The bento concept originated in Japan, but has recently become increasingly popular as an alternative packed lunch in the US and UK. Cute presentation and a balanced plate are a winning combination, perfect for a picnic any time, anywhere.
The basic principle of bento is to combine a number of ingredients into one delicious, nutritious package. You probably want to start with a filling staple. Rice is traditional and can be livened up with chopped vegetables or beans. Noodles also work well, cook them as normal, rinse in cold water, and they’re a perfect salad base.
For everyday lunches, having something you can put together quickly is key. Cassie’s time-saving lunch tips are equally applicable here: plan ahead, and you can have a healthy and enticing meal every day for a minimum of effort.
For a classic Japanese flavor, stir-fry your favorite vegetables, meat, or tofu with soy sauce and spices. Or you can mix it up — your bento fillings don’t always have to be Asian. Salads and pasta dishes make great bento fillings. Sandwich bento is also a well-established form in its own right, often leading to a lot of the prettiest designs, as sandwiches are easy to stamp out with cookie cutters.
Bento starts with the idea that food should look every bit as good as it tastes — and when it does, it will taste even better. Studies have shown that the flavor of coffee improves when you use your favorite mug, so why wouldn’t it be the same for lunch? And there’s nothing sexy about tupperware.
Specially designed bento boxes can be bought for as little as $15, and come in a range of colors to suit all tastes. Splash out a little more, and you can customize almost everything. Most designs include cutlery so you’re ready to eat on the go. Amazon.com has a nice selection.
A box is all you need to get started, but there are a few accessories that might come in handy. You can buy chiller bags designed to perfectly fit your new bento box, along with a small ice pack. A color-coordinated sauce pot is another handy addition. Decoration is also a popular element of bento construction, so a few small cookie cutters might come in handy — you can stamp out shapes from slices of cheese or vegetables.
Make it Social
Intrinsically, there’s nothing more antisocial than a single boxed lunch, but it’s easy to bring the adorable bento angle to social occasions. After all, once you’ve got the boxes, you’ll want to show them off. This is also a great way to get into the habit of making up balanced bento boxes in a relaxed atmosphere.
Have a bento picnic. Gather your family or friends, pack a handy bento box each, and head out to enjoy the spring sunshine. Bento boxes are perfect for picnics, as everyone can easily carry their own, and fussy eaters can pick out different foods.
Host a bento dinner party. Serve Japanese food bento style as a cute dinner party twist. Many Japanese restaurants serve hot meals designed in the bento style, often using fancy laquered boxes to display a selection of small dishes.
Get cooking. One of the best ways to introduce your friends to bento might be to have a cookery night. And this way, you don’t have to do all the work. Pick a few easy recipes, divide up the tasks, and prepare a few staple dishes. Everyone learns something, and you just need to share out the spoils when you’re done.
Make This Bento
Quantities to serve 1
For the rice:
- 1 cup sushi rice
- 1 1/2 cups cold water
- 1/4 red bell pepper
- 1/2 large carrot
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
For the mushrooms:
- 6 large chestnut mushrooms, quartered
- 1/4 red bell pepper
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
For the greens:
- 2oz chinese cabbage, or other dark, leafy greens (I used a mixture of pak choi and tat soi)
Cook the rice according to the packet instructions.
Steam the greens until tender (just a couple of minutes), rinse in cold water, and set aside.
Cut the carrot into thick slices and steam for about 10 minutes. Once the carrot is cooked, cut flower shapes out of each slice.
Finely dice the leftover carrot, and the pepper, and toss through the rice along with the soy sauce.
Sauté the mushrooms and red pepper in the sesame oil, and season with soy sauce and chili.
Allow all ingredients to cool before assembling the bento box.
Photo Credits: author, author, Kunchan, and author.