Bento boxes are a fantastic lunch idea. Nowadays they are popular outside of Japan too and are often filled with things like little sandwiches, cheese, crackers, and hummus dips. But bento is not just a packed lunch. There is so much more to it for Japanese people. Bento addresses many aspects of food such as nutrition, taste, texture, preservation, and appearance. I am going to share 5 golden rules to assemble an authentic Japanese bento lunch box.
The 2 important points you need to keep in mind when you pack an Obento are
- To season well so that everything in the bento box is delicious even when it’s get cold.
- To prepare the food that goes into the bento box in special ways, so it will not go off by the time the Obento gets eaten.
Obento Rule 1: Cooling down
Rice and all side dishes need to be cold when they are packed. This is because packing cold and warm dishes together will make them go off easily. The bento will be eaten cold anyway so packing things when they have already cooled down is best. Let the rice cool down and let the excess moisture evaporate before packing. Let all side dishes get cold.
Bento Rule 2: Season well
Generally speaking, we feel dishes are less tasty when the food gets cold. We don’t eat bento straight away when we make it so it gets cold. Therefore, we need to season it well. Adding a little more condiments such as soy sauce and miso or marinating first is a great idea. This ensures that the food is flavourful and delicious.
Obento Rule 3: Evaporate and remove any liquid
Nobody wants a soggy bento box. So it’s essential to remove any excess liquid. When you cook side dishes, make sure all the liquid has evaporated and all vegetables are completely dry and fresh. Also make sure that the rice has cooled down so there is no moisture from the steam.
Obento Rule 4: Use food that has an antiseptic & bactericidal effect
One reason you often see Umeboshi salted plum on plain rice is not just to make it look like the Japanese flag but because Umeboshi salted plum has an antiseptic and bactericidal effect. This helps to keep the food fresh and ensures your meal won’t go off before you eat it. Adding ginger is another good idea because ginger has an antibacterial property.
Obento Rule 5: Packing Order
In general, pack the rice or onigiri first, then bigger side dishes next, and finally fill the gaps with smaller side dishes and veggies. Japanese people don’t just randomly pack anything in front of them. They think about appearance, colour combination, and most importantly, whether particular dishes don’t mix in terms of flavour or taste. There are many bento lunch box ideas out there for you to experiment with to find great filling options.
Other Tips and Time Saving Tricks
- To make the bento visually pleasing, add accent points with small veggies or fruits. After filling the main dishes of the bento, add pops of colour with cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, broccoli, carrots, and fresh berries such as blueberries and strawberries.
- If making bento box lunches for kids, you can cut fruits and veggies in cute shapes using small cookie cutters or a knife. Often in Japan, apple slices are cut into bunny shapes by slicing the skin halfway to create ears.
- If you want to add little snacks for kids bento boxes, it’s best to put them in separate containers or in a segregated lunch box. Things like chips, pretzels, cookies, almonds, and other nuts may not blend well with the main dishes. And of course, runny things like greek yogurt or compotes need to be in a leak proof container.
- Include little skewers for bite sized foods like little sausages, tomatoes, and grapes to make it easier to eat.
- In Japan, the main carb of a bento box is rice. We do not include things like sandwiches, pita bread, tortilla wraps/chips, or bread rolls. However, if you choose to do this, make sure you still follow rule 5 to make cohesive and compatible flavours.
- To save time without compromising the quality and deliciousness of your bento, do a little meal prep. Prepare as much as you can the night before so in the morning, you can just pack. For example, make the meatballs the night before and coat with thick sweet and sour sauce in the morning. Cook the egg night before and slice and pack in the morning. Cook potato salad or pasta salad the night before and pack in the morning.
If you follow these 5 basic rules and tips and tricks for saving time that Japanese know and use, you can pack your lunch like Japanese do anytime, even when you have got different dishes to pack.
If you like it please rate and leave comments below. Enjoy packing bento like a pro.
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- 150 g cooked rice *1
Sweet & Sour Meatballs *2
- 5 g butter
- 1/4 onion finely chopped
- 250 g Ground pork *3
- 1/2 large egg *12
- pinch of salt
- 1 tsp Katakuriko(Potato starch)
- 600 ml Oil for deep fry *4
- 1/4 cup water
- Pinch of Torigara Soup powder *5
- 1 tbs soy sauce
- 1 tbs sugar
- 1/2 tbs mirin
- 1 tbs rice vinegar *6
- 1 tsp katakuriko(potato starch)
Tamagoyaki Rolled egg roll *7
- 2 1/2 large eggs *12
- 1/2 tbsp shirodashi *8
- 1/4 of nori sheet
- 1/2 tbsp oil
Potato salad *9
- 1/4 onion
- half lebanese cucumber sliced
- 350 g Potatoes
- 50 g ham chopped
- 2 tbsp Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise *10
- pinch of salt to taste
- 4 parboiled sugar snap peas
- 1 bunch of broccolini
- 1 mini tomato
- 2 shiso leaves *11
- parsley to garnish
Sweet & Sour Meatballs
- Add butter into a small frying pan over medium heat.
- Add finely chopped onion and cook it until onion become transparent and soft.
- Let it cool and set aside.
- Place ground meat in a mixing bowl and add egg, salt, potato starch and cooked onion.
- Combine them well with your hand until it become a little sticky. Make 18 pin-pong ball sized meatballs.
- Heat oil to 180°C (356°F) and deep fry the meatballs until it become golden brown. *13
- Set aside the meatballs. You could do up to this steps a night before in order to save time in the morning.
- Place water, torigara soup powder, soy sauce, sugar, mirin, rice vinegar and potato starch in a saucepan.
- Bring it simmer and become thicken.
- Add meatballs to the saucepan and coat the thickened sauce well.
- Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and add shirodashi.
- Mix them all together and strain the egg mixture a few times.
- Heat the oil in a rectangle shaped frying pan(if you have)*14 and remove the excess with a kitchen paper. Keep the oil soaked kitchen paper for later steps.
- Pour about 1/3 of egg mixture, scramble them a little bit and when the egg solidified a little, push them towards an end ot of the pan.
- Wipe the empty side of the pan with oil soaked kitchen paper and pour another 1/3 of the egg mixture.
- Lift the pushed egg to let the egg mixture run under it.
- Place the nori sheet over the newly poured egg before they get solidified.
- Roll the egg from the one side of the pan.
- Repeat the same for remaining egg mixture.
- Turn the heat off and remove the rolled egg from the pan and let it cool.
- Slice the rolled egg about 2cm(7.9inch) thick.
Potato salad *9
- Chop the onion finely and soak them in water in a small mixing bowl. Soak about 10 minutes. Drain the water and squeeze out excess water and set aside.
- Slice the cucumber thinly and sprinkle a pinch of water. Leave it about 5 minutes or the salt withdraw the water out of cucumber. Squeeze the moisture out of cucumber and set aside.
- Peel the potato and cut them small.
- Boil the potato for about 10 minutes or potato become soft. Drain the cooking water and mash the potatoes.
- Place mashed potato, onion, cucumber and ham into a mixing bowl.
- Add mayonnaise and salt to combine them all together.
Assemble all together into a lunch box
- Place rice first, then shiso leaves, meatballs, sugar snap peas, rolled egg, tomato and potato salad. If there is any gap, fill the gap with green vegetables and parsley.
- Sprinkle sesame seeds over the rice and top with Umeboshi. *See above step by step photos.
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