A Few Words on Aesthetics (II)

After publishing the first part on aesthetics back in January 2008, I once joked that I probably won’t get around to finishing the second part until after I finish my undergraduate degree. Well, here it is now, and I’m heading to law school in a few months.

Maybe it is just a lame justification, but I am glad that I had let this sit in my head for such a long time (I had first thought about writing this back in July 2007). Looking back at previous drafts, I don’t think I had thought about these ideas thoroughly enough.

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Last post, we discussed the significance of fragmentation in food arrangement. A quick glance through bento communities would show the great care that many devote to fashioning discrete parts, often with tools such as cookie cutters and egg moulds. Just as important, however, is keeping an eye on the overall organization. This post will focus on one primary aspect of maintaining the relationships between fragments. Like before, I hope that this post will serve as a catalyst for more discussion on the aesthetics and nature of bentos.


Not only the most ubiquitous, contrast is also the easiest theme to achieve. It can manifest itself in colour, taste, texture, or form. The following discussion will concentrate on colour and form.

If you flip through a conventional bento book, you will often find a list of recipes organized by their principle colours. For instance, a section on red might have dishes with tomatoes, red peppers, or radishes as the main ingredient. Efforts to escape monotony in colour adds not only to the visual experience but also to the nutritional value of the bento. I can’t pinpoint the reasons for that off the top of my head, but I am sure that you too would have read about that already. At the very least, it ensures that you are consuming a nice variety of foods (junk food and food colouring being the exceptions).

Having lots of colours in our bento is one thing, but we also have to think about their arrangement. One general rule to keep in mind is contrast: bright vs. dark, warm vs. cool, pale vs. saturated. Things placed adjacent to each other because they are different, and not because they are similar.  This is a mode of organization that departs from its usual meaning and lets the individual elements to stand out.  In other words, their distinctiveness originates from this relational context.  As Roland Barthes once wrote on sukiyaki (although I also think it would be interesting to apply it for understanding the bento):

… everything is the ornament of another ornament: first of all because on the table, on the tray, food is never anything but a collection of fragments, none of which appears privileged by an order of ingestion; to eat is not to respect a menu (an itinerary of dishes), but to select, with a light touch of the chopsticks, sometimes one colour, sometimes another, depending on a kind of inspiration… (1)

Of course, contrast can also extend beyond colour and even food itself.  It can take into consideration the shapes, and the relationship between the container and the contents. Round foods can be placed on an angled vessel, light on dark, translucent on opaque, and so forth. One simple example would be white rice in a bento box with a dark interior.


1.  Barthes, Roland.  Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

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  1. kips

    Whoa, blast from the past! Or back to the future? I was worried I’d never read from you again…Your intellectual consideration of the bento makes me wild with excitement!!! I have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Buddhist cuisine, and I got there via the gokan no mon concept, and I got to that via interest in bento. You are my favorite bento blogger, because you really take it the philosophical route. Thanks, you made my rainy Monday bright!

  2. kips: hi again! yes it has definitely been a long time, and it’s great to hear from previous readers again! so what is buddhist cuisine (i know, the scope of this question is kind ofwide), or what aspect of it are you investigating? i am curious!

  3. skimmer8

    Hi Joyce,

    Always enjoy your posts… even if they’re rare.

    I, too, pay a lot of attention to the contrast and harmony between the color, shapes, texture of my bento. Container choice can paly a big part of this esthetic decision as well. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve spent way too long pondering containers. Sometimes I go overboard! But, it’s so engrained in me, at this point, that I’d rather make myself late sometimes… rather than throw my food in a less suitable : D

    I’m with Joyce… what IS buddhist quisine?

  4. skimmer8

    Sorry, one of my sentences got cut off — it was supposed to be ” a less suitable container”.

    On a side note: I notice that the esthetic sense I have developed for bento making has spilled into (and improved) my non-bento food presentations, as well.

  5. Hi Joyce. Is this brought about by schoolcest? LOL. I’m waiting for your next bento post! xD

    jelmin ♥

  6. Jennifer: It’s nice to hear from you again! Hopefully I will get back into posting more things: I have a few simple bento recipes that I want to try out. And yes, the choice of container is integral to the presentation: it’s a packed meal afterall. Sometimes I feel it is a two-way interaction. On one hand, the characteristics of the container may alter one’s recipe and presentation choices. At the same time, the way one organizes the food may also accentuate the container’s qualities.

    jelmin: The next bento post probably will be up in a few weeks… Not the bento that you were looking forward to, however, because I couldn’t manage to get a good photo of it. But… we may see a replica of it coming.

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