Learn How To Make Cute and Colorful Japanese Bento Boxes at Home
More and more, the Japanese bento is gaining fame outside Japan as a way of ensuring a colorful, healthy, well-balanced meal for yourself, friends, or family. This article will give you tips on how to perfect the craft of fresh bento boxes: you can add a kawaii (cute) touch to your lunchbox by including your favorite anime or manga characters like Totoro or Hello Kitty, and even turn plain rice into dazzling rolls! We'll also introduce live online video courses from real Japanese instructors, where you can learn these skills hands-on. With these skills, you can end up with a colorful, eye-catching bento that isn't just great for school lunches, but is sure to impress your peers at parties or picnics!
Jul 08 2020
What Is a Bento Box?
Quite simply, "bento" refers to a portable, packaged meal that comes in a great number of varieties. Invariably, a bed of rice is central. Aside from the rice, some bento have an obvious "main dish" surrounded by sides, while others have small servings of multiple proteins. The bento in the photo above, for example, has mini-portions of both stewed beef and fish. Many bento-makers take care to include a variety of colors, textures, and food groups.
Bento have their origins in China and originally meant "handy" or "convenient", although the word is now written differently. While the Japanese have been making portable, rice-based meals for centuries, the lacquerware bento box dates back to the late 16th century, which is also around the same time the word first appeared in a dictionary. Bento became a truly common practice throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), and cookbooks were written for guidance on preparing them during this time.
Bento Culture Today
With such a long genesis, there is now a very wide-reaching bento culture in Japan. Overseas, bento have become well known as a sort of "fad", as a particular lunch style to opt into, but in Japan, bento is just a common form that lunches take. Lunches that mothers make for their children are bento. Convenience stores, grocery stores, and specialty restaurants prepare wide varieties of bento for workers during lunch hours. When traveling by train, it's customary to pick up an "ekiben" (a "station bento", often comprising regional specialties) before heading out. We even have a whole article on ekiben if you'd like to learn more!
Because of the widespread culture of bento, there are also a wide variety of reusable bento boxes on sale for those who prepare their own meals. Because there are numerous colors, designs, and materials, these boxes are an excellent way for people to express their personality and style.
What's in a Bento?
What to put in a bento? Anything that can be easily picked up on a fork or between two chopsticks! Items that are too soft or have too much liquid are no-gos, but everything else is fair game. For protein items, very simple items that you can make at home (or even buy frozen) include karaage (fried chicken), meatballs, mini-sausages, and hamburg steaks (a sort of patty-shaped meatloaf).
Veggies are a must. Cooking pros might come up with elaborate stewed concoctions, but simple tufts of broccoli or stewed spinach can suffice. Mini-tomatoes are a common sight as well, as something that can add a splash of red. Toss in a few sliced tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) to add a friendly yellow, and there you have it! A healthy, well-balanced Japanese bento.
Add Some Kawaii to Your Lunchbox
Japanese food culture seeks to continuously, meticulously refine every last aspect of the eating experience, and the same goes with bento. One way to make your bento creations stand out is to arrange and mold ingredients to be adorable. One common technique that parents use for their children's bento boxes is the "tako-san wiener," where mini-sausages are made to look like octopuses. The tamagoyaki can be molded into heart- or flower-shapes as well (as in the photo above)!
You can find recipes online to make little snowmen figures, teddy-bear heads, or panda heads out of rice balls, or little characters out of fish cakes and tamagoyaki. And once you know the go-to ingredients for certain colors, you can make your own cute creations: seaweed or sesame seeds can add black (for a character’s eyes and nose), cucumbers or edamame can add green, cheese can serve as white, carrots are the go-to for orange, and crab meat could add flecks of red or white. Nowadays, there are even little handheld cutters available that can punch ingredients (like cheese or seaweed) into specific shapes; you can even find them abroad by searching for "bento accessories" on Amazon.
It's certainly a change from the usual lunch! Of course, preparing such a lunch is time-consuming and requires precise finger-work, so doing this everyday would be a hassle. Yet, it's an excellent skill to have for special occasions, or just for days when you're feeling whimsical.
Not sure where to start? You can get some hands-on experience in the 90-minute online lesson "Online Cute Chara-ben" hosted through airKitchen. The Tokyo-based instructor, Noriko, shows you how to make your lunchbox adorable by adding a special twist to normal ingredients. The lesson teaches you how to make heart- and flower-shaped tamagoyaki, turn the standard wiener sausages into mini-octopuses, and turn a bed of rice into a full-fledged cartoon character using cheese, seaweed, and bits of crab. The host mentions that a "nori punch" (for cutting seaweed into a particular shape) is desirable, but not necessary; all other tools are easily accessible.
Video lessons like this allow you to learn Japanese cooking from the comfort and familiarity of your own kitchen. And as with all of airKitchen's lessons, “Online Cute Chara-ben” is affordable, taught in English, accommodates vegans and vegetarians, and offers numerous time slots to accommodate time zones. This lesson accepts up to 8 students per session, meaning the teacher can watch what you're doing and make corrections when necessary, so you're guaranteed to end up with a delicious result!
Sushi Bento: Turn Boring Rice Into Dazzling Sushi Creations
No bento is complete without rice. It is often served as is, but sometimes you want to mix it up a bit, and this is where "norimaki" (seaweed rolls) come in.
You might be most familiar with rolls in the setting of a sushi restaurant, where "maki-sushi" (rolled sushi) is served alongside the classic "nigiri-sushi" (hand-formed sushi). But you don't need fish to make a roll! Alternatives like "futomaki" (thick rolls), which usually include egg, cucumber, crab meat, and shiitake mushrooms, are a very common, refreshing item that doesn't overwhelm the rest of the bento. They work as finger food, meaning that they are a good option for parties and picnics!
If you'd love to give these a try, we have a recipe to help you out!
Another fan favorite in Japan is the "inari-sushi" (the golden pouches in the above photos). These consist of sushi rice (rice mixed with rice vinegar, sugar and salt), sometimes mixed with sesame seeds, placed in an "abura-age," a sliced and deep-fried tofu that is simmered in a mixture of mirin, soy sauce and dashi (Japanese stock) and made into a pouch shape. As you can see, this is exceedingly easy to prepare, but makes an excellent addition to any bento!
For some particularly extravagant and impressive sushi roll creations, hop onto the "Art SUSHI ROLL" class on airKitchen. It is a 1 hour, individual lesson taught by Mami, who has been teaching sushi art for eight years. The lesson specifically covers making flower shapes and "shikai-maki" (four seas rolls), which are creations that you might find in special occasions like weddings. (Of course, the skills from this course are broadly applicable.) Among the necessary items for the lesson, it might be difficult to find a bamboo rolling mat, although Mami is sure to help you find workarounds. This lesson is also vegan-friendly.
Start Making Bento at Home Today!
Eating out can be too costly, but cooking food for yourself may become monotonous. Add some variety to your meal routine by preparing a Japanese-style bento! airKitchen's lessons are an excellent way to get started, as they provide a fun and affordable way to use your free time to expand your cooking skills. All you need to join is a tablet or computer with Zoom installed!
Such a project might seem daunting at first, but as you see here, "bento" really refers to the framework, and the ingredients are enormously flexible. You can learn new dishes, one by one, relying on formal lessons as you desire, and soon enough you'll be a bento expert!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.