There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about the growing popularity of the bento in America. Why all the rage?
For dieters, they are an eye-popping form of portion control. Artistic preparation of ingredients can act as a pleasant distraction for health-conscious parents. For others, bentos are a way to make lunch pretty or indulge their love of things Japanese.
In Japan, compact, compartmented bento boxes are traditionally filled with rice, pickled vegetables and fish or meat. Japanese mothers take pride in their obentos and hope they outshine those of other mothers, said the Japanese cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo.
“Obento making is a kind of cult,” she said.
A balanced, cute meal with added creativity and a competitive spirit? That’s quite the lunch. Of course, there is always the konbini bento option as well, which isn’t cute or particularly healthy, but it is convenient. (Note: to learn more about the kinds of bento enjoyed from pre-school to retirement age, check out Just Bento.)
Whether you make your own lunch every day or just need a bento for a day trip, it’s good to know what kinds of foods work well. One of the easiest things to make is onigiri (rice balls).
1. Prepare rice and choose your filling or mix-in. Fillings are usually salty to add flavor and help with preservation, so things like umeboshi, tuna, and kimchi work well. As for mix-ins, I’m referring to furikake, which is a mixture of dried fish, seaweed, and other flavors that is added to the rice when not using a nori (seaweed) wrap.
2. Rice is very sticky, and the easiest way to avoid having a glue-like mess on your hands is to use plastic wrap. Tear off a piece that is large enough to also be used to wrap your onigiri later. Spread your rice on the plastic wrap, add your filling, and then add more rice, salting if desired. Now just use the plastic wrap to protect your hands as you form the onigiri into a ball or triangle. If you are using a nori wrap, you can add that either before wrapping your finished onigiri in the plastic wrap or just before you eat it, depending on your preference.
Another quick and easy bento option is kiriboshi daikon. Kiriboshi daikon is dried daikon (Japanese white radish) that is best in fall and winter as it spoils too quickly in the summer heat. It’s a versatile ingredient, as you can add miso, vegetables, and meat to change the taste. Here is a basic recipe that uses shoyu (soy sauce) for flavor.
1. Soak the kiriboshi daikon for 5-10 minutes, or blanch by boiling for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse, using your hands to squeeze out excess water. Cut the daikon into smaller pieces if it looks too long. Rinse and cut the aburaage into smaller pieces as well.
2. Combine your dashi stock, water, shoyu, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add your daikon, aburaage, and carrot and cook over medium heat until most of the liquid is absorbed.