Bentos, or boxed lunches, have a long deep history rooted in ancient Japan. They originally began as simple meals that required little or no effort to assemble. Today they are a vibrant art form popular worldwide.
This instructable will attempt to provide the basic design principles, resources for obtaining the necessary tools, and some of the traditional rules of making a beautiful and delicious bento.
Step 1: Know the rules (then break them!)
Like many other Japanese arts bento making has its own set of guidelines. Traditional bentos follow a couple of basic rules.
The 4-3-2-1 rule: 4 parts rice, 3 parts protein, 2 parts vegetable, and 1 part "treat" (Usually either pickled vegetables or something sweet.)
Sushi should be prepared with more wasabi than usual.
Pack foods with flavors that might run or stick together with a divider. Separate wet foods from dry using a nested or altogether separate container such as a cupcake form. Sauces and dressings go in their own bottles (usually with a lid or cap).
Oily foods (like gyoza) should be packaged on top of an absorbent material.
Bentos should not require refrigeration or heating.
Above all else your bento should be equally as nice to look at as nice to eat! (Note that this is the only rule that is not optional! :)
Step 2: Assemble hardware
If you're into kitchen gadgets making bento boxes can be a very fulfilling past time. There are tons of super cute accessories with which to decorate your lunches. Many of these items can be found online (check the last step for links!). If you're lucky enough to have a large Asian market in your town you'll probably be able to find everything you need right there. However, if you don't have one nearby don't fret. We'll talk about options using readily available items you probably already have in your kitchen.
The first thing you need is a bento box. This will influence your portions, your shapes, and even what types of food you use. There are several types. Cute shapes like the bullet train and Pandapple boxes are most popular for kids. Tiered boxes, like the shamrock bento, are more often used for adult lunches. Lock & Lock boxes are fantastic for two reasons. One, they come with individual removable dividers. And two, they lock completely air tight. I've recently started seeing Fit & Fresh brand in stores. The orange one pictured below has a separate ice ring you can freeze as well as a folding spoon. If you want to get started right away and don't have any of these types of boxes there you can also use a standard container. The actual shape of your box will have a lot to do with the final design of your box but we'll talk about that in the design step.
Cupcake forms and dividers are very handy when keeping flavors from mingling. Mini forms fit well in bentos. There are also silicone forms out now that are great if you have something really wet or messy (like spaghetti). The most common divider is the green plastic grass but there are lots of other specialty designs.
Regular shrimp forks are small in size, easy to find in stores, and fit in many boxes. Many colors, shapes, and sizes of specialty forks designed especially for bento boxes are available. Skewers or toothpicks can be cut to size and decorated should you be so inclined. A nice pair of chopsticks will round off your bento set. I like the ones that come with a matching box.
Many of the fancy patterns you see in bentos are made with some form of cutter. A cutter can be a cookie cutter, craft punch, or craft blade. I think I use my craft blade more than any other bento tool! Cutters are especially handy for cutting nori (seaweed/sushi paper), vegetables, or sliced tofu/meat. Who doesn't want little carrot stars on their salad?
Probably one of the more difficult specialty items to substitute for is a sauce bottle. Barring proper bottling, you can also put sauce into a ziplock bag (towards one corner) and secure the sauce with a rubber band. This would be something like a pastry frosting bag only very small. At lunch you can clip the tip off and squeeze the sauce out. I have also folded tinfoil into a little cup shape. If you go that route just be sure you use it for a thicker substance (like peanut butter) rather than something liquidy (like soy sauce) as it will probably leak.
Once you have your supplies together you're ready for some serious bento making!
Step 3: Gather specialty food items
A trip to your local Asian market is important to a traditional bento. But if you live in an area where you do not have access to such items don't fret. There are lots of creative and healthy ways to make a bento from seasonal local ingredients.
Calrose rice is your first choice for sushi rice. Minute rice isn't going to cut it
Tonkatsu sauce is simply good on everything. It's mostly used on tonkatsu(fried cutlet, usually pork) but it is also very delicious on steamed veggies. It's similar to Worcestershire sauce.
Furikake is used as a rice seasoning to spice up bland rice. It is usually a mix of dried seaweed bits, sesame seeds, dried shrimp, and various salts (vegetarian options such as the one below are available.)
Japanese bread crumbs are primarily used in making tonkatsu and fried shrimp. I think you could use regular bread crumbs in a pinch, but the ones marked Japanese seem to be lighter. (Maybe it's just my imagination!)
Mirin is a sweet light syrup used in making sushi rice and tomago (egg) sushi.
Tempura mix can be used to make tempura batter. You can make your own mix but if you use a premade one you can eliminate the egg.
Wasabi can be purchased in powder or paste form. Don't let the plesant light green color fool you - this stuff will clear your sinuses!
Now that you've done your shopping I suppose you're wondering what to put into your bento. Let's look at a few options.
Step 4: Stuff to put in your bento: Onigiri
Onigiri, rice balls with filling, are a wonderful comfort food. They are fun to make, fun to look at, and fun to eat. They also serve as a nice parcel to decorate as they have a large surface area. The simplest onigiri, and maybe the most traditional, is simply a rice ball with an umeboshi (pickled plum) in the middle. Umeboshi are extremely popular in bento boxes and especially onigiri.
First you must decide on your filling. Just like sushi, you could put anything you like in an onigiri. Something with a little body is best as anything too fluid will tend to seep. Some commercially packaged onigiris pack the nori seperately so that it stays crispy. Some common fillings are tuna, chicken, curry, boiled spinach, umeboshi, or tofu. It is also common to flavor the rice.
After you have decided on your filling take some rice and form a ball. You can make it as large or as small as you like. Using your fingers or a utensil make a pocket. Add your filling and top with some rice. The triangle is probably the most common onigiri shape. Just form with your hands. It's so easy!
Step 5: Stuff to put in your bento: Tempura
Tempura is a crispy batter coating used on vegetables or shrimp (although you could use it on anything that will hold together in hot oil.) It's fantastically cheap and easy to make.
The batter consists of: 1 egg, 1 cup ice water (it is important that the water is ice cold), and 1 cup all-purpose flour. Mix gently until blended but still lumpy. Use immediately. While you can certainly fry this up at this point it is extra delicious if you also bread your food. Japanese bread crumbs are light and give a big crunch.
You should have three containers: one with the batter, one with the breading, and a pan with hot vegetable oil. Dip your item in the batter, roll in the breading, shake off excess. Fry the bean in the oil, drain off excess on a paper towel. That's it!
Often served with tonkatsu sauce (see step four for more info.)
Step 6: Stuff to put in your bento: Sushi
Sushi is probably the most versatile food you can put in a bento box. Believe it or not it is quick and easy to make. Aside from cooking the rice making a sushi roll can take as little as 5 minutes.
Sushi could certainly be its own Instructable. But instead of trying to cover every type of sushi you could find in a really fantastic bento box I'm only going to cover one just to get you started. Maki sushi is the round, nori-wrapped (seaweed), sushi roll with any number of tasty fillings. Let's use the tempura beans from the last step to fill this one.
Prepare your Sushi rice and let it cool. Calrose rice with a dash of rice vinegar and a dash of mirin is what I like to use. The kind of rice you use is important - use sushi, calrose, or sticky rice.
Now you have your rice, nori, wasabi, and your fried beans. It's time to roll!
Place your nori paper (seaweed) shiny side down on your table or bamboo mat. Prepare a shallow dish of water to dip your fingertips in to keep the sticky rice from sticky-ing to your fingers. Cover the entire sheet with rice except for a strip about an inch wide at the top. Place the wasabi and beans about two inches up from the bottom. Roll tightly bottom to top and stop just short of the bare nori strip at the top. Wet the top strip with water with your fingertips and complete the roll. Cut in half and half again.
You now have the option of sushi to add to your bento boxes! It's small, doesn't require refridgeration, and fun to make!
Step 7: Stuff to put in your bento: Gyoza (part 1 of 3)
Gyoza is a nice thing to open a bento box and find. They have a pretty fan shape, a nice crispy texture on one side, and a savory filling in the middle. While they fantastic served hot they also keep extremely well.
You can, of course, put anything you like inside your gyoza. Most gyozas have cabbage and pork inside. I happen to be vegetarian so I'm filling these with tofu, parsley, and cabbage. This mix also has a dash of soy sauce, a little grated ginger, and a dash of mirin.
You can find gyoza wrappers in Asian markets or sometimes in a regular grocery store near the tofu. Today the local Asian market was closed and my local grocery doesn't carry gyoza wrappers. Not to be deterred, I used regular egg roll wrappers and cut the circles out with an craft blade. Egg roll wrappers are just slightly thinner than gyoza wrappers but obviously they work just as well. Plus, most grocery stores carry them.
Step 8: Stuff to put in your bento: Gyoza (part 2 of 3)
Pleating & Filling
After you have your wrappers prepare a small dipping bowl of water. Dip your finger in the bowl to wet your fingertip and run your finger along the edge of the wrapper. Make sure it is wet enough to be shiny, which may require more than one dip. Wetting the edge forms a "glue" to hold your gyoza shut.
Looselyfold the circle in half (not so that the whole thing closes together though) and pinch the corner shut. You want to use enough pressure to just barely feel the gyoza wrapper squish beneath your fingertips.
Holding the corner with one hand, take the half facing you on the same side as the corner you just pinched and make an "s" shape with it. Pinch again. Now you have a pleat. Repeat pleating until you are about halfway closed.
Holding the half-pleated gyoza in one hand like an ice cream cone, put enough filling inside to fill the pocket but not enough to level up to your glue line. Continue pleating until completely closed. It is moderately important that you have no air holes in your gyoza as this will cause your gyoza to leak in your pan while cooking.
Step 9: Stuff to put in your bento: Gyoza (part 3 of 3)
Use a light, flavorless oil and medium heat. After the pan is hot place your gyoza inside in a nested line. Be very careful the gyoza doesn't stick to the pan while cooking. This could potentially tear your gyoza and then you have a big mess in your pan! Add more oil if you need to and shake the pan a lot. You may find cooking with chopsticks will add to your dexterity when something small like a corner sticks.
While the bottoms of your gyoza are browning we need to steam the tops. Take a small amount of water (A couple of tablespoons should do the trick) and add it to the hot pan. Place a lid or piece of aluminum foil over the top to trap the steam inside. You may need to do this several times before they're all cooked.
Drain on paper towels. Since we're putting these in a bento box, we want to give them extra draining time. Otherwise, you could serve them right away. In a bento box you would probably want to include a serving bottle of gyoza sauce - soy sauce with a dash of vinegar. You would also place them on a surface that would absorb the oil like a paper doily or paper towel.
Gyoza are often served in groups of five. At dinner in Japan, it would not be uncommon for gyoza to be made in a batch of 30-40 for a family.
Step 10: Design your bento!
When I start a bento the first thing I look at is my main item (e.g. sushi or gyoza). I almost always have this in mind before I start cooking. I then choose my bento box and go from there.
As we previously discussed, your bento box will have a great deal to do with your overall design. For example, if you have a traditional laquerware bento box with rounded corners you are going to need to fill in some odd spaces. Likewise, boxes with dividers built in to them may or may not be the right size for what you want to do.
After space filling you'll want to consider color. By far, fresh fruits and vegetables are going to have the best colors. Fresh slightly steamed veggies will yield a brilliant spectrum. It is considered unappetizing to have a bento that is uniform in color.
Texture is also very important. Smooth shiny surfaces next to spiky shapes next to billowy veggies treat the eye to a visual array of excitement. Noodles look great furled up into a "bird's nest".
Giving your bento a name or a theme can pull the whole piece together and inspire details. Although you would think it might be the first step in the design process it is often the last. It is surprisingly easy to put together a bento that is full but not finished. Many times just a small pair of eyes cut out of nori, a few carrot hearts, or a tiny little fork can make an ordinary lunch into a bento box.
Step 11: My romp into bento madness
From 1998 to 2000 I lived in Narita, Japan where I worked at a Summer camp teaching English to little kids. On my very first day I was blown away by what the kids brought for lunch. There was not a single PB&J or bag of potato chips to be found. Instead vegetables were lovingly cut into animal shapes, anime characters graced lunch box lids, and personalized messages were crafted right into the food. I could tell right away that the Japanese bento is more than a school lunch, it is an art form.
Bento fun isn't exclusive to children. A lunch prepared for a husband might not include a sausage cut lovingly into the shape of an octopus but might instead include a handmade onigiri (rice ball) with a curry filling. A lunch purchased on the bullet train might not include a tomato with a face, but could well include hand-dipped fried shrimp.
While modesty prevented them from saying so I learned that my student's mothers woke up very early every morning to ensure their husbands and children left the house with bentos they could be proud of. Making a nutritious and cheerful bento is an investment of time. It takes longer than microwaving a pizza or throwing together a bologna sandwich. It is also considered an extension of the preparer's love for the recipient. Originally simple meals that required little preparation, bentos have blossomed into an exciting new trend. The intricate designs and unusual foods were intimidating at first but I have learned and compiled ways around these challenges. Like any gadget enthusiast I have collected a pile of tools with which to play with. And like any busy crafter I have collected just as many time-saving techniques.
I hope you are pleased with the ones I have shared with you here.