Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I was re-reading novel that used to be a favorite guilty pleasure* the other day. One minor scene in the book recounting the childhood of one of the main protagonists describes her lunch routine when she was a little girl. She would always share a lunch with her mother at her workplace. The emphasis is mine:

There was always something hot, nourishing, and delicious in [her mother’s] covered basket for them to share. Many of the other workers also brought their lunches from home…

I’m sure I didn’t even notice that passage when I read the book originally, but now that I am hyper-attuned to anything related to bringing lunch from home, I found the “hot, nourishing and delicious” part intriguing. First of all, presumably the mother brought the lunch from home in the morning. The time period was the 1950s, so there were no microwave ovens. So how did the mother manage to make the lunch brought in a covered basket hot? Actually I’m sure that the author did not even think this through when she wrote it; she was great at detail in most of her books, but I think she was a lot more interested in things like fashion and sex than food. She probably threw in the phrase “hot, nourishing and delicious” to convey a feeling of a mother’s love for her little daughter.

In many cultures, hot food is associated with those terms ‘nourishing and delicious’, even if the food we actually put in our mouths is not piping hot most of the time. And this insistence on hot food is a psychological barrier for quite a few people regarding bento meals and the fact that they are mainly meant to be eaten cold/at room temperature, judging from the comments and emails I’ve gotten over the years. Quite a few people cannot even conceive of eating a ‘cold’ lunch; to them giving a ‘cold’ lunch to kids seems positively cruel. The comments to my Quora reply about heating up bento boxes are pretty typical.

To my mind, only a few foods have to be eaten piping hot: soups and stews and curries, hot cooked porridges, hot tea or coffee, bao or steamed buns. Many foods are a lot better when they are hot or at least warm, such as the spring rolls (harumaki) I posted a recipe for last week - on JustHungry, not JustBento, as you may have noticed. But there are plenty of foods that are delicious, even better, at room temperature - and that’s what most homemade bentos are composed of. (Some, though not all, cheap storebought bentos in Japan are meant to be heated up a bit in the microwave before eating, although they can usually be eaten without heating up too.)

Some Japanese people do like to reheat their bentos - the most frequent complaint is against cold rice - so if they have access to a microwave, they’ll heat up their food there. Some kindergartens have bento heating facilities, where metal bento boxes and be put in en masse and steam-heated. And of course there are thermal lunch jars and bento boxes. But as I’ve stated on these pages before, most bentos are eaten without reheating - and no, it’s not weird at all. I think the prejudice against ‘cold’ food is a cultural and psychological one in the main. Is hot food always more nourishing for you than cold? Are hot Tater Tots** better for a child than a ‘cold’ pasta salad brought from home with lots of vegetables and protein? Obviously not if you think it through, but it’s hard to shake those deeply ingrained beliefs.

So if you’ve been resisting the idea of packing a bento lunch because of the heat issue, try this: make a list of at least 5 foods that you love, that don’t have to be piping hot or even warm to enjoy. Now imagine packing those foods in a portable container. You”ve taken the first steps towards incorporating bentos in your routine! Then, try the recipes on this site, 99% of are meant to be tasty at room temperature. (For anything that needs to be refrigerator-cold or hot, I say so clearly and suggest appropriate measures, such as using a thermal lunch jar.)

[* In case you’re interested, that old guilty-pleasure book is Scruples by Judith Krantz. I found it hidden in the drawer of the bedroom was assigned to in the house my parents rented in Port Washington, Long Island, for a month while they were house hunting, after we moved back to the U.S. from Japan. I think the bedroom belonged to a teenaged girl, and the book was dog-eared at all the naughty bits. For 16-year old me, it was quite a revelation. I must have re-read that book 10 times in that month…and it may even have helped to brush up my rusty English. ^^]

[** I love Tater Tots, in moderation.]

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

33 comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

They had vacuum flasks in the 50s Maki. My aunt had a wide-mouthed vacuum flask she used to use for stews and suchlike things.

I know what you mean about Judith Krantz - I loved Princess Daisy. I still want a lurcher and a green tweed jacket with sequined lapels.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I actually prefer cold foods most of the time. I even go a step further and say I like most of my food raw

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

There's an old adage, "warm food tastes more", (ok I may have made it up) but cold food tends to be less flavorful than warm food. Compare chocolate ice cream by melting some in the microwave. Which tastes more chocolaty? See what I mean?

Personally I like warm food better than cold food in general. Look at your favorite meals, what is hot and what is cold? I don't think warm means nourishing in the passage quoted, I think it means better.

/there had to be a warm food enthusiast out there somewhere out there, it's the internet by Jove.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

My Spanish mother still has a strong dislike to piping hot food based on her childhood. Despite horribly hot summers, her mother always made sure there was hot food on the table at lunch time because the prevailing wisdom was that only hot food could be truly nourishing (the same wisdom that maintained that sugar was very good for growing children - good for their bones. A big sachet of sugar is still usually served when you order freshly squeezed orange juice in Spain).
Thankfully, that was a prejudice she never passed on to me. I have a thermal flask for the winter, but room temperature food is just fine for me, you can taste it more anyway.

Ah... Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran, our secret extra curricular tutors at an all girls boarding school in the 80s.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

It's interesting you say that a lot of people can't conceive of having a cold lunch or giving their kids a cold lunch. Here in Australia it's highly unusual for kids to have a hot lunch at school - maybe becuase there's no such thing as school dinners - lunches are usually brought from home, though most schools have a canteen that sells food (pies, sausage rolls, sandwiches, etc) that they can buy if they don't have lunch and even then, the vast majority have brought salads or sandwiches from home. Growing up, it was a very special treat if we got to buy our lunch at school.

As for work, it really does depend. I know that in the middle of Winter, I like to have a hot lunch, but most of the time I'll take a sandwich or salad to work. Having said that, now I've gotten interested in bento, I'm bringing my lunch from home a lot more often and I'm having fun putting different food together.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I love the comments above, so true. Personnally, I never ate food too hot or too cold. When I started with bento, the principle of eating food at room temperature appealed to me. A lot. I thought this was THE answer to my eternally aching western teeth (ice cream and piping hot coffee, anyone?).
Thanks Maki, as always a lovely post and so true. :)

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

my mom packed our lunches for many years when i was a kid and not a single one of them was ever hot (American midwest) nor did we expect them to be hot.

Apples or other fruit and sandwiches do not want to be hot.

I dont think most people here in the US have a problem sending these cold lunches to school with their kids.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I usually bring cold lunches with me to work because I can just grab them out of the fridge and head out to our picnic area. I do like to bring something to warm up (like chili!) during the coldest parts of winter. And as for the parental-nourishment part, I tried to pack leftover ravioli in a thermal bowl for my daughter's lunch and she thought it was the strangest lunch she'd ever had. A normal packed lunch for her is a cold sandwich or salad, fruit, and a yogurt.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

In my culture (I'm Chinese), we abhor the idea of putting cold foods on the dinner table. We don't eat raw vegetables, raw salads, or raw fish. I can understand this, because I myself feel a lot more satisfied eating a hot bowl of stir-fry than a dish left at room temperature. I would guess that this might be one of the reasons why some cultures balk at serving colder foods.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I don't know about the ''nourishing'' part, but my mom (who's in her 50's, not so old) has a *thing* about making hot meals.
I understand about having hot meals in the winter, but I don't have a problem with giving my kids "only" one hot meal a day. It's not like I feed them frozen food the rest of the time. I also cook or bake almost 100% of the time, so it's not like they eat junk food the rest of the time.
Maybe not-hot meals are thought of as boring sandwiches, or leftovers.

But anyway, for those who grew up with hardly any usage of a refrigerator/freezer (nowadays they are huge compared to few decades ago), most meals were hot. That's what a homemade meal was like, so if ti's not hot it also feels like a lack of care and love. (I think).

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I personally don't have a problem with food at room temperature for lunch, as even before I started making bentos I would usually have a salad or a sandwich, though the occasionnal hot meal is appealing in the winter. (thanks to your instant miso soup ball recipe I can now enjoy an at least partly warm meal at work!) My coworkers, however, have been harassing our company to install a microwave in the office, so I definitely see what you mean. Honestly though, I don't see how an industrial, reheatable, vacuum packed meal can sound more appealing and nutritionally interesting than a home cooked, healthy, cold meal made with good products.
I'm French by the way, I think it's a culture thing, with cooking being such an important part of our tradition - my older family members for example tend to think of cold meals as feeble snacks or appetizers at best.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I think it's definitely a cultural thing. Growing up in Ireland, we had no way of heating food in school so lunches were almost always cold, except in the depths of winter when somebody would occasionally have a Thermos of hot soup (maybe with a cooked sausage in it). We had our hot meal in the evening at home.

As an adult, I prefer to take packed lunches that do not have to be chilled or heated. There's never room in the communal fridge and there's always a queue for the microwave at lunchtime. I'd rather eat when I'm ready, not when the person in front of me has finally finished their 12 minute cycle of cooking up their raw pasta and sauce!

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I agree with you it's a mix of cultural and psychological aspects Maki (and correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the fact the Japanese culture developped so many dishes to be eaten at room temperature linked in part to similar reasons as well, old principles in chinese medicine and taoism etc. before that also became ingrained cultural preferences?)

I don't know about "hot meal = more nourishing", at least it's a justification I've never heard around here (though I remember reading very old (renaissance etc.) medical advice about not eating raw, cold or very hot food, as it disturbed the humors and all). If you mean a meal needs to be hot to constitute "a real meal", and be satisfying to eat, that's something far more commonly held (by nearly all, but even truer among men).

I don't know the origins, but I know it goes a long way back in western cultures. You'll see comments like "it's poor fare, but at least it's hot" in very old stories. Cool dishes (especially since electrical appliances) are often at best side dishes, to go alonside the hot stuff (salads, etc.) or as entrées, or else they're often associated with leftovers, rushed meals, lazyness from the eater who doesn't bother to re heat the meal, lack of cooking skills, living alone and so on. Even in summer for a great deal of people a hot meal is de rigueur. For some, all three meals need to be served hot (or lunches are often just meals to feed yourself, not quite an opportunity to break your day with a bit of culinary pleasure, which is more for the times you can go and eat out).

Eating hot is still associated to luxury somehow, and probably to the fact we didn't develop anything like bento culture and people used to eat very poor fare indeed when out of home - often just bread and not very tasty cold meat, or cheese - raw veggies were long frown upon (workers in cities who could afford it used to eat a very rich/fat dish from a street vendor for breakfast, and very little at lunch and before the evening hot meal - that's where the traditional offals stews originated in France - cooked overnight by the "trippières", sold for cheap to men on their way to work).

Old vessels were often designed to keep the food hot or at least warm longer (earthenware similar to nabe, proto thermos and such, and metallic covered tableware etc.) A very great deal of old dishes (stewed root veggies, for instance) that cooks often had no choice to keep at room temperature were warmed up for service with a few scoops of piping hot broth. People (the older folk) will often still be quite embarrassed if they have unexpected guests and the food they have to serve isn't a hot meal. No matter how great the dish, a cook will often apologize if serving "only", for e.g. a pasta salad. This has changed quite a bit since world dishes not meant to be eaten warm have entered the daily diets, but it's still fairly ingrained in our culture.

My guess is that the cultural trait only increased last mid-century with the arrival of appliances, and people were able to enjoy another "real" hot meal for lunch. What people were often forced to eat at room temperature (pretty cool in winter) got served hot then. People started making hot lunches for kids with thermos - not merely warmish in a covered basket or metal container kept near the fire (as it was often done in country schools). Lunches in thermos (with cold elements, like veggies, desserts etc.) is what I got all my childhood, and my working mom was very proud that she made us a hot meal almost every day, and apologized on the days she could do only sandwhiches...she tried to give us at least an instant soup then, like Campbell or Lipton brands on the side if she had no homemade one left). At home, even if she served a quick simple meal like chicken salad stuffed in bread (a usual meal on the day they were making the grocery after their workday and were too short on money to grab some take out on the way back), she would warm up the bread in the oven to make it a "real meal". I barely ever got a dish at a regular meal that was cool and that wasn't a side dish as a child (and from grandma, virtually never. No cold meat, virtually no raw veggies but coleslaw), except at buffets and such (and even then, there were cold dishes like potato salad and such, but with a large offering of hot bouchés like vol-au vent, cocktail sausages, patés, rolls, meat balls and such. How grandma managed that feat to serve 50 people for New Year, with only a regular kitchen oven in her small kitchen I've never fully understood. She had been a cook for a women shelter, though - I guess she had developped many organizational tricks!).

Another psychological/cultural element is the modern western phobia for bacteria and food poisonning. Since the spread of fridges, people here seem to have lost most of their practical knowledge/skills regarding what food can and can't be left at room temperature, in which conditions and for how long - and it's often worse with lesser known imported food (e.g. unopened vaccuum packed prosciutto can be kept for very long without refrigeration, but it freaks people out and some refuse to eat it when I buy some in the morning and don't refrigerate it as I mean to use it later in the day). It's like anything ought to go in the fridge nowadays (to many people), even stuff that should not (from some veggies to many condiments and such). For north americans in particular, "room temperature" also often means taken out of the fridge a short while ago - the shorter the better in fear it will spoil - thus too cold, thus tasteless or with an unattractive "mouthfeel" (European are much better at that, the French have a lot of food that systematically calls to be "chambré", ie; brought to room temperature. But for my (Québécoise) mom, that means at best bringing the food or dish out of the fridge at the start of the meal - she systematically serves food like cheese way, way too cold. Even condiments like mayonnaise are brought out right before eating. Letting it stands for even half an hour on the counter so it warms up first is anathema to her). Someone of my mom's generation has deep misgivings when she sees me put chicken nuggets, or potato salad, or salt-grilled salmon in a bento. She's seen me make those for years now (whenever I spent a few days at their place to attend my bonsai courses in their area) but she stills worries each and every time. When I cook for them at their place, I have to watch her closely as she tends to go and put my ingredients back in the fridge that I've taken out to warm before cooking, like meat or eggs (and if I even try to do that with chicken or fish, she'll fight me over it). She barely lets a cooked dish cool before putting it in the fridge either, and she's really not special or more obsessed than average about food hygiene (less than average, I would even say)

A lot of the original misgivings about sushi (mostly gone nowadays), beside the fact the toppings were raw, had to do with the fact it wasn't served hot either. People liked the taste, but a lot of men in particular wouldn't make a full meal of it, preferring to have mostly hot dishes and a side of sushi (hot dishes like tempura). I still a lot of guys ordering only western-style hot maki if they have sushi at lunch.

In winter, you wouldn't get many north-americans to agree that a hot soup is enough to satisfy the need (largely psychological, in modern context) to warm yourself up and the rest of the meal could be served at room temperature or just warm.

Where the preferences for hot meals gets a bit insane (IMO) or at least very uncomfortable and impractical is that people like mom will keep cooking hot meals in summer (less so since we're gone, as my dad is an oddball, diabetic, very frugal and disliking hot food and cooked dishes. His idea of an ideal summer dish is still warm tomatoes straight out of the sunny garden with cooled down toasted bread. He never shows up at table, or at least own't eat, before anything my mom serves him has cooled down for 10 minutes). Even if it means the whole house will be hot as hell all day after that.

All this, I think, means that contemporary homecooks around here have very little experience at preparing and seasonning dishes to be eaten at room temperature, and they are nowhere dominant in the culinary repertoire. Most of the cuisine just isn't tasty served like this, especially since people tend to serve dishes that'd be really good at room temperature straight out of the fridge instead, and ruin them. A few co-workers who've fallen in love with bento boxes and find them very practical systematically put them in the fridge until dinner, even though they often make recipes I gave them (often yours). One of them in particular deconstruct his bento very often (and re-arrange the food on a plate), as if he though the main purpose of the silicone cups was to be able to take out the cold side dishes to nuke the rest of the bento). People at work (I freelance at many places) occasionally think I don't re heat my lunch out of lazyness ("I can't understand why do you go through all this trouble to make nice meals then eat them without bothering to heat them up, it would take you just a minute!". Occasionally from women, it's slightly condescending comments like "men... your (non-exisant) girlfriend made you a nice lunch and you don't even bother to heat it up", or another almost classic (I get it once a month of so) "good idea using those muffin cups, but you do know they can go in the microwave?"

To be honest, it took me quite some time to get used to eating japanese dishes at room temperature. The first (heavily westernized) cookbooks from 2 decades ago barely mentionned japanese preferred to serve a lot of those dishes at room temperature or merely warm. I took me some time to figure out japanese at home managed to serve many perfectly realized small dishes at one meal without going insane because very few items needed to be made at the last minute or kept warm, so a full japanese meal looked like something only an octopus could achieve without overcooking or burning anything.

Eating cool or even very cold or iced dishes in summer is a borrowed cultural habit I found very appealing and have largely adopted, even for western dishes with adjusted seasonning. I do a great deal of my cooking tasks in the early morning in summer now. And for lunches. 90% of the bentos I make now are eaten at room temperature, japanese style dishes or not (though in autumn and winter, they include almost systematically a piping hot soup, miso mostly until I came upon your tricks to make other types of concentrates as I'm too picky for the commercial ones) It's largely a psychological barrier to break. I've come to dislike the feeling of having too hot food in my mouth, and to think that for a lot of dishes they aren't actually as tasty eaten very hot. I've also noticed I tend to eat those faster and over eat. It's another western bad habit, to speed up our eating "stop fiddling/talking - eat while it's hot!". You hear that a lot as a child around here (my niece, who loved tofu and veggies above anything as a baby, was thought to have turned into a picky eater at 4 y.o. until her parents gave up forcing her to very hot food - if they let her cool it down in her plate before eating, like they served her food as a baby, she still eats nearly anything!).

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

Some of that might be preferene in addition to food hygiene concerns. I personally don't like warm mayo and prefer to eat/use it straight out of the fridge. Also, you might want to tell your mom that it's actually worse for food hygiene to put the hot food directly into the fridge-- it warms up the fridge/other food in the fridge that way.

I don't think a meal needs to be -hot- at serving to be nourishing but I do find cooked food more nourishing, in general, than raw. In this way to me a bento is fine because even though you're eating it at room temp it was cooked to begin with a feels more meal-y to me. Even if I did have access to a microwave when I eat my bento I still would prefer not to heat it up because I think the texture gets weird when stuff is re-cooked in the microwave. I'd rather eat it at room temperature especially bento food that was designed to be eaten that way.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

When I started making bentos for my kids, I worried they wouldn't like their food at room temperature...then I realized, 9 times out of 10, they eat their dinners at room temp because they don't stop talking long enough to eat it while it's hot.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I actually find it sad that here in America we tend to over-cook food. For an example (American classics) chili, pot roast, stews, and vegetables are cooked for hours on end. All that cooking depletes important nutrients from proteins and vegetables. You might as well be eating iceberg lettuce.

I also think it's great that we are moving away from the American classics and have embraced ethnic food and parting ways with over cooking (raw food movement/farm to table). Of course not everybody have jumped on the band wagon, but I personally rather eat whole foods that are full of their healthy nutrients than to eat a pile of over cooked mush any day.

Cold to room temperature bentos are absolutely fine by me!

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

Have you ever cooked a pot roast or stew beef at home? The very first time I used stew beef, I was rather disappointed because I wanted to make a quick dinner. I cooked it for at least a couple hours, not because I wanted to, but because the meat was way too tough to serve! I learned the definition of 'stew meat' the hard way. The same can be said for a roast... Not only is it a tough piece of meat, but it's also larger which means more cooking time than other meats. Generally, I tend to make these things in a crock pot over a few hours since it does the job with minimal effort and is almost impossible to burn them. My favorite thing about these dishes is that they're actually better the next day (or two!) after they've been in the fridge. It's just another part of the long cook time. It breaks down the meat and the meat sets back up nicely and deliciously once it cools down. I think this this also why some people cook chili for so long. It's better the next day after all the spices have had time to mingle. I'm not defending over cooking now--- I'm just saying certain foods need a long time to be done right.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

There is nothing I hate more than refrigerated (Japanese) rice, so I have my bentos at room temp. [Food trauma story: was at a wedding where the caterer had made these cute smoked salmon sushi-esque things. I took one, bit into it, and almost broke a tooth. They had been sitting in the fridge all night!] The rice cools before I pack everything and it's fine and there is nothing really that perishable in my bentos anyway (the 3 hours from 9-12 are not going to make a difference).
Saw a feature on the Japanese news yesterday that convenience stores are now making hot onigiri for customers (unlike the cooled, factory made ones widely available). While warm onigiri are nice, I don't mind the cooler/room temp ones, as long as they are not fully refrigerated to US standards. My family is Hungarian, and we would always have soup (usually some sort of veggie) as a first dinner course--hot, filling, and healthy, but a bit much in the summer months.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

An anthropologist would say that the preference for hot food is not cultural but human! Cooking extracts much more nutrition from food than eating it raw. Early proto-humans developed cooking long enough ago that humans developed smaller guts and larger brains than other hominids. In fact, agriculture would not be sustained without cooking: we cannot absorb enough nutrition from uncooked grains to make them worth cultivating. I have many memories of how soul-satisfying a hot meal can be when I am cold, hungry, tired or sick; how sharing hot food with family and friends cements our bonds.

None of that means that a cool bento is not satisfying or nutritious. But hot food is the essence of what it means to be human.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

Cooked, perhaps. But that doesn't necessarily mean the food must be hot. I do believe this is a cultural thing more than biological.

Edit: Of course, only true to a certain extent; it depends on what the food in question is. Some foods are made to be eaten at room temperature, while others hot or cold.

As a Hong Kong Chinese raised in Australia, I have an interesting perspective, similar to both Andrew and Diane who posted above. While at home, my mother would always want us to eat hot/warm foods, at school all the other kids had sandwiches for lunch. I still remember my early days of schooling, my mother would get my brother and me to bring fried rice (or some other warm meal) in a crappy insulated lunch box. By lunch time, the food would be soggy and lukewarm, and I remember vaguely not being too content. My brother and I must have convinced my mum to let us bring sandwiches like all the other kids, because for most of my education we brought sandwiches.

Around the middle of my high schooling years, we began having access to microwaves for heating food during lunch at my high school, and in conjunction with being in contact with international students who would bring food set aside from dinner for lunch, I began doing likewise.

I recognise that in many cultures (perhaps ones that have been around for longer, and have more history? e.g. Chinese, British?) it is often deeply ingrained that "proper" meals should be hot, but from my own POV, meals don't always have to be hot. Admittedly, hot meals do often appear to be more appealing and perhaps prestigious?

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I was just wondering about this issue, so that was good timing!! Hey I have a question for you? Is there any other way I can order your book for online viewing besides the kindle? I don't have one, and nont of the barnes and noble in my area have your book... and even though I may order it through mail, I didn't wanna wait for shipping... :(

You have a great blog and I frequent it alll the time!! Cheers to great recipes!!

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

This post should answer both your questions ^_^

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

A friend of mine is a nutritionist. She told me "if you wouldn't eat it cold, don't eat it." The reason being, hot food can hide high levels of fat (and salt). At room temperature the fat congeals, and the food is disgusting. Think about a cold hamburger vs a cold ham sandwich. The fat from soups and stews congeals on the suface - no-one wants to eat that cold. On the other hand, cold foods often hide high levels of sugar. Soft drinks (sodas for the Americans) taste fine cold. Too sweet at room temperature.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

In response to your friend's comment, I would say, it depends what the food is. Most people probably wouldn't consume chicken stock cold; the gelatin solidifies and turns the stock into jelly. But when warm, chicken stock is extremely versatile, and is used in cooking for many foods. If you try to consume food at a temperature that it wasn't made for, you are bound to find it less appealing.

Ice cream and soft drinks taste too sweet at room temperature and above because our taste buds are less effective at tasting cold foods. That's why foods that are served below room temperature are usually seasoned more strongly to compensate.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I grew up in a desert climate, phoenix arizona, so cold meals were the norm during the warmer months when heating up the house was not an enjoyable prospect.
Cooler weather meant hot food, hot weather cold.
So it might be a climate thing as well perhaps?

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

Hmm. Elementary lunches bring back memories of overly moist bread (having been pulled out of the freezer), some sandwich meat that usually didn't feel good on the tongue when warm, dabbed with mustard, and cheese that sat out too long and became oily and gross. I could be a very picky child sometimes.
So when those single-serving Chef Boyardees came upon the scene in high school, I jumped at the chance and convinced my mom they were sooo much better. It helped that I wouldn't make my own lunch of said overly moist bread, gross meat and oily cheese. But then the microwaves weren't strong enough, and I discovered that, hot or warm, they still tasted over-salted and packaged, so I moved to the cafeteria food, which mainly consisted of fries, fries, and more fries (it being the biggest and most affordable thing on the menu). No dietician, I!

Now that I'm paying attention, I like the healthy balance of fruits and veggies and other things. I also get annoyed at reheating in the microwave when the middle just won't warm up enough but the stuff on the outside is blisteringly hot, so I'm not going to jump on the 'hot = nourishing' bandwagon. I feel just as good with my unheated lunch as I do at home with a hot dinner. The salad idea is still a work in progress.

I'm a lot more lax about leaving things to warm (or cool) to room temperature than my boyfriend is, but it's a bit strange how I can leave meat to warm on the counter, but was taught to cook a steak so through that it resembles a hockey puck...

This is a fascinating conversation!

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

As a Norwegian, I'm not used to eating hot lunches. The only meal normally hot here is dinner. But then we are a bread-loving people, having a wide selection of bread made from different grain types. So it is often bread for breakfast, lunch and supper. We still survive ;)

Most kindergartens/preschools serve hot lunch once or twice a week (if they serve food, some places one have to bring all meals - my son only bring breakfast and afternoon snack). And the schools don't serve food at all so the norm is a few sandwiches for lunch. Even workers often bring sandwiches but many workplaces have cafeterias that serve at least cold food, and perhaps one or two hot alternatives.

The norwegian take-along lunch known as "Matpakke" (package of food) started in the beginning of the 1900's when one realiced that the hot lunch served at schools (oatmeal soup or something) was making the pupils under-nurished. Sandwiches proved to be a better alternative, and now we're stuck to it. A traditional lunch now consists of one slice of bread with goat cheese, one with liver paté and perhaps one with jam. So here we have a bit of another view on the cold food.

But I'm tired of the old "matpakke" so I've been making more appealing food for my take along lunches for a long time and that's how I discovered bento. Now my son gets bento-inspired food for breakfast and afternoon snack everyday since i believe 3 meals consisting of only bread is to much every day. Who said you cannot start your day with spring rolls or a salad? :D Since I cannot change what he eats for lunch (unless I take him out of kindergarten/preschool), I wanna make the most nourishing food for him when I can :D

Great blog btw ;)

Interesting post!

I'm from the US, but lunches when I was in school (unless you bought your lunch from the hot line) were always room-temperature. I got a cold pack in my lunch box, but by the time lunch period rolled around it had warmed up. We always packed foods that were designed to be eaten cooler/room temp, though, so it never bothered me.

During the summer months we ate a lot of cold dishes because my mom felt that it was unhealthy to eat something really hot then go out in hot weather. During the winter everything was always piping hot.

I will say I don't like cold rice. It's got to be at least lukewarm. It's a texture issue, though, rather than a taste issue.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

This is an interesting question. When I read "hot, nourishing, and delicious" I didn't see the adjectives as dependent upon each other. To me, they are separate observations. This probably has something to do with my personal experience. I think there are probably as many reasons for temperature preference as there are foods. In my own experience, growing up in the American South, cold or room temperature foods were a regular part of life. My school lunches were almost always sandwiches of one kind or another. In the summertime, in particular, it was not uncommon to enjoy all of our meals cold or at room temperature. Some of my favorite memories are of going on picnics with a bucket of homemade fried chicken, potato salad, biscuits, deviled eggs, and lemonade or tea. None of the foods were hot and none of the drinks were particularly cold, yet everything was delicious. As many people (my family included) did not have air conditioning at home or at school in those days, hot food was not terribly appealing in the heat and humidity of summer. There was always an emphasis on "home cooking", but that really meant "home preparation". I do remember having a thermos of soup or stew for lunch at times during the winter. It could be comforting on a cold day, especially since the weather was cold for only a short period and we just weren't accustomed to it. Now, as I look out my window at today's snow, I appreciate the little morale boost of a hot component to my lunch when it's bitterly cold out. It's not that I find hot food to be any more or less nourishing, but that I enjoy the warming sensation. This is particularly nice since much of my work day is often spent out in the weather. Since most of my lunches are cold, it can sometimes feel a bit luxurious to have a hot lunch. It's the rarity of it. I imagine it's the same feeling that I would get if I suddenly had a recliner in my office. This is, in fact, what attracted me to bento. For me, bento isn't about losing weight, saving money, etc. For me, it's a little piece of home that I take into my demanding day. My lunch break is extra special because my meal has been thoughtfully prepared, is visually appealing, and is made to taste good without heating or cooling. Those sandwiches of my childhood always tasted vaguely suspicious after sitting in an 85-degree classroom for hours.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I'll agree, but I feel more full after I've eaten a warm meal. I have to eat a larger quantity of cold food than warm. I'm not sure where this came from... I don't think it's a learned trait because my family doesn't seem to have an issue with sandwiches. But I'd rather have a hot ham and cheese than a cold one...

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

For me, the food temperature does not really matter as I could not handle hot food better. But I would always to have hot drink rather than cold.

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

I just got your book as a birthday present (I had it on my wish-list^^) and I'm really looking forward creating my first bento and take it to the office!
I don't mind eating "cold" food at all and I'm really anxious to see how bento will change my lunch break habits.

But I already have a question regarding preparing bento. You wrote that it will safe up much time to prepare some stuff the night before. But what about the stuff I need to cook/fry?
Let's take the first receipt of the book as example. What if I would prepare everything the night before, even the fried chicken, and keep it in the fridge during the night. Would that be good?
We have a fridge in the office, so it won't be a problem to keep the bento cold till lunch time and when I would take it out of the fridge an hour before my lunch break the food wouldn't be too cold.
What do you think?

Thanks in advance for your answer!

Re: Food doesn't always have to be hot to be nourishing

The main thing this triggers in me is, as a kid, asking my great aunts and uncles why they had hot chocolate all through the summer every day with their lunch (they warmed chocolate bars and milk on the stove, so it got that kind of nasty film if you waited even just a minute to drink it). They told me that very hot food during the summer was good for you because you would sweat more, and that would make you feel cooler. I looked at that askance, because it definitely made me feel unbearably hot, but they very staunchy believed it.

I had room temperature lunches throughout my entire childhood. My school never gave access to heating facilities for the students (despite being large and well-funded schools, it was just not a thing). I remember being nonplussed, and it eventually got to the point where a ham and cheese sandwich would make me gag and almost throw up at a mere taste (warm ham and cheese is still nasty to this day). My mother started to run out of things she could think up to give me for lunch that I could still stand to eat after being subjected to them for years. If I could have had hot leftovers, I would have been much happier. I remember times when for breakfast I would have reheated leftover steak. She thought I was strange for that, but it was really so good and actually made me feel full for more than 45 minutes (I usually felt like my stomach was imploding by lunch - literally made me feel sick - if my breakfast was not heavy and large. Cereal felt like it was digested in a mere half hour, completely unfilling, and anything sugary was nasty in the morning).

At dinner she served food scalding hot. I complained about that, because I wanted to be able to eat my food as soon as it was on my plate, but she told me she would not be a good mother or hostess if she did not serve food as hot as possible. I didn't understand then, but now I imagine her thought process was that she was inadequate if anyone had dinner cold. That was certainly possible if she didn't make it piping hot and everyone dallied before eating - it would cool too much by the time they sat down. The other side was I had to sit there for 5 minutes blowing on my food before it wouldn't burn my tongue.

And now that I'm an adult and can easily buy what food I want, etc, I mostly eat leftovers for lunch, sometimes reheated. It's much more satisfying than anything else I've tried, and makes everything rather simple too. Just cook a double batch and it's practically all my food for the day. Many times I like eating "hot" foods at warm temperature, but some days I just want something warm! Just...keep those nasty sandwiches away.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.