by Donna David
You've probably seen pictures of Japanese boxed lunches and marveled at how pretty they are. Seeing how neat and tidy the food looks, you'd think you'd have to be an expert in Japanese cooking to make them but that's hardly the case. So banish all fears, channel you inner Iron Chef and follow these principles of bento making and you'll have an Instagram-worthy lunch.
You can find Japanese bento boxes on Amazon, but you can also use Tupperware. Bento accessories like frilled plastic cups, cutters and molds can also be bought from Amazon.
Bento lunches are characterized by small portions of a wide variety of food, thus ensuring a balanced meal. Half of it is usually rice, and the rest are meat, fish, eggs and vegetables. Sandwiches can also be part of a bento lunch, but make sure the bread is crustless and sliced in dainty slices. Organize the food in groups, and make sure they are uniform in height. No Godzilla of a carrot stick lording over the rest of the cowering meat and vegetables. Pack small things like edamame beans in frilled cups so that they don't scatter. Pack everything in tight, with no gaps so that the food can't move around. When you open your bento, you'd want it to be as pretty as when you last sealed it shut.
The key word is variety. Make sure there is a variety of colors. Japanese food follows a five color principle: red, yellow, green, brown and black. Not only are they pretty to look at, but a variety of color means you get a lot of nutrients. There is also a variety of cooking methods for bento lunches. Food is usually grilled, steamed and boiled. Fried food is kept to a minimum, as it tends to be greasy when cold. A bento lunch must be delicious long after it's been made and even when it's not hot so season the food a little more than you usually do. Don't put anything that congeals like a sauce. Besides, you don't want a sauce sloshing around inside your bento box and ruining all the beautiful work you've done.
Here are some examples of what Japanese bentos are typically made of, following the five color principle.
» red: cherry tomato, sliced red bell pepper, raw or boiled carrots
» yellow: egg omelet, sliced yellow bell pepper, cubes of cheese
» green: boiled spinach, sautéed green beans, sliced cucumber, steamed broccoli, steamed asparagus
» brown: grilled meat, grilled fish, sautéed mushrooms
» black: seaweed, black sesame seeds sprinkled on the rice
This is a bento from a Japanese convenience store. (Picture 1) On the left is rice with boiled and chopped bamboo shoots. On the right, clockwise from the top: grilled chicken, black seaweed, tofu, carrot, shiitake mushroom, wilted greens, yellow egg omelet, grilled fish.
For kids' lunches, get creative and shape the food into animals or their favorite cartoon characters. This is a simple "owl" lunch that you can make without fancy molds and cutters. (Picture 2) For true works of art, type "character bento" in Google images and you will find a lot of bentos so cute you'd be inspired to make your own.