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Essential Guide to Bento Meals
by Julia LiMarzi
November 20, 2018
What is Bento?
In Japan, bento is an important part of everyday life. Quite simply, a bento is a single portion meal, designed for convenience. It can be homemade or store-bought and has a history going as far back as the Kamakura period (ca. 1180-1330). Its incredible versatility means there’s a bento for any occasion: a quick lunch at work, a bite on the train, an elaborate flower-viewing afternoon with friends. With nearly endless possibilities it can be overwhelming to think of planning your own bento, but we’re here to help with some handy tips and some recipe recommendations.
What Goes into a Bento?
Most bento are made of a few simple components packed nicely into a box: rice (or sometimes noodles), a protein, vegetables and maybe some fruit. If you’re looking to make your own bento, just these 3-4 components can lend themselves to hundreds of different bento varieties. It’s important when preparing a bento to think of the proportions of your components. It’s up to you to find the perfect ratio for your needs, but a good rule of thumb is 2 parts rice to 1 part protein and a ½ part each of vegetables and fruit. It’s also a good idea to add as much color into your bento meal as possible with your fruits and veggies, as it makes your Japanese meal look even more appetizing while helping to ensure you get a variety of nutrients.
So let’s start our journey of bento components with the staple of nearly all Japanese meals: rice.
Prepping Your Rice
For most Bento, short grain rice is the traditional option. It gives an excellent, neutral base for the other components. Rice in your bento can be a bed for other dishes or shaped into rice balls and cute characters!
The most traditional preparation is simple steamed rice. For perfect steamed rice, the key is to have good rice to begin with, and then carefully follow the instructions on the packaging (or for your rice cooker if you have one). For the soft, sticky texture, choose short grain rice from a local Asian grocery store if you can. It may take a couple tries to find the brand and preparation process that works for you, but it’s well worth it to perfect the base of your bento.
You can sprinkle some black sesame, furikake (dry seasoning for rice), or umeboshi (pickled plum) to add an accent of flavor to your rice. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try your hand at crafting a cute onigiri character by molding your rice and adding cut seaweed faces. Molds are not required, but they do make things faster. For more info about making onigiri, here's a video that outlines some basic recipes.
Protein is a pretty broad category that includes grilled fish, karaage (fried chicken), ebifurai (fried shrimp), tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet), tofu, little sausages shaped like octopus, etc. While you can pair whatever your heart desires with the rice as your “main” dish, below are links to some of our personal favorites.
Tamagoyaki: This classic egg dish involves cooking the egg in thin crepe-like layers and rolling them up. Sweet or savory, the flavor profile is up to you!
Ebifurai: A delicious fried shrimp is crispy, tender, and a surprisingly good bento box filler since the panko breading is crispy even when cold!
Grilled fish: Fish is a staple of the Japanese diet and can be found with any meal. Salmon and Saba are great options for lunch since they are flavorful and healthy. This method of cooking fish is great because you don’t need a grill and can still get a deliciously crisp skin.
Vegetables in a Japanese bento usually come in at least 2 forms: pickled and cooked. Pickling your own vegetables is a whole adventure that you may not be ready for, and that’s fine because many of the most common pickled vegetables can be purchased at local Asian grocery stores or online. In Japanese, pickled veggies are collectively called tsukemono, and walk the line between condiment and side dish. They are pungent, and usually the smallest portion in your bento because of their overpowering flavor that can sometimes act as a palate cleanser after your heavier, umami-rich protein. Some pickled vegetables you’d be likely to see in a classic bento include umeboshi, takuan (pickled daikon), kyurizuke (pickled cucumber), and hakusai no sokusekizuke (quick-pickled cabbage).
For non-pickled vegetables, there is also a near endless list of possibilities (because it’s your bento and you can do whatever you like) but below are some popular options you might find in both store-bought and homemade bento.
Goma-ae: this isn’t just one dish, but more of a category of vegetables prepared with a sesame dressing. A popular and simple version uses spinach that’s been blanched and cooled, with excess liquid squeezed out, then mixed with sesame dressing.
Potato Salad: Yes, potato salad is surprisingly common in bento and for good reason: it’s simple and tastes good cold. We like this recipe from Chopstick Chronicles: Japanese Potato Salad
Carrot and Daikon Namasu: Simple, sweet and refreshing. This salad is particularly popular around New Years. Chopstick Chronicles also has a simple recipe for this delicious salad: Carrot & Daikon Namasu
Add some sliced fruit of your choice to finish your bento with a refreshing dessert.
Now that we have our basics for a bento meal, you can take it a step further and create the beautiful bento of your dreams. With the help of special tools to cut your veggies, mold your rice, and punch out faces from seaweed you can make adorable character bento, kyaraben. For some crazy character bento inspiration check out the ＃キャラ弁 on Instagram!
Go forth and build your best bento! Plus, you can share your creation with friends in the perfect Bento Box!