Ticking all the Lunch Boxes – A Guide to Japanese Bento Boxes
One of the things I was most intrigued by when I moved to Japan was its bento culture. I was astonished by the amount of effort that Japanese people put into their packed lunches. My Japanese friend once told me that they look forward to their bento all day and opening it is a pleasant surprise or treat. It wasn’t long before I was completely immersed in this bento culture and looked forward to making my own bento every night for work the following day. This time of year, I love making bento for summer picnics and family day trips. Bento also works perfectly for school or work lunches.
What is a Bento?
Bento is a Japanese style lunchbox and is loved all around the world for its colourful appearance and animation. A typical Japanese bento will have something from each of the food groups, including carbohydrates such as rice, noodles or bread; meat or fish; and vegetables and fruit. The traditional bento box is divided into different compartments allowing various dishes to be stored in the box together however if you have a basic lunchbox you can divide the food using bun cases or smaller containers.
Where can you buy Bento Boxes?
Bento boxes have become more available in shops across Ireland. Avoca tends to stock a selection of bento boxes throughout the year. My favourite bento boxes come from a company called ECOlunchbox. The whole collection is stainless steel so they last a lifetime!
Here are my top tips for creating your own bento box:
– Prepare and plan in advance
– Use leftovers where possible (it reduces food waste and saves you time)
– Use a cookie cutter to make vegetables and fruit into fun shapes such as flowers or stars
– Use colourful and animated bun cases to separate different foods
– Where possible try to use different colours e.g. if you’re adding a green vegetable (e.g. steamed broccoli) then add a different colour fruit (e.g. sliced strawberries).
– Avoid using food or dishes that won’t keep well in a lunchbox for a few hours. Foods that typically keep well in a lunchbox include rice balls, sushi, steamed rice, salads, pasta, egg, hummus/dips, steamed vegetables, raw vegetables sticks, sliced fruit, mini sandwiches etc.
If you’d like to experience eating out bento, most Japanese restaurants offer a bento option on their lunch menu which are generally reasonably priced. If, like me, you find it difficult to choose one dish from the menu it gives you a chance to taste a few different dishes at one mealtime.
A self-taught cook, food-writer and author, Fiona Uyema is one of Ireland’s leading Japanese cooks and cookery instructors. Passionate about bringing the art of Japanese home-cooking into kitchens across the country and further afield, her first book, Japanese Food Made Easy was published in September 2015.
Fiona Uyema’s love of the Japanese language, culture and cuisine began in Dublin City University where she studied Japanese and International Marketing. She then spent three years living in the beautiful village of Nishiyama. After her introduction to her now husband Gilmar, her love of Japan was sealed.
Fiona now lives in Co. Kildare with her husband and two sons where she teaches workshops, provides corporate classes on the art of Japanese cooking, provides consultancy to restaurants and the food industry and blogs about her Japanese food adventures on Fiona’s Japanese Cooking Blog.