The Bento Box
Bento boxes range from beautiful cedar wood boxes called magewappa, to a child’s plastic lunchbox adorned with kawaii-cute anime characters such as the famous Hello Kitty! There are many styles to appeal each personal taste. And if you prefer a plain plastic food storage container… that’s okay too. Just be sure that it doesn’t leak and is shallow enough to pack tightly without filling it with too many calories.
What to Pack and How to Pack it
The core of any bento lunch is rice or maybe noodles-this is the bento or obento (in Japanese) traditional staple. Along with rice the side dishes, (okazu) includes protein: meat, fish, eggs, or if you’re a vegetarian, tofu or seitan. Vegetables and sometimes fruit play an important part of the complete bento box lunch too. All of which is packed in small bite-size pieces for easy eating. Knives should not be required for bento.
It’s important to fill your bento tight to keep your presentation and food from shifting around during transit. You can use bento-fillers such as cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks to fill in spaces and gaps.
Keep Your Food Fresh
The ideal bento should be prepared with foods that are tasty when eaten at room temperature. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t reheat, but for some lunchers that’s just not realistic.
Keeping your bento refrigerated before you eat is another option. Always error on the side of safety when if comes to food. If you are practicing traditional bento packing using time honored Japnese recipes, you can skip refrigeration for the few hours between bento prep and eating. But when in doubt, use ice packs or a cooler to keep your lunch from spoiling.
Insure your bento lunch is bacteria free by always following all food-safety precautions such as sanitizing your hands, cooking surfaces and utensils, especially after handling raw meats. Cooked foods should be heated through, not just on the surface. Always allow hot foods to cool to room temperature before closing the lid. This reduces condensation and moisture. Moisture is your bento’s enemy. This means recipes with liquids should be drained thoroughly before placing in a bento box.
Other methods of keeping your bento lunch fresh is cooking recipes that contain shoyu, (soy sauce) salt, miso or vinegar as in most traditional Japanese recipes.
This not to say that you shouldn’t pack non-Japanese foods in a bento. Many Japanese bento websites feature western items such as spaghetti, sandwiches or even pizza! Just choose foods that keep well and taste good at room temps. But keep your lunch cool if you’re in doubt.
The idea is to keep your bentos nutritious, fresh, tasty and most importantly safe.
One of unique features of a bento box lunch is the use of baran. Baran is a physical barrier seperating food items in your bento box. Again, traditional Japanese use of leaves such as bamboo or shiso acts as both a barrier and an anti-bacterial! Commercially made plastic sheets can be used too as they sometimes contain an anti-bacterial agent.
Overall Presentation and Nutrition
When you look inside a bento box, you want to see a balanced, nutritious meal that is also aesthetically pleasing.
The foods displayed in a bento box follow a simple formula. Again, in describing a traditional Japanese bento…the arrangement includes rice accompanied by a selection of vegetables, meat, fish or eggs. Each prepared food inhabits its own section or compartment. On occasion, the rice may share the same space with others.
Insure a healthy lunch by keeping an artist’s palette in mind: red or orange, yellow, green, white, and black, dark purple or brown colors is based on traditional principles of Japanese cuisine. It’s called “goshiki” or five colors.
Planning your bento makes for fun shopping too: For reddish items, choose carrots, tomatoes or kabocha; for yellow, consider corn, sweet potato, takuan (or takuwan) and tamagoyaki. Green is simple with broccoli, spinach, green peppers, or asparagus. And the easiest is white: rice, daikon or tofu. Choices for black can be eggplant, sesame seeds and nori. Other seaweeds are hijiki or kombu.
Vary your cooking methods too! It’s another means for pleasing your taste buds! Foods should be grilled, fried, simmered, steamed, pickled and/or boiled.
A typical bento box could include simmered root veggies, steamed rice, a boiled egg, fried chicken and an apple slice.
Japanistic – cool, fun, well-designed Japanese bentos and other products!