What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I try to make every effort to explain what the very Japanese ingredients are in Japanese bentos and recipes. But this comment by Sophie made me realize that even ingredients that may seem familiar in principle, may be a bit of a mystery when they are used in bentos. Here’s her question:

..when I saw the parmesan cheese in the bento, I just had to ask: Americans (especially me!) love cheese. We put it on everything we can. Usually it’s American cheese, or cheddar or mozzarella. I have a couple recipes from bento cookbooks that say to use a “slice of cheese” like in rolled up tamago or hampen and cheese. What kind of cheese are they expecting me to use? Is there a Japanese favorite? Or did these cookbooks just make these recipes up to appeal to the American obsession with cheese?

The short answer is: no, the cheese reference is not just there for Americans - Japanese people love cheese too. When just ‘cheese’ is specified in a Japanese cookbook, it usually means presliced, processed cheese, just like the kind you get in the U.S. and elsewhere, individually wrapped in plastic. Japanese sliced cheese is a bit firmer than American sliced cheese, but you can use American sliced cheese in the same way.

Delving into the history of cheese in Japan a bit may clarify things further. While there is historical evidence of a cheese-like curd product having been made and eaten in Japan as early as the 12 or 13th century, serious cheese production only started in the 1930s or so. At the time, Japanese people were not familiar with the texture or flavor of cheese, so cheese manufacturers like Yukijirushi or “Snow Brand” (who is still a major manufacturer of cheese and dairy products) made cheese that resembled foods that were more familar, like kamaboko (firm fish paste cake). The standard processed cheese sold by Yukijirushi didn’t even melt when heated - it softened a bit, but retained its shape, rather like haloumi cheese does. A second type of processed cheese was specifically sold as ‘cheese that melts’, for use on pizza, cheese on toast, and the like. I remember these cheese types being sold when I was a kid, but I don’t think they are available as such anymore, although you can buy ‘pizza cheese’, which is a kind of processed mozzarella.

Nowadays, all kinds of cheese are available in Japan, both imported and made domestically; imported cheese is terribly expensive however. When it comes to bentos that you see online or in most Japanese bento cookbooks, usually only processed cheeses are used. The way presliced cheese is used in charaben is really similar to the way other firm yet easy to cut products, like kamaboko, hanpen (a puffy light fish paste product made from fish paste and whipped egg whites), ham, wiener sausages and fish-paste or gyoniku sausage.

Another type of processed cheese product that makes its way into bentos is ‘candy cheese’. This is just little chunks of processed cheese that are individually wrapped to look like candy - and thus theoretically appeal to picky-eater kids. I’ve even seen these featured prominently in a translated-to-English bento book. As far as I know ‘candy cheese’ is not available outside of Japan (unless it’s available in other Asian countries?)…so I can imagine the ‘candy cheese’ confusing quite a few readers of that book.

The last type of cheese that may appear in a bento cookbook is kona cheezu or ‘powdered cheese’. This is the pre-grated stuff that comes in a green canister. (Yes, this is the era of multinational brands.)

Of course, in your bentos you can use any cheese you like. Personally I prefer to stay away from processed cheese, purely for taste reasons.

Cheeses suitable for cutting into shapes

If for some reason you can’t get a hold of malleable presliced processed cheese, but want to make cheese cut-outs and such for your bentos, I’ve tried the following cheeses with varying degrees of success:

  • Gouda - has the required elasticity and firm texture for making intricate cuts and such
  • Provolone - similar to Gouda in texture, and works equally well
  • Jack (aka Monterey Jack) - a bit soft, but can work if used straight out of the refrigerator.
  • Emmentaler or ‘Swiss’ cheese - also has the right texture, though those big holes can get in the way
  • Gruyère - A bit more crumbly, but can work for simple cuts (Comté is very similar to Gruyere). Younger Gruyères are easier to handle - the older (more aged) it is, the more crumbly it gets.
  • Cheddar - Even more crumbly and oily than Gruyère, but can be used for simple cuts. Sharp edges may break off.

Incidentally, while Japanese people probably don’t eat as much cheese as Americans, I’d actually rank the American fondness of cheese below that of most European nations. There is a blog called Chez Loulou, whose owner Ms. Loulou is attempting to eat every French cheese there is in existence. She’s almost up to no. 170, but still has a long, long way to go! In Switzerland, it’s not at all uncommon to just have cheese and bread or potatoes for dinner, and there’s also fondue and raclette. (We once served a meal consisting just of several varieties of cheese, with wine and bread, to an (older) American friend who was visiting. He later confessed that up until then he would have never dreamed of just having cheese and bread for dinner - to him that was a ‘poor person’s meal’!) There are tons of local cheeses in Italy, Spain, the UK… and on and on.

Do you like to use cheese in your bentos - and if so, what are your favorites, and how do you use them?

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Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I live in Southern Calif. and now I'm going to have to check the local Japanese markets for candy cheese. They have pretty much most of the products one would find in Japan markets. I'm really curious to see if they carry that too.

This was very informative. I'm not big on cheese in bento because it seems like it's used a lot with food coloring. But I understand it's less time consuming that way.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

While processed cheeses may be easier to use for decoration, they're not exactly healthy (like all processed foods). I'd prefer the other cheeses you mentioned. I've never met a kid, who didn't like Gouda for example. In our "grownup-Bentos" I use Gruyere or Parmesan quite often; not too decorative, but delicious. ;)

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I like to tuck in the little Babybel cheeses, soft cheese wedges from Laughing Cow, Monterrey jack (with tomatoes and meats on fancy tooth picks for mini kabobs), cream cheese (for putting on crackers and tortillas) and mozzarella. But these are easily available in my local grocery stores.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

Well, at Albertsons, I saw little "100 calorie" packs of cheese in the refrigerator section. Small cubes, although they weren't wrapped individually, they were wrapped in a small package of a few 1/2" cubes. When you mentioned candy cheese I thought of this...

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

Those of us who remember reading "Heidi" are reminded how lucky she was to have slabs of cheese on thick bread for meals, served by her grandfather. Sounds delicious even today.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

This is interesting, thank you for the explanation. In China, processed cheese is often packaged to appeal to children and will feature cartoon characters. It is interesting because there will be "regular" slices of cheese alongside the same brand in flavors such as chocolate or strawberry! I have never eaten flavors like this though.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I work in Japanese public schools, and have therefore been subjected to a lot of Japanese chiizu. Without wanting to be a party-pooping-misery-guts, it really is disgusting. Candy cheese has no real taste and the texture of plastic. Last week we were served processed cheese that had been pressed into crab shaped molds, like gummi sweets: http://gaininja.blogspot.com/2010/04/kyushoku-wednesday-21st-april.html Grim! The meltable grated stuff is barable, but personally, beyond maybe buying it once to taste, I'd definitely not recommend it! As an aside, I blog lots of my school lunches, and you can see them by clicking the "kyushoku" tab to the right of the page. Not bentos but still some delicious Japanese meals :)

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

Wow, Maki, thank you so much for the great response!

I think I'll have to agree with you and the others that posted about processed cheeses; I'm really not a fan of them either. I usually shop at markets that have extensive cheese selections and pick a few each week to try. (this week i've been stuffing little cubes of havarti with dill into my bentos) I usually buy my cheese in bulk and cut it into 1oz chunks, then wrap them in plastic. It's much cheaper than the pre-packaged single serving sizes, and I can pick better cheeses, too!

Also, I've seen the references to "cheese candy" in a few of my bento cookbooks, and I think the closest thing we have to that on the US east coast is laughing cow cheese cubes. They are wrapped in shiny silver with little cow faces on them, about the size of a dice. My mom actually used to put them into my lunchbox when I was a kid =)

Thanks again so much for the super informative post! This really helped clear up those recipes for me!

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I don't use cheese that often. If I use it, I use pre sliced Gouda for Character details or facial accents.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I live in the Appalachian Region of the US, and have found sources for some good international cheese. I only just started taking bento for lunch, and found I really like the Baby Belles cheese for that. It's a soft mozzarella cheese prepackaged in a tiny cheese wheel shape. Very tasty and easy to squeeze into a small space for a filler. But I've only been working with bento for a week now so we'll see what else I find.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I don't mean to insult or anything, but babybel is nothing like mozzarella.... I've never been to the U.S., but I know what mozzarella is. On another note, I think that some kinds of cheese (not processed) can be made at home, if you live near a farm you are so lucky! I found recipes (in italian) on the web, so maybe you can try and find some! If someone needs translations from italian to english for some recipes, I can help.

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I disagree with gaininja. I love Japanese cheese!

But I know I'm biased. I grew up eating it almost every day. American cheese (the processed cheese, like Kraft's) is weird.

Maki, while texture and use of Japanese slice cheese and American slice cheese are similar, their tastes are very different. Japanese cheese is much more mild and creamy in flavor. I have been trying so hard to find something similar to it here in the US, and have so far failed. I miss it so much!

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

This is going to sound cheesy :o) but I use Gouda in my bentos and I cut it on the back using a pergamano perforating needle pen (my secret bento weapon!). I buy Tilsiter and Edam too, which taste good but not much use for making charabens due to all the holes! Love the sound of the Candy Cheese! Wish we could get that!

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

I've been in Japan for some five months now and one thing I really miss is cheese. Japanese cheese is just not good (both taste and unhealthiness, as it's usually processed), not speaking about it's hilarious price (no offense, I love Japanese cuisine, but their attempts to make cheese, bread and Italian pasta are just poor), so I can't see the point in searching for "real bento cheese". It's like eating frozen strawberries when you can get fresh ones...

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

As much as I love cheese melted on/in things, I've never cared to eat much of it by itself. String cheese is about it and that's really just mozzarella (which I love). Muenster is also a favorite, but not something I buy to eat as is.

I did try the Laughing Cow spreadable wedges and got addicted to those, particularly the french onion flavor. Combined with some buttery club crackers, they make a quick addition when I can't come up with anything else to add to my lunch. Many times I'd just set them aside and save for my afternoon snack.

Japanese cheese

I went to Japan for a short (2-week) trip. My hosts wanted me to make them some American foods over the course of the trip. I had brought seasonings with me to make chili and tacos. The chili was a huge success. My hosts took me to a grocery with many imported items to find taco ingredients, like tortillas and cheese, because these were not sold in the regular grocery. The only cheese I could find in the import grocery refrigerator was sliced processed cheese. Then I found a bag of shredded cheddar in the freezer section! I was so excited to find cheddar that I bought the biggest bag and took it back to my little apartment to prepare the meal, but when I opened the bag, it was not cheese at all. It turns out that what I had bought was actually a bag of shredded cooked eggs!

Re: What kind of cheese is used in Japanese bentos?

Laughing Cow sells (or sold, they have no info about them on their website) a product that seems to be equivalent to the "candy cheese" you mention, tiny cubes of their spreadable cheese wrapped in foil. If they're still around they are usually with the other Laughing Cow products.

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