Shirley Wong, aka Little Miss Bento, is an award-winning bento artist in Singapore who became an online sensation after posting her adorable Japanese bento lunchbox creations on her blog, Facebook and Instagram.
The creative lady, who was an art major when she was in school, considers herself an artist rather than a chef.“The cooking method which I use is very home-style. It is not like whipping up some big dishes, but dishes that people can easily learn and pick up. I don’t see myself as a chef, but more as a creator. I get joy from designing and creating bento,” she shares.
The self-taught bento artist is the only Singaporean to be certified under the Japan Sushi Instructor Association in Tokyo.
Currently holding a 9-5 job, she conducts bento classes and workshops occasionally to share her skills.
“I think the one thing about my creation is that it is visually attractive and colourful. And people like seeing pretty images, which will make them feel happy.”
Last November, Wong released a new book ‘Kawaii Bento’, which is a step-by-step guide for readers to assemble and decorate character bento using a wide range of techniques and styles, transforming everyday food into adorable, edible, healthy and tasty lunchboxes. Her cute character bentos include rabbits, pandas, Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.
“You should pack a bento which you will eat. I do not encourage people to make bento just for the sake of taking photos,” says Shirley.
When/How did your passion for bento-making start?
I started bento-making four years ago. I wouldn’t say it was a passion then, but it just started out as a necessity. I needed to pack lunch for work as buying food is very difficult and troublesome.
When I started to cook and pack my own lunches, I thought, “Hey, why not make it different and cute?” I love cute stuff, especially things from Japan.
I wouldn’t say I was passionate at that time. But as time went on, I became more and more excited with bento-making. I was getting serious with bento art for the last three years. In the first year, [I was doing it] just for the sake [of] lunch.
Are you the first bento-artist in Singapore?
I am very sure I am not the first one. There are some mommies who make lunchboxes for their children, and have been probably making bento for a long time.
Where did you get the inspiration?
Inspiration comes from everyday life. I tell people that inspiration is not from one source, but it is from multiple sources. I could be inspired by pop culture, popular culture, or whatever that is trendy now. For example, you could see popular characters in my bento.
Other things that inspire me might be just an idea. For example, when I hit upon an idea to make a black and white bento, my creative juices will then start [flowing].
Sometimes, my inspiration comes from the food ingredients. Recently, I had purple sweet potatoes, and I wanted to use the purple sweet potatoes to make flowers and I thought butterflies with flowers are quite a nice match. So I started designing a purplish and sweet-looking bento.
Don’t limit your inspiration to just one source. Of course, my advice for beginners – don’t be afraid to go out, google, look at other people’s creations. The topic can be the same, you can do Hello Kitty and I can do Hello Kitty, but you can do it in your own way.
Do you have to buy a lot of materials to start bento-making?
My advice for beginners is to [start from basics]. Get a few boxes which you think you would use. Try not to be too ambitious. When you overbuy, it is very overwhelming, and you would end up buying things which you won’t use.
I am very serious in doing bento-making, that’s why I have a storeroom full of bento-making stuff and books. It is really scary.
There are some specialised tools. If you really want to make a professional and complete bento, I think that there are little things which you need to have to make it really nice.
My most expensive bento box is about $3oo. If you get the most traditional ones, hand-crafted and artisan type, they are about that price.
There is one page in ‘Kawaii Bento’ which features my bento boxes. All are mine, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
You should pack a bento which you will eat. I do not encourage people to make bento just for the sake of taking photos.
-Bento artist, Shirley Wong-
Can you share with us your creative process?
First, I will do a sketch. I will usually draw first, after which I will come up with the design and figure out what box I would be using, and the ingredients which I need. This usually happens the night before, or sometimes a few nights before. I can also have the design hanging out for a week before I start making it.
I usually make the lunchboxes in the morning. I don’t usually wake up in the morning and start thinking what I am going to do. I prepare myself so that I will know what I am going to do the next day.
That’s the process: sketch, design, plan, get ready my ingredients, cook, pack, and take photos.
Is bento-making a skill that everyone can learn?
Yes, I guess. How good you are at it depends on how much time and effort you invest, and how serious you are.
Is there a bento artist whom you admire?Akino Ichigo is one [very] popular character bento artist in Japan. I think she is very inspiring.What would be your dream bento design?
My dream is to create more food art using different ingredients. For me, I am very much influenced by Asian culture, Japanese culture. I want to push myself beyond my comfort zone, using certain ingredients which I might find very difficult to make bento.
Who do you make these bento for?
For myself, sometimes for my husband. Occasionally, my friends ask me for it. Most of the time, 80% or 90% is for me.
I think that is the fun part, because most of the time, people say, “Do you actually eat your bento?” Then I [would say] ‘ya’, if not, what was the point of making it?
Are you excited about the launch of ‘Kawaii Bento’?
Yes, and I was relived at the same time now that it was done. I think I am very thankful, because this is something that I really want to do, i.e. to share with people that anyone can create cute bento lunchboxes.
There are lots of ways to adapt bento-making to your diet. If you don’t want to eat rice, you can make bread, noodles, etc.
I have another book coming up later this year, which I am really excited about. I guess having a book is not about earning money, but the fact that I have accomplished a milestone and something has been documented. This is really a present for me in 2014.
Tell us about the book. What can readers expect from reading this book?
What I really want readers to take a look at is the basic techniques for bento-making.
Actually, once you have mastered those techniques, you can use it to make any design you want. It is not stuck at the 32 recipes which I have shared. It really goes beyond that.
Which is your favourite bento design in the book ‘Kawaii Bento’?
Favourite? I have never thought of it. I like all of them.
But recently, I did a contest, and I asked my followers which are their favourite bentos from my book.
Interestingly, a lot of them like the ‘Walking in the Rain’ bento and the ‘Colourful Rainbows’ bento, which I made using capsicums.
I think maybe it is because the ‘Colourful Rainbows’ bento feels achievable, and it is something people can easily make.
Can we only create Japanese bento? Is it possible to turn Chinese food into food art too?
Yes, of course you can. My menu is inspired by Japanese food. But a lot of cooking are very home-style. It is just like the meal which my mother used to cook at home. It doesn’t need to be sushi or sashimi.
If you grew up in the US, the people will make bento very differently. For example, they will put crackers, biscuit crackers, yoghurt cups, and fruits in their bento boxes which are also packed in a very different way.
For Chinese food, we can pack rice and vegetables; that is how our bento usually looks like.You should pack a bento which you will eat. I do not encourage people to make bento just for the sake of taking photos.
Any cuisine can be used to make the bento. [Only] the presentation of the bento may be slightly different, [as well as] the boxes and the tools that you use.
For more information about Shirley Wong’s bento adventure, please visit her website at http://littlemissbento.com
To win a free copy of ‘Kawaii Bento’, please visit https://www.facebook.com/EpochTimesSingapore or @EpochTimesSingapore on Instagram. An excerpt from ‘Kawaii Bento’ will be published in the next issue.
This Is Singapore is a fortnightly feature that delves into the life of an inspiring and talented individual in Singapore. Read all our interviews here: http://bit.do/thisissingapore