Beginner Bento

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Cooking CourseThe first thing you'll need to know is how to cook rice.  Rice is a common feature of bento, and you will need to know how to make it sticky, but not pasty.  This takes practice.  Once you cook the rice, you'll need to mix it with approximately ½ teaspoon of vinegar for every cup of rice you'll be using for rice balls or bento, to help it stick, and keep it from spoiling too quickly while sitting unrefrigerated between morning and lunch.  It also helps to enhance the taste and knock some of the unpleasant after-smell of some fishes.

Second, you will need to have the appropriate supplies.  At the very least, your bento kit should have:

  • a very sharp fruit and vegetable knife
  • a quality serrated knife
  • a bamboo sushi roller (or you should be very good with your hands and plastic sheets or wax paper)
  • a melon baller
  • small cookie cutters or shapely cheese cutters
  • a good rolling pin or pasta machine that will do flat sheets
  • a grater

Optionally, to make certain things prettier, you can use:
  • a sandwich toaster that makes wedges and grill lines
  • a waffle maker
  • a toaster oven
  • a food processor
  • a mandolin style slicer
Bento is more than just a plate of food with sections.  Like almost everything else Japanese, that has to do with food, it is an art.  It can be messy and chaotic if you like it that way, but then it wouldn't really be bento.  Whether you do it with Japanese food in the Japanese aesthetic, or with western food with a western aesthetic, or African food, etc. the point is that it be pleasing to both the eye and the palate.

(There is, by the way, an African, Arab, and diaspora work/school lunch style, that uses covered bowls or containers, wrapped in a cloth to use as a handle and temperature regulator.  Sometimes, people will each bring different dishes, to share among coworkers or classmates.  Other times, it will be a breakfast or lunch version of whatever was left over from the evening meal the day before.  Click here for information on preparing African style lunches.)

So, you may use a traditional Japanese bento box, a plastic segmented plate with a cover, or even origami folded heavy duty foil boxes or waxed paper-board inside a western lunchbox or bag.  Whichever way, the eater should be able to take each box, and open a small, edible treasure, or turn the plate for a new perspective of tasty delight.

Next, you will need to choose the right utensils.  Plastic spoons and forks, or bamboo chopsticks will do for most people.  For something really nice, if the one you are serving is an adept user of both chopsticks and the fork and knife, you may want to consider forkchops.

Though most bento takeout comes in a paper envelope with the boxes inside, for homemade bento, I believe it nicer to sew a cover bag that is oriented so that the box can sit flat, with a drawstring top.  You may also use a large cloth napkin of whatever style that won't be "overdressed" for your loved one's school or workplace, with the corners tied together, or secured with a ribbon, string, or rubber band.

Finally, you will need a collection of recipes for foods that are good to serve at room temperature.  Unless you are making bento for immediate serving, it won't be hot (or chilled) by the time it gets to work or school unless you are using thermal containers.  Three or five small thermal soup containers will make for a nice bento like effect in a western package, though.   For things you would need to keep cold (such as meat or fish), strapping a frozen juice box atop the container will work from morning until lunchtime.

Rice balls, sushi wraps, carrots, chicken, citrus fruits, pineapple, shrimp, hot-dogs, cheese, pickled items, and sweet and sour meatballs are good things to start with.  Never use anything with ketchup or mayonnaise that will be let to set, unless they are in a condiment pack.  Some local restaurants will allow you to buy small packs of condiments, but you may have to go to a restaurant supply store to find them.

There are small "soy sauce bottles" now available, but they are very difficult to clean the insides of, without a special tool.

Try to avoid using pre-packaged foods in those small containers if possible.  These generally have alot of sodium or nitrite in them, and they aren't good for long term health.

Well, this should get you started.  Be creative with it!


© 2006 Nicole Lasher