by Xueci Cheng: It’s fun, healthy, and not just for kids…
In the summer when I graduated from high school, I remember making an announcement to my friends: I would learn how to cook. So one of my friends went ahead with a cookbook recommendation, Four Bento Seasons (unfortunately only available in Chinese). Even with the book as my guide, it took me quite a long time to start preparing my very own bento lunch to take to work. I didn’t really want to spend an excessive amount of time making delicate onigiri (Japanese rice balls)—what amazes me is the philosophy of balance and self-care that bento delivers.
In this article, I’ll not only describe what a bento box is, but how we can learn from the ideas behind composing one to plan well-balanced meals, easily adaptable to other cuisines.
What is a bento box, anyway
As you may encounter it in your local Japanese restaurant, bento is a staple Japanese packed lunch. It is the favorite take-out food sold in railway stations and convenience stores all around Japan, and can also be enjoyed packed up and taken to go from home. Bentos are seen in picnics under cherry blossoms, in schools, or on lunch tables in offices. People like it both for its utility and its kawaii (the Japanese culture of cuteness). It might be best known in its Japanese form, but different forms of bento have been in East Asia for years.
A bento box has several different compartments made for perfectly portioned rice, meat, cooked vegetables, or pickles. A typical Japanese bento typically has onigiri (Japanese rice balls), tamagoyaki (rolled Japanese omelettes), sushi, karaage (fried meat) and/orkatsu(chicken or pork cutlets).
The bento box, deconstructed
Let’s break it down and get to the essential spirit of the bento—the balanced, varied, and visually appealing composition. There are two approaches to achieve an ultimately satisfying bento: to have everything balanced nutritionally, or to focus in on the visual contrast and let the nutrition come naturally.
Approach 1: Balanced nutrition
If we generalize bento compartments, a thoughtfully planned bento should contain carbs, protein, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. A recommended ratio of these four parts should be 3:2:1:1, which can always be adjusted to your own diet. The bento box is perfect for portion control and the contents are highly flexible, depending on the occasion, or simply what you have in the fridge. Here are some options that will work well in your personalized bento for an inviting lunch “al desko.”
x Grains: rice, quinoa, millet
x Pasta: penne or fusilli are great due to their size and shape
x Bread, crackers, or pancakes
x Others: potatoes, sweet potatoes
Vegetables and fruits:
There are not many limitations when it comes to choice bento vegetables and fruits. Try and choose ones that will keep their texture, like asparagus, broccoli, or peas. If you like to pack fresh leafy salads, make sure that they are completely dry before packing, or simply wait to pack that compartment until morning.
Approach 2: Visual contrast
We taste with our eyes first, so besides the variety of different food groups in your bento, a texture and color are equally important things to consider. It is scientifically proven that color does affect our perception of how a food tastes, so thinking from a color perspective is not only a playful way to pack a bento box, but may even result in a better tasting one! In many cases, more colors guarantee a more diverse meal. You don’t have to go full-on to assemble a rainbow bento every time (although it is fun), but simply try to incorporate 3 or more colors to your box for a properly tasty visual effect.
X Red & Orange: tomatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, strawberries
X Pink: salmon, shrimp, ham
X Yellow: eggs, potatoes, yellow bell peppers, corn
X Purple: eggplant, red cabbage, blackberries, grapes
X Black: black sesame seeds, black rice, nori
X Green: asparagus, spinach, broccoli, peas, zucchini
X White: rice, tofu, radishes
Sometimes, adding small decorative details will give the whole box a more lively look. In Japan, it is common to put a pickled plum (Umeboshi) in the middle of the rice compartment. The same idea could be done with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, furikake, shichimi, or nori for added color and texture in the rice. For a western variation, try fresh herbs, raisins, half of a cherry tomato, or thinly sliced radish—nuts or seeds could also be added.
Bento box tips and tricks
Just like other forms of packed lunches, meal prep is still a practical topic when it comes to bento boxes. This article serves as an in-depth guide about how to meal-prep, but my go-tos from the top of my head are always rice, tofu, eggs, and seasonal vegetables.
To pack the bento box, make sure to separate the wet (my suggestion is to avoid liquidy foods entirely) from the dry, as well as the cold from the warm. Most bento or lunch boxes come in divided containers, but if not, silicone (or paper) muffin liners can work as great holders. Layering lettuce under rice or meat could also divide flavors, and (bonus!) is edible. Pack everything tightly so it won’t shift around during transportation.
Making bento may seem time consuming, but my suggestion is to stick to simple cooking methods: set up the rice to cook and, in the meantime, cook your main dish. While those things cool, fill up the rest of the bento with fresh ingredients or pickles. Make the most use of leftovers (hail fried rice!) and even pre-made goods. It takes me about 30 min. to finish packing a bento—not so bad, right?
Making bento boxes for kids
Bento boxes can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, but for the picky eater, bento is especially great. Many Japanese moms prepare their kids elaborately kawaii kyaraben with rice balls shaped like animals or cartoon characters—an idea which has even been developed into a business idea for Pokémon Cafés in Tokyo.
We tried octopus-shaped sausages and kawaii rice balls in the test kitchen and had a lot of fun, and it turned out that it wasn’t all too hard to make a too-cute-to-eat kyaraben—so parents, take note!
Octopus sausages: Slice a cross in the bottom a mini wiener sausage, fry in a pan for approx. 3 min., or until the “legs” are curled slightly out. Use black sesame seeds or cutout nori (a piping bag decorating tip is a great tool to cut out small circles from a nori sheet) to make the eyes.
Kyaraben rice balls: Cook sushi rice. Divide and mix rice with edible icing colors (this step could be skipped if you want to make a one color creature like a panda). Use moist hands to shape different forms and use cutout nori to decorate the face.
Things like these could be a joint effort between parents and kids and can be turned into family event. Adorable lunch boxes and skewers with cartoon characters can be helpful to let your kids eat more.
Recipes to get your bento box started
Although they don’t come in a bento box form, we have a few recipes you can adapt to your next bento lunch!