Who doesn't want to eat an adorable panda? You may have stumbled upon a sushi rice version of one on Instagram or Pinterest, grinning up at you alongside golden hunks of chicken kara age and discs of pink-swirled fish cakes. The allure of making bento boxes is inescapable. Just imagine your delight when lunchtime arrives and you split open a treasure chest stuffed with Japanese treats that you created yourself.
Before you start this obsessive new hobby, think long and hard. You must be crazy to think you could pull off such a task. How do I know?
Because for the last month, I've packed myself bento boxes. It's been like a delicious hell tinged with miso and dashi. Unless you were raised by Japanese parents, born in Japan, cooked in a Japanese restaurant, or researched extensively it's unlikely you'll be familiar with the broad array of ingredients scattered throughout bento cookbooks. Most books and websites will tell you it doesn't have to be that complex, that you can take whatever you already eat for lunch, pack it up neatly, and it's already a bento. But who wants to do that? You want teriyaki hamachi with gingered lotus root and rice studded with slightly sweet bits of the tuber called konjac.
Get ready to trash your first efforts.You'll be too heavy handed with salty miso paste, salted cod roe, and the pickled plums called umeboshi. Oh, by the way, do you know where to find any of those ingredients? Miso is easier to locate these days (you can find it at Whole Foods) thanks to its booming presence in American gastronomy. For the rest, you'll have to make regular pilgrimages to Normandy Isles' Japanese Market.
A recent bento box with corned beef and kimchi fried rice, sautéed mushrooms, Swiss chard, and the rolled Japanese omelette called tamagoyaki.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Also, take note of all these extra pantry ingredients that'll be going on your shelves. They come at a cost. So, alongside your pricey olive oils and shitstorm of spice jars, you'll have the seasoning rice wine called mirin, bottles of sake, a panoply of seaweeds, and the intensely flavored rice toppers called furikake (I like the kimchi and sesame and seaweed varieties best). Sure, preparing lunch ahead of time will save you money compared to grabbing something. But it's not like you'll even have the choice after you've emptied your bank account to outfit your kitchen for bentos. Don't forget to buy silicone baking cups to keep each precious item in your lunch box separate. You might buy disposable picks to make things easy to eat. Then, remember the box itself. If I didn't buy myself a $40 lacquered wooden lunch box was I really practicing bento at peak levels?
Now that you've got all your gear it's time to make the bento. Do you know how to cook Japanese short-grain rice varieties like Nishiki or Kokuho so they grains are tender, but not overcooked, and cling together well enough to form the rice balls called onigiri? Be prepared to spend a couple of hours figuring it out. You can always spend $100 or more on a Zojirushi rice cooker to get the job done. Sure you could probably find a cheaper rig, but, as they say, in poker you're already "pot committed." You might as well see how the bluff plays out.
Fast? Easy? Not so much.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
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SHOW ME HOW
Each weekend, set aside time to comb through the cookbooks you've purchased in order to plan your lunches for the week. They promise things will be easy, that it will only take a dozen or so minutes. Then you'll realize you're missing a couple of ingredients so it's back to the store. Then back home to prep, cook, and portion for the week. Maybe packing it in the morning is a 10 minute or so affair, but not getting it all ready. It'll be at least a couple of hours, even more if you want to imitate the über-cute kawaii designs you'll find scattered across the internet. Such bento boxes have turned into a raging narcissistic version of keeping up with the Joneses in Japan. Mothers now wake before dawn to best each other in their children's' lunches, according to National Geographic.
Still interested in taking a bento box to work? Bless your soul. At least you'll have the office's best-tasting lunch.