Natural ways to make your bento colorful

colorfulbentocollage.jpg

If you love character bentos (kyaraben), you may wonder how the creators manage to color some of the elements. Do they use food dyes? Not necessarily. Bentobako.net, called Ranchi-ryuu Obentoubako Community (Lunch-style Bento Community) is an attractive and very useful bento resource site in Japanese. One of the most interesting sections that they have recently set up is the Bento Coloring Dictionary, a reader-contributed section with lots of ideas for making various bento elements colorful without resorting solely to food dyes. Here are some of the ideas listed there, arranged by color, with my notes in parentheses.

I’ve added the formulas for deriving 3 (or 4) different colors from one ingredient - red cabbage juice!

Orange

  • Orange colored rice: Mix in some salmon flakes to make the rice a light orange. (how to make your own salmon flakes. I think you would need to start with quite deeply red/orange wild salmon for optimum coloring.)
  • Orange colored rice 2: Grate some carrot, mix with a little salt, and microwave for a couple of minutes. Mix into cooked rice. (This is the method used for the orange chick in the left top photo.)
  • Orange colored rice 3: Mix grated carrot, a little soy sauce and butter, nuke and mix into cooked rice. (Makes a deeper orange colored rice.)
  • Light orange colored egg: Make usuyaki tamago (thin omelettes) with egg whites only, and mix in some paprika. (Use sweet paprika if you don’t want it to be hot-spicy.)

Pink or peach

  • Deep pink ham: Ham is a light pink in color, but to make it a deeper pink (such as for the girl’s hair in the left bottom photo above), immerse it for a few minutes in ume vinegar. (If you can’t get a hold of ume vinegar I think raspberry vinegar may work. May make the ham rather sour though!)
  • Light pink/flesh colored rice: Grind up some sakuraebi (small dried shrimp), and mix into rice. Good for making faces with rice.
  • Pink eggs: Red cabbage liquid plus a few drops of lemon juice. Use the liquid to dye boiled eggs. (This is not mentioned on the site yet, but I’ve used it for making these pink eggs for my Fun With Japanese Egg Molds article. You need to completely immerse the eggs in the liquid and leave it overnight. See more about red cabbage liquid below. The brown eggs, incidentally, are colored with soy sauce.)

eggmold-dyed-finish.jpg

  • Bright pink sushi rice: You can buy something called denbu or sakura denbu at Japanese grocery stores. This is dried flaked cod that has been colored with food coloring. This can be mixed into rice (sushi rice is best) to make bright pink rice. Not totally natural, but colored denbu is used in sushi rolls….

Purple

  • Purple ham: Marinate pink ham in red cabbage liquid (see pink eggs above, but don’t add lemon juice) to make blue-purple ham! (Method used for the Genie in the photo at top.) You can also use red cabbage liquid to color kamaboko, sausage, and so on.
  • Using purple potato powder: Purple potato powder is mentioned several times - for making bread, melting with cheese, mixing into crepe batter, and so on. (I don’t know if you can get a hold of purple potato powder, but maybe you could do something with those purple potatoes…)

Blue

  • Red cabbage juice again: Mix in a little bit of baking soda to red cabbage juice and it turns blue. Use this to color ham, sausage, kamaboko…. (I used this formula for making the ‘blue’ eggs in the Egg Mold article, though I decided that blue eggs just look supremely inedible!)
  • Purple potato powder again: It seems purple potato powder can turn things blue or purple, or perhaps something in between.
  • Pickled eggplant liquid: Eggplant (aubergine) emits a blue-purple colored liquid. Use that liquid to dye ham, etc. (Shibazuke is a mostly eggplant pickle that is easily available at Japanese grocery stores.)

Yellow

  • Bright orange-yellow rice: Mix in some mashed kabocha squash - using frozen kabocha is the most convenient.
  • Yellow rice with curry flavor: Mix a little curry powder with hot water and soup stock powder, and mix with rice. (Method used for the Pooh face in the top photo.)
  • Light yellow rice: Take out the yellow bits (dried egg) only of noritama furikake, and mix in with rice. (I would think you could use mashed up cooked egg yolk just as well)
  • Yellow steamed buns: Make steamed buns, but add a little curry powder to the dough. (You could add turmeric instead of curry powder, but remember that curry is a very common ingredient in Japan.)

Green

  • Green rice with edamame: Grind/mash up some edamame, and mix into cooked rice, for a light green color. (Used for the frog in the top photo. This one sounds really good to me - I’ll have to try it out! Mashed green peas should work too.)
  • Green rice with broccoli: Chop up some broccoli stalks finely, stir around in a dry frying pan to take out excess moisture, flavor with salt and pepper or even with mayonnaise (!), and mix into rice.
  • Green eggs, no ham: Finely grind up some blanched spinach leaves and make usuyaki tamago (thin omelettes). (I think the microwave usuyaki tamago method described by Biggie may be rather suited to this.)

Brown

  • Use inarizushi skins - right site out and inside-out: Use storebought inarizushi skins as-is for dark brown, and flip them inside out for light brown.
  • Dark brown egg yolk omelettes: Use the yolks only, plus dark soy sauce (tamari would do) for making smoothly dark brown usuyaki tamago (thin omelettes), but mix in a little flour to stablize the batter. (Method used for the dark brown Rirakkuma in top photo. Mixing soy sauce into the whole egg results in a medium-brown omelette.)
  • Meaty brown rice: Mix meat soboro with rice.
  • Saucy brown rice: Mix soy sauce with butter, just soy sauce, or tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce) into rice to turn it a light to medium brown.

Black/grey

  • The best black is nori seaweed!
  • Grind up some shirasuboshi (tiny little semi-dried fish) and mix into rice for a grey rice, suitable for making Totoro for instance.

The magic of red cabbage juice

The first time I saw red cabbage juice being used as a magical natural food coloring was on the popular Japanese TV show called Ito-ke no shokutaku (The Ito Family’s Dinner Table - no relation!). They used it to produce pink and blue takoyaki! Red cabbage juice popped up a few times in the coloring methods, so here are the formulas for producing various colors.

  • First start with raw red cabbage leaves. Chop them up any way you like - roughly if you just intend to discard them later, or sliced thinly if you want to use them. (You could use them to make coleslaw, for instance.)
  • Add to already boiling water. Allow for about 2 cups of cabbage to 4 cups of water. Boil for just a minute or two. This extracts the color from the leaves, but not the cabbage-y flavor.
  • For purple, use the liquid straight.
  • For red (which is actually more like a bright pink), add a few drops of lemon juice or another acid like vinegar. You’ll see it magically turn red before your eyes!
  • For blue, add a little baking soda. It’s best to make a baking soda slurry of sorts and add that liquified form to the water bit by bit. Beware though - if you add too much baking soda the liquid, and whatever you marinate in it, will taste like baking soda, which is not very pleasant.
  • For brown (though I don’t know why you’d need this since so many other things are naturally brown), add egg yolk.

I’m fairly sure you could use beets in a similar way, but have yet to try them out (and beets are not a very common vegetable in Japan, so I don’t see them used at all in bentos there.)

Be sure to visit the original Bento Coloring Dictionary for photos representing the coloring methods - clicking the colored tabs at top lead you to each color section.

I hope these coloring methods have given you some ideas and gotten your creative juices (no pun intended) flowing. If you have other ways of naturally coloring your food for fun, please let us know in the comments!

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The link to Bento Coloring

The link to Bento Coloring Dictionary just takes you back here.

fixed

fixed

Colorful!

I don’t think you’d get quite as many colors from beets as, if I recall high school science experiments correctly, cabbage “detects” a wider range of pH than beets do. But beets would change at least some!

For green, kale releases the most green into other foods of anything I know, definitely more than spinach but I don’t know how good kale would taste with eggs. :) I have a recipe for St. Pat’s mashed potatoes where you basically boil the kale with the potatoes and then mash it in. I should think you’d be able to dye most things you can dye with cabbage with the kale (only the only color would be green!), and pretty much the same method of cooking should make the water nice and green. All of my recipes want to get the kale flavor in there, though, so I don’t know how that’d go!

I know copper (like a copper bowl) will turn whipped egg whites golden, and iron (like ground-up iron supplement) will turn them pink, but I’m not sure what good they’d be other than for holiday meringues. :)

Such a great post! I’ve

Such a great post! I’ve always been hesitant to use food colors in bento, and now I’ll never have to resort to that! The fact that you can make blue dye from red cabbage is particularly interesting, since blue is such a hard color to get naturally.

I never once suspected that

I never once suspected that the Japanese mothers would use artificial food colourings for the colourful bento they made for their preschoolers, but yet could not figure out how they did that. Now I know! Thanks for revealing the mystery!

Actually, some bento making

Actually, some bento making people do seem to use food coloring…but I guess that most mothers would rather stay away from them if possible!

Great post! As for personal

Great post! As for personal experience, black rice makes a nice light purple colored rice when you cook a handful of it with regular white rice. I also stained some cheesecloth a deep purple when I steamed black rice once, so you might be able to use water that you’ve soaked black rice in to dye other foods.

Splendid! Thanx a lot to

Splendid! Thanx a lot to take into account our wish to see more about cute bentos. It’s nice from you! And I didn’t know all that! Thanks a lot!

A couple tricks I’ve

A couple tricks I’ve used:

  • the yolk of one boiled egg in two cups of cooked rice yields a really pale yellow. A higher yolk to rice ratio would probably yield a brighter yellow.

  • 1 tsp of curry powder mixed into two cups of cooked rice makes a brighter yellow that has a slight curry flavor and a really nice aroma (I guess this is just a variation on the previous curry idea)

  • your carrot furikake mixed with rice makes a lovely, spicy orange

I haven’t tried this one personally myself, but one of the people in Watashi-tachi no Obento uses ume vinegar to pickle turnips and it makes them a really bright pink color. I’ve wanted to try this, but ume vinegar is rather expensive here.

Thank you thank you thank

Thank you thank you thank you!!! I wasn’t sure if it was more common in Japan to use natural or artificial food colors, but for personal reasons I have always wanted to use natural food coloring but have had quite a bit of trouble finding a decent range of colors to use. Thank you so much!!!

many thanks

many thanks for sharing all these methods. I think beetroot would be interessing also, as you mentioned. I deed once a recipe which mixes rice with all fresh herbs you have, I was a real green rice.

garlic

You can also turn sliced/pounded/grated/minced garlic blue by squeezing lemon juice on it. I think that it (and apparently cabbage) is “photoreactive” - something about the enzymes mixing. I don’t think you’d want a whole rice whale dyed blue from lemoned garlic but might work for some small touches and details in a bento!

I’ve also read about garlic turning green in vinegar shrug but I’ve never done it so I don’t know for sure.

This is really great info btw! :D

Re: garlic

garlic does not turn blue or green when you add lemon juice or vinegar.

Re: garlic

While trying to find a truer, natural blue, I found a pretty good article that explains under what conditions garlic will turn blue (so you can force it to or avoid it): http://whatscookingamerica.net/Q-A/bluegarlic.htm. Here are some ways (from the article) to turn it blue:

1) Put fresh-picked, immature garlic in an acid (e.g., lemon juice or vinegar)

2) Expose raw garlic to copper (from water drawn through copper pipes or cookware, or in trace amounts in certain foods like lemon juice or butter)

3) Use iodized salt for pickling garlic (can turn it blue or green)

4) For green garlic, you could expose it to a sudden temperature change or sunlight to make it produce chlorophyll, but I suspect that would alter the taste, and with so many other green food items, why would you want to?

I wouldn't recommend doing a whole sky from garlic, but as a minor accent, it could work. I saw a picture of a smurf-blue cream-of-something soup, but I couldn't find the recipe to find out how much garlic it took to make the soup so blue. It certainly did not look appetizing.

For yellow you can use

For yellow you can use Turmeric instead of curry. Brighter color and not such an overpowering taste.

Beets are very suitable for dying food red but beets give of a sweet flavour.

For green you can cook spinach and use the water.

Thanks for the lunchbox tips!

These are some great ways to add color to lunchboxes, thank you for taking the time to organize so well! I will have to give red cabbage a try, as well as the edamame rice—my kids love edamame and rice so hopefully that one will go over well :) As for beets, they are so beautiful roasted, but I have found that when I boil them the water gets such a dull muddy purple… Maybe shredding roasted beets and mixing into rice would be a great color!?? Always something new to try…

I’ve been marinating

I’ve been marinating boiled eggs in beetroot juice for ages. It doesn’t seem to change the flavour much, you need to marinate them for about four days for it to go all the way through the white. I can’t remember the exact recipe but it involves canned beetroot juice, brown sugar and vinegar. If you only wanted the colour I’m sure just the juice would work too.

My daughter desparately wants pink eggs, and her twin brother wants blue. It’s good to know I can make them both with cabbage!

Re: Natural ways to make your bento colorful

This is such a good post! I rediscovered it in my "favorites" file and can't wait to try some of these great ideas. I especially liked the blue genie from ham! Gotta try this stuff. :)

Thanks again!

Re: Natural ways to make your bento colorful

black "beluga" lentils cooked together with white rice will turn the rice a blue kind of gray. i just found out by accident! i was hoping for an effect like stracciatella ice cream, dark specks on white, but it looks a lot like granite now.. might be useful as a "shadowy" rice colour..

Re: Natural ways to make your bento colorful

TQ so much for this article! I tried to use carrot to make my rice orange just now. it works beautifully. But i dont have the heart to eat it... Too pretty to eat... ha..ha...

Re: Natural ways to make your bento colorful

I think beets are a good idea. and hope to try coloring food with it one day. every year my mom makes pickled beets which tend to stain everything a bright red/purple. maybe using water from boiling beets, the beets them selves, or the tart pickling juice left over from eating the whole jar of beets would be good for dying food. though using the left over pickling juice would add a very strong flavour which may not be the best idea. i'll try to remeber to post my results here if i ever get around to trying it. :P

Just what I was looking for!

I asked about this earlier in the Onigiri on Parade blog post and I finally found this! Perfect!! I can't wait to try these out! You really have covered all the bases on the Onigiri topic. I'm also looking into making nice Japanese desserts. I am searching but I was just wondering if anyone had any good sites or blogs to visit.

Thanks!

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