What is a “bento”?
A bento, o-bento or bento box is a Japanese name for a packed lunch.
The name is derived from a very old Chinese slang term meaning “convenient”, which is certainly the case even today!
In Japan these lunches are bound to contain rice and many vegetables, making them a great option for those who wish to have a filling lunch for a relatively small amount of calories though they can contain just about anything that won’t perish within the few hours from breakfast to lunch.
Another hallmark of a Japanese bento is that the size of the container used is small in comparison to western counterparts though whether using a western style box or a Japanese style, they are usually still referred to as a Bento.
There are two different types of bento when it comes to the home-made kind, a standard bento and a Charaben/kyaraben.
A Charaben, short for character bento, is a bento that has had the food arranged to look like a character from a video game, a show, a book or just an adorable animal, usually by shaping rice and using food colourings to create an accurate look.
It goes without saying that these can take an age to make and can be masterpieces more about their look than their food!
Why would I want to make Bento?
As touched on earlier, bento can be extremely healthy and filling with a smaller amount of calories than other lunch choices.
They can also save you a lot of money on sandwiches, takeaways and over on the go foods without the aspect of the unappealing home-made sandwich wrapped in foil or cling film bound to be squashed in transit that almost all of us have encountered!
For people with allergies or specific dietary requirements, like me who is allergic to all manner of things including nuts, bananas and onions!, a bento is a great, easy way to know just what is going in to your food, instead of sticking to a few pre-made foods you know are safe.
Besides these things, a bento can also be a fun thing to do!
Even if you can’t cook or don’t have much time, experimenting with fresh fruits and vegetables, pantry staples, family favourites or leftovers to put in your lunch box is an exciting way to vary your diet and maybe even create some conversation and jealousy wherever you eat lunch!
What do I need to start making bento?
To start making a bento, simply, you need a container!
A food storage box, a sandwich box, or if you have one, a Japanese style bento box, is all you need!
They come in all shapes and sizes, round, rectangle, triangle and some even in the shape of objects!
Ideally, a leak proof, airtight box is best though traditionally Japanese bento boxes are held together with a tight elastic band which works well provided your meal stays upright and liquids are not used.
If you want a hot meal for lunch, a thermal box or microwave safe container where a microwave is available are the best choices.
For some recommendations on which bento you might want to try, see my reviews!
Remember, even if you are having the meal hot later, unless you are using a thermal box, you will need to let it cool to at least room temperature before packing away. See “How do I start making bento?” below.
How do I start making bento?
To start making a bento, it is as simple as placing food you want to eat later in a box for transport, maybe even in an attractive manner of which there are thousands of tools to help you available!
There are really no rules to the amount of creativity and tastiness you can put in your box and the list of foods you could use are practically endless.Go ahead and check out my Bento browser for inspiration on what you could create!
Please do take into account these suggestions and tips though as they are written from experience and can help you make a better bento!
Don’t put a soup or other very liquidy food into a box that isn’t air tight! Messy messy messy!
Not sure if it’s air tight?
Place some water into the box and close it, upturn it, shake it and see if any water comes out!
If you are packing fruit that brown when exposed to the air like apples and pears, squeeze over a touch of lemon juice to extend their life and reduce their browning!
If using vinaigrette on salad leaves, pack it separately as the acidity will wilt them!
The freezer is your friend!
Suitable leftovers from meals or dishes you are making for a bento can be portioned up, frozen and thawed when ready (or even in your lunch box if it is a hot day!).
See my tutorial for portioning and freezing rice as it can be a pain early in the morning!
Don’t pack hot food into your box, even if you want to eat it that way!
Steam in hot food being trapped inside your box will not only spoil your food and make it soggy but the warm and wet environment will be a fabulous home for germs, which if you are going to eat your bento hours later, will have multiplied massively!
If you have to add hot food to a box, add it and leave it to cool with the lid off, placing in uncooked fruit and vegetables last to keep them cool.
If rice is a component in your meal, remember that rice is only safe to eat within 4 hours if not kept in a cold place or kept hot at over 63oC (a thermal box may not keep it heated to such a degree so check with your instructions!).
For example it would be fine if you came to work and placed your box in a fridge but if you leave the bento in your bag, after 4 hours at room temperature it’s not worth the risk if the nasty bacillus cereus, not destroyed by heat, was in the rice.
If a microwave isn’t available at the place you will be eating your food, try to pair foods that will taste good cold.
Over season hot food if you will be eating it cold!
The aroma from steam and heat of hot food makes us taste a lot more, so when cold it will be less flavoursome.
Don’t pack anything very perishable and quick to go bad like raw or very lightly cooked meats if a very efficient cooler isn’t available, especially on a hot day!
Have lots of fun!
Use silicon cupcake cups, kitchen scissors, kitchen tweezers, cookie cutters, food picks and anything else food safe you can think of to help you create something pretty and creative!
You could well become addicted to collecting everything you can!
The Pepper Bento author, cook, photographer.