Would you like to know how to make a bento (lunch in a box, Japanese style) that looks nice, tastes interesting, and is nourishing, for your lunch? I live in Japan and have been making bentos for years, and I have heard that bento boxes (“o-bento-bako”)have become popular overseas (overseas from Japan, that is.) Sometimes I use Japanese ingredients and sometimes I use ingredients that would be readily available to you. I eat gluten-free, and using a bento box is a great way to carry a gluten-free, rice-based lunch. I hope you will learn to enjoy putting together a bento with little stress, and of course, that you will enjoy eating it too!
The two-layered bento box
I usually use a two-layered bento box. The tops of each layer do not quite seal, so I don’t put anything juicy in them. The layers can be divided in any way you like. I tend to put things that need to be microwaved in one layer and things that can be eaten cold in the other.
Layer one: the “main course”
Rice can be spread over the bottom of this layer, or piled on one side. I usually put rice and meat or other protein in this layer. If you want to pile your rice on one side and eat it separately, you can put the protein and possibly any cooked vegetables that you would like to warm up on the other side. If you would like the rice to absorb juices from the meat or vegetables, spread it on the bottom and put the meat and vegetables (in Japanese “o-kazu,” the main dish) on top. (In the one pictured above, the rice is under a layer of ground chicken, and the vegetables are in a small silicone cup, which can be removed and placed on top of the rice/meat to heat up in the microwave.)
You can make your own tiny hamburgers, use sliced ham or small hotdogs, make scrambled eggs, use beans or solid tofu for your protein layer. Tofu can be soaked in water for a few minutes, pressed between two cutting boards if it is too soft, sliced, cooked in a dry frying pan to make it a little denser, and then flavored with (gluten-free) soy sauce.
Cooked vegetables should be sliced into bite-sized pieces.
Layer two: the “relish”
This is the layer that makes the bento more interesting. I use little silicone baking cups to separate things in this layer. You can put anything you think of as a “relish,” such as olives or pickles, sliced fruit or small whole fruit such as grapes, salad or raw vegetables in this layer.
The single-layer bento box
Usually these are flat, and lend themselves well to a layer of rice with a layer of curry, stew, or other complete meal on top. If you don’t happen to have a flat bento box, any refrigerator storage container whose lid won’t come off will work! The theory is that the layer of rice absorbs any moisture from the stew so that it doesn’t leak all over everything. This is really the easiest way to make and clean up a bento. It isn’t as fancy, of course, as the two-layered bento box, but I like it in the winter when a hot stew is just the thing. You can, of course, use a single-layer bento box in the same way you would use a two-layer box; just use the silicone cups so that you can remove the things you would prefer to eat cold.
Additions to the bento lunch
I take my main meal in the bento box, and always add a pack of yogurt and a piece of fruit. Sometimes I take a box or bottle of juice, but usually I just drink water or tea that is provided in our staff lounge. If I know I am going to eat outside, I take a small thermos or PET bottle of drink. I don’t usually take anything that Americans would consider dessert, but Japanese consider both fruit and yogurt to be dessert! If I’m feeling really expansive, I take a small square of dark chocolate to finish with.
Delicious and nutritious (and cheap!)
There are many ways to use a bento box to carry a healthful lunch with you. Bentos are great alternatives to sandwiches, and can provide a solid meal with everything you need for very little money compared to what you would spend in a restaurant. I hope you enjoy making and eating bentos!