SINGAPORE - Most of the time, people who pack lunches to school don't care about the way they are presented.
But Ms Lee Li Ming, 38, puts her heart and soul into the meals she makes for her two sons.
Instead of just putting together rice, veggies and meat, the stay-at-home mum turns them into cartoon works of art.
With clever use of food colouring, cookie cutters and lots of imagination, a simple dish of rice, meatballs, broccoli and fruits transforms into Mario, the heroic Italian plumber from the eponymous video game.
And now, her homemade charaben (Japanese for character bento), is world-famous, having been featured on the websites of foreign newspapers such as the UK's Daily Mail and Daily Express, and the New York Post and ABC News in the US earlier this week.
Charaben, or kyaraben, is the elaborate style of arranging bento (Japanese boxed lunch), where the food is decorated to look like popular fictional characters.
Ms Lee, whose husband works in a semiconductor company, started making bento for her older son, Ivan Tey, 10, when he was in kindergarten.
She said: "He didn't like the porridge that the kindergarten served, so I would make sandwiches of different shapes using cookie cutters and pack them for his lunch."
But Ms Lee experimented with more complex designs and shapes only when Ivan started primary school in 2011.
"He was crying every day and didn't want to go to school, mostly because he wasn't used to the longer hours in primary school," she said.
"So I started learning to make charaben for him, and it became a hobby."
Her younger son, Lucas Tey, seven, saw the bento that his older brother took to school, and asked for one of his own when he was attending nursery school.
Ms Lee then explored different Japanese bento websites for recipes.
Even though the sites were in Japanese, she could still easily follow the pictures used in the tutorials.
She has since made more than 100 charaben for her sons, featuring characters such as My Melody, Hello Kitty, Pikachu, and pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia.
Ivan said he feels happy whenever his mother makes such meals.
He said: "I don't have a favourite bento, I like all of them."
Ms Lee said it takes about half an hour to an hour, including cooking and preparation time, to craft her bento sets.
Most of her creations are shared on her Instagram account (@bentomonsters) and blog.
Until recently, only her close friends knew about her bento-making exploits.
And now, her creations have appeared on websites across the world.
"I'm happy to see my creations being shared," said Ms Lee. "I got e-mails from news websites of different countries asking to share my bento creations."
I don't have a favourite bento, I like all of them. - Ms Lee Li Ming's older son, Ivan Tey
This article was first published on September 26, 2014.
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