on every conceivable front. From texture, to taste to balance, it was all spot on, dish after dish. The only critique that I have is that the green tea flavour in the caramel needs to stand out more, in order for it to really come through.
If somehow, after all of this, there’s still a little room for a little more indulgence, the dessert bento may beckon. This one is a little all-worldly, and has a little bit of various things, such as ‘Choice of Dark Chocolate/White Chocolate/Custard Sauce’, ‘Date Wontons’, ‘Dark and White Chocolate Brownie Skewers’, ‘Assorted Fruit Skewers’, ‘Sweet Sushi’, ‘Cake Pops’, ‘Coconut and Litchi Shot’ and ‘Churros’. To be honest, this box was what I’d classify as my ‘least favourite’. There are some great things on there, and then some which don’t really impress; for instance the white chocolate brownies, which are more cake than brownie, and the cake pops. The ‘Date Wontons’, ‘Coconut and Litchi Shot’ and ‘Churros’, however, were outstanding.
With a belly full of good food and a large serving of reflection, I realise that I can’t wait to see what Sahil Dessai and Vivanta by Taj have lined up next, and I’m sure that like the bento concept, it’s definitely going to an idea that’s out of the box.
This is an oriental festival of sorts, featuring various kinds of cuisines. However, the country that invented the concept wins, in my opinion.
The bento box promotion only runs until September 24, so it is advisable to head over before then.
The average cost of a meal for two (minus the libations) would be an approximate of ₹2,000 (at the time of publishing this review).
How to get there
Off D. B. Bandodkar Road, Santa Inez, Panjim, Goa 403001
Food is a huge part of any culture and for me, chancing upon a good meal is synonymous with having a great day. The What’s On My Plate series of posts is where I discuss food, great places to eat, and anything gastronomically moving. This could be anything from a great place to eat, to an obscure kind of food, to an origin story. After all, there is no love like the love of eating.