This section contains recipes for main okazu, the star of your bento box. Usually the main is some kind of protein, but you’ll also find some carb-and-protein combination recipes too. There are vegetarian and omnivore choices for you here! The recipes here are particularly well suited to bentos.
To fill out your bento box, see the sides and space fillers  section.
For foods that can be made in advance and stocked, in the freezer, refrigerator or pantry, see the johbisai (staples)  section.
There are also a lot more Japanese recipes on our sister site, Just Hungry .
Tamagoyaki , the slightly sweet rolled Japanese omelette, is a standby protein item for bentos. It tastes great at room temperature, is fairly easy to make (once you’ve done it a few times), and is cheap too. Plus the cheery yellow color brightens up any bento box.
There is one drawback with tamagoyaki: unless you have a tiny tamagoyaki pan (which is a single-purpose piece of kitchen equipment, something I try to avoid stocking in my not-so-large kitchen), you need to make it with a least 2, preferably 3 or more, eggs, to produce the distinctive multilayers of egg. This is fine if you’re making bentos for two or more people, but when you’re making bento for one you may not necessarily want to eat 2 eggs at a time. And tamagoyaki held in the fridge for more than a day never tastes as nice.
This method of making a 1-egg tamagoyaki in a normal small frying pan was in a recent issue of Kyou no ryouri (Today’s Cooking), my favorite Japanese food magazine. I’ve tried it out a few times now, and I’m totally sold on it. It does make a slightly flatter tamagoyaki than a multi-egg one, but it still has those nice layers.
Here’s how to make it step by step.
You can also use the basic tamagoyaki recipe  and reduce the ingredients to one quarter.
Mix all the ingredients together well with a fork or chopsticks. Heat up a small (6 inch or 15cm) non-stick frying pan and spread thinly with oil (or use a non-stick cooking spray).
From this point on, it only takes about a minute and a half!
Once the pan is hot (if you put a droplet of water in, it dances and evaporates immediately), pour in the egg.
Stir gently with a fork or chopsticks until it’s half-set.
Fold in half with a spatula.
Tidy up the other side a bit with the spatula.
Fold the one third of the egg over with the spatula. Press down.
Fold the other end of the egg over with the spatula. Press the whole thing down.
Flip over, and press again. Remove from the heat before it browns too much. (If you use light colored soy sauce, it won’t get as brown.)
Cut in half and put cut side up, it is nicely multi-layered.
Shuffling through the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of past bentos and such, I dug up this sushi roll bento that I did last summer.
It’s a very simple bento really, which is probably why I never got around to posting it here. (I only post a fraction of the bentos I actually make and eat…I should probably post more!) It has a plain tamagoyaki  made with 2 eggs, some leftover stewed beans , and fruit. The star of the bento is half of a fat sushi roll made with brown rice that is filled with some decidedly non-traditional things: lettuce, cucumber, raw carrot, ham and cheese, and the end bits of the tamagoyaki. (The rolls are a bit misshapen because I pushed the cherry tomatoes in around them.)
The salt, sugar and vinegar that are used to flavor sushi rice is perfect for summertime bentos. These ingredients help to keep rice fresher for a longer time, and the flavors are a great foil for all kinds of fillings. As a matter of fact, I avoid using brown rice in bentos on the very hottest days, unless I turn it into sushi rice or put an umeboshi pickled plum in to help keep it longer. Fat sushi rolls are just as convenient to eat as onigiri rice balls , and faster to make too, since one roll will produce 4 to 6 portions.
Many people who don’t know any better claim that ‘real’ sushi has to have raw fish. If you’ve been reading Just Bento and Just Hungry for a while, you know that that’s BS. Sushi refers to the rice, not whatever goes in or on top of it; as I explained previously , some areas of Japan don’t even have a tradition of raw-fish sushi. In any case, most fat sushi rolls or futomaki traditionally do not contain raw fish, so filling them with cooked food and vegetables is perfectly legit. And in any case, you should never use raw fish in a bento that is made several hours before it’s consumed.
Of course ham and cheese are not traditional sushi fillings, but they have been used for decades in Japanese homes, way before the invention of American sushi roll combos like the New York roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese and onion). Sashimi or sushi-grade raw fish is expensive in Japan as it is elsewhere, so homely ingredients make more sense for everyday meals. By the way, I find that milder cheeses go best with sushi rice, such as young Gouda or Emmenthaler (Swiss), or a fresh Mozzarella. A well aged Cheddar or Stilton clashes a bit.
I have some more ideas for non-traditional sushi roll fillings in my ehou-maki (lucky sushi roll)  article over on Just Hungry, where I also describe how to roll a fat sushi roll the traditional way using a bamboo sushi rolling mat. But let’s say you don’t have a sushi mat for whatever reason. You can still make sushi rolls! Here’s how.
(The hands in the photos are my mother’s by the way - I was the photographer.)
What you need:
Moisten the kitchen towel and then wring it out tightly. It should just be moist, not dripping.
Lay down the kitchen towel flat. Put the nori sheet shiny side down on the towel; the long edge should be on the edge of the towel. (You put the nori sheet shiny side down because that side has a slightly less tendency to split, and also for aesthetic reasons.)
Moisten your fingers with the vinegar-water. Place a fairly thin, even layer of sushi rice on the nori seaweed, up to about an inch (2 cm) away from the far edge of the nori.
Place the fillings in the middle of the rice, starting with any flat ingredients like lettuce or shiso leaves, then following up with the other things like julienned vegetables.
This roll has lettuce, cucumber, carrots, ham and cheese.
Now you’re ready to roll! Re-moisten your fingers with the vinegar water. Grab the edge of the towel with the nori and roll it over the filling, holding in the filling with your fingertips. Be brave here - quick and decisive movement will have better results than hesitation.
Roll the nori and rice over the filling, as you pull on the edge of the kitchen towel on the other side. If you compare it to the sushi mat method , you’ll notice that the method is basically the same.
Keep rolling and pulling on the towel, evenly over the length of the roll.
Once the roll is completely rolled, apply gentle but firm, even pressure over the whole thing.
Here’s how the roll looks when it’s completed, before the towel is removed.
Now you’re ready to cut. If there’s any rice sticking to your fingers, rinse them off. Moisten the knife and your fingers with the vinegar water.
Cut the roll into even pieces. If the knife gets sticky, just re-moisten it with the vinegar water.
And that’s it! It’s not as hard as you might have thought, is it?
Here’s the end of the roll that I actually used in the bento above. You can tuck in the raggedy end bits good side up in a bento, or just pop them in your mouth as you make them!
I hope this will inspire you to come up with your own fat sushi roll combinations. Not only are they great for individual bentos, they’re a nice change-of-pace carb for a barbeque a picnic too.
Continuing the chicken theme, here is another very simple recipe using boneless chicken thighs. This time I have used skinless meat. The thighs are cut into pieces, marinated in balsamic vinegar and soy sauce, and coated with sesame seeds. The balsamic vinegar adds tang and a little sweetness. They are then simply pan=fried in a non-stick frying pan that is barely coated with oil. I’ve used both black and white sesame seeds for a little added color, but you could use all-white (light brown) sesame seeds. (Using all black seeds might make them look carbonized!)
Combine the chicken pieces, vinegar and soy sauce, and stir around to help the flavors permeate the meat. Leave to marinate for at least 10 minutes.
Heat up a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat, and add just a litte oil (or use a cooking spray) to coat the bottom.
Drain off the chicken, and coat with the sesame seeds. Press with your fingers so that the sesame seeds stick as much as possible. Arrange the pieces as flat as possible in the frying pan. Pan-fry for about 4-5 minutes on medium-high heat, then turn over and cook for another 4-5 minutes or so. The chicken should be cooked through, and the sesame seeds should be crispy rather than soggy. (Alternatively you can cook them in a toaster oven for 6-8 minutes at 200°C / 400°F or on ‘high’ (or equivalent setting), on aluminum foil.)
Cool before putting into your bento box.
It was pointed out in the comments to the salted chicken thighs recipe  that boneless chicken thighs there usually come with the skin removed too. It’s interesting how the types of cuts of meat offered in various countries differ. Here in Switzerland, I couldn’t even get chicken thighs by themselves until a few years ago - it was the whole leg or nothing. Even now, boneless thighs are not that commonly seen prepackaged at the supermarket, though it is getting easier to find them. When they offered boneless though, the thighs usually come with the skins attached.
In Japan, boneless and skin-on chicken thigh is a standard cut, so you see it used in a lot of recipes. On the other hand, split bone-in chicken breast, a standard cut in the U.S., is not seen at all in Japan (or in Switzerland either)! Neither is the ‘quartered’ chicken, with two thighs-and-legs and two breast halves with the backbone still attached.
Anyway, to deal with my chicken dilemmas, soon after I started living in Switzerland I got a good boning knife and taught myself how to joint a whole chicken, so I could get the exact cuts I wanted. This is a very useful skill to learn for anyone, but expecially for the hungry and confused expat!
(Two other types of meat cuts that are very cheap and commonly used in Japan are thinly sliced (usugiri) and roughly chopped (komagire). Both are usually made from medium-fat (not lean) parts of pork or beef. Both are quick-cooking cuts that are really useful in bento, but frustratingly are not that commonly seen here in middle Europe, or in the U.S., unless you go to a speciality Japanese grocery store. I do try to keep these cuts of meat differences in mind when I post recipes here, but that does mean that there are whole categories of bento recipes that would be a bit too much work to use outside of Japan.)
Yasai no nikumaki, or vegetables wrapped in thinly sliced meat, (niku means meat and maki means wrap or roll) is a standby item for bentos in Japan see an example here ). They are easy to eat, and the cut sides are colorful and pretty. I haven’t given you a recipe for nikumaki so far though on this site because a critical element, very thinly and evenly cut slices of pork (the usual meat used) or beef, is just not easily available in the U.S. or most areas of Europe. If you live near an Asian market you have a better chance of getting a suitable cut - but I know, many readers don’t have easy access to such markets.
Here is a version that uses a cut of beef that you can get more easily, at least in the U.S. - cheesesteak beef. Philly cheesesteak beef is very thinly cut sirloin or similar quality meat, just as is used in Japanese sukiyaki , and that works great for nikumaki. Trader Joe’s sells something called shaved beef steak which works quite well, and is fairly affordable too. Here’s the pack I used to make this recipe. 1.08 pounds for $7.71 is not too bad, considering you get 6 to 8 rolls or portions out of it.
So, let’s make nikumaki!
Makes 6 to 8 rolls
Sauce A: Classic Japanese
Sauce B: Soy and pomegranate juice
This is the one I’ve used in the photos. It has a savory-sweet-tart taste.
Sauce C: Barbeque-y
Prep the vegetables by cutting them into long, even thin strips. Here I have used multicolored bell peppers. To get long strips out of peppers, try cutting of the tops and bottoms the cutting them in half lengthwise, then turning the halves 90 degrees, flattening them a bit and cutting the strips out in the horizontal direction of the peppers.
Heat up some water in a pan and toss in the vegetable strips. Blanch them until crisp-tender. For the bell peppers that just takes about 3 minutes. Drain and let cool.
If you’re using the Trader Joe’s ‘shaved beef steak’ or similar, this part is a bit tricky since the bits of beef are rather scraggly.
The key is to lay out the bits of thin beef in a fairly even layer, leaving no gaping holes, so you end up with something that looks like one piece of beef, like so. If you have more uniformly shaped slices just lay down one or two slices.
Sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper (don’t overdo it - remember you’ll be adding a savory sauce later) then a bit of cornstarch. The cornstarch will help to hold the meat together.
Now, lay some strips of your precooked vegetable on one end.
Start rolling up the beef around the vegetables as tightly as possible, tucking in any straggly ends as you go (a bit tricky, again, with that TJ’s beef, but it can be managed).
Keep rolling tightly…it helps to pull a bit on the unwrapped end of beef with one hand as you wrap with the other.
End the wrapping with the end bits on the bottom. Now, some directions for nikumaki say you should poke the roll through with a toothpick to hold it together, but I don’t find this necessary as long as you manage to wrap the meat quite tightly, and you follow the cooking instructions that follow.
Coat the surface of the roll lightly in more cornstarch. Again, this helps to keep the roll together and also thickens the sauce a bit.
(Not pictured) Mix the sauce mix of your choice in a small bowl, and have ready to go next to your cooktop.
Heat up a frying pan with the cooking oil over medium-high heat. Put the rolls in seam side down This is important - if you start with the seam sides up the rolls will fall apart. Put the rolls in in batches if needed - you should have plenty of space around them so you can turn them easily. (I did mine in 2 batches.) Cook the rolls until the seam side is browned and sealed.
Turn the rolls and brown them on all sides. Looks yummy already!
Add the prepared sauce mix to the pan - careful, the pan may spit at you a bit. Turn the rolls around in the sauce a few times so the sauce coats them. Keep cooking until the moisture in the sauce mix has almost evaporated and the sauce is quite sticky.
Take the rolls out of the pan, and let cool.
You can use the rolls whole like this of course and they still look good.
Or, cut them to reveal the mosaic-like cut surface. My slices here are a bit shaggy (I blame this again on that TJ steak) but not too bad. Allow 1 to 2 rolls per bento.
Tip: Chop up the scraggly end bits of the rolls and hide them under your cut rolls!
You can freeze nikumaki very successfully. Wrap each uncut roll in plastic wrap, then put the rolls in a freezer bag or container. They’ll be good in the freezer for a month. Take them out and transfer them to the refrigerator the day before you need them, and slice them through while still half-frozen. That will give you very neat cuts.
The meat really has to be paper thin, not escalope-thin.
As mentioned above, you can find very pre-packaged, thinly sliced pork or beef at most Asian (Korean, Japanee, Chinese) grocery stores.
If using beef, you do need to use a quick-cooking cut like sirloin or filet. Ask your butcher if he/she can slice the meat very thinly for you, or try it on your own with a half-frozen piece of meat.
Raw meat is preferred, since thinly sliced precooked meat such as ham may not stick together properly. See ham negimayaki , which is made with very thinly sliced ham. Cured, uncooked ham like proscuitto will work better, though you will have to compensate for the saltiness.
I would not recommend using chicken or turkey meat since these meats may get too dry.
You can wrap all kinds of vegetables in the meat. The key is to have vegetables that are sliced to the same width, or are already like that, and to make sure the vegetables are tender enough by pre-cooking or slicing very, very thinly before wrapping.
Total calories (approx): 515 (how calories are calculated) 
Time needed: 10-15 minutes
I haven’t posted a full bento in a while! Time to rectify that situation!
This is a bento that I made right after I came back from my trip. You know how it goes - whenever you’re going away, you think you’re going to clean out the fridge properly before leaving and all that, but you never get around to it in the final rush. So you come home and you are faced with some dodgy looking science experiments in your vegetable drawer. The only vegetables that were still cheerfully intact in my fridge after 3 weeks away were a small cabbage, a bunch of celery stalks (slightly limp), and a half-filled bag of carrots. The onions were ok in the pantry too, but the potatoes had all sprouted their way to oblivion.
The freezer was surprisingly empty of any meat and things too - well perhaps not surprisingly, since I did try to use up a lot of things before leaving. So, I had some bolognese sauce, which was good for dinner. I set some aside together with some of the cooked spaghetti (that wonderful pantry staple) for this bento, which I’m calling the Empty Refrigerator Bento.
It was still very tasty, and quite healthy too. Using spaghetti in bento is a bit tricky since it’s fairly calorie-dense, but if you add a whole bunch of vegetables to it, you’ll get the satisfying feeling that pasta can give you while keeping things low-cal. I’ve just used 1 cup of cooked spaghetti here. It’s not too clear perhaps, but if you look at this semi-transparent box from the side you can see that more than half of it is made up of sautéed veggies.
To liven it up visually I’ve added a couple of sprigs of the chive that is still bravely growing in the garden. (Parsley, some green peas, snap peas or anything bright green will do the same trick.) I also brought along a couple of clementines (picked up at the airport on the way home). Clementines are in season right now by the way, in much of the northern hemisphere. I’m almost living on them!
Cut up the cabbage leaves into small pieces. Slice the carrot and onion thinly. Cut the celery on the diagonal into slices.
Heat up a frying pan or wok with the oil, and add the vegables. Stir around a bit, then add about 1/2 cup of water; continue stir-frying. (Using water helps to cook the vegetables without adding more oil.) Just cook to the ‘al dente’ crunchy stage, about 4-5 minutes.
Add salt and pepper, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, the chili pepper or cayenne pepper (to taste) and the meat sauce. (Point here: Remember that cooled pasta needs a bit more seasoning than hot to taste good. Just adding meatsauce, unless the sauce was too salty to begin with, will be a bit too bland, especially with the added veggies.)
Add the spaghetti, and stir fry until the sauce coats the pasta. Let cool before packing into your bento box.
Usually chicken teriyaki (or chikiteri as it’s abbreviated sometimes) is made from whole chicken thigh pieces, but I prefer to cut the meat up in advance for bento use - the smaller pieces cook faster, and I don’t have to deal with slicing hot cooked meat early in the morning.
The chicken can be marinated from the night before or just briefly in the morning. You can also make this in some quantity and freeze the cooked pieces - since you are using thigh meat, the pieces won’t dry out so easily after defrosting like white meat can.
I like to leave the skin on, but you can peel it off if you prefer, either before or (preferably) after cooking.
This is a much simpler marinade than the one I’ve given for teriyaki previously , but just as tasty.
The chicken thighs I buy usually have about 80 to 90 grams of meat and skin on them (around 3 ounces). Since chicken sizes can vary a lot from country to country, I’ve given weights instead of ‘4 chicken thighs’ etc. But you can’t really go much wrong with this recipe, so don’t worry.
This recipe will make enough pieces for 4 bentos, Make more or less as you require.
Spread the chicken meat out flat, and poke all over with the point of a knife or a fork, to allow the marinade to penetrate and to minimize shrinkage. Cut into bite sized pieces (for 90 g thighs that’s about 4 pieces per thigh.)
Mix together the other ingredients in a non-reactive container (glass is good). Put in the chicken and mix. Leave for a minimum of 10 minutes, or overnight.
To cook, heat up a non-stick frying pan. If you skinned the thighs, put in about 2 Tbs. of oil; if you’re cooking them with the skin, no added oil is needed.
Drain the chicken pieces out of the marinade and put them into the hot pan, skin side down. As the pan starts to sputter, put a lid on and lower the heat to medium. Leave for about 4 minutes.
Take the lid off, and spoon a little bit of the leftover marinade over the chicken. Turn over (no need to put the lid back) and cook for another 2-3 minutes, depending on how thick the pieces are. They are done when you stick a knife into the middle of a piece and the juice that runs out is clear. The chicken should be nicely caramelized on the outside when you’re done.
Take them out of the pan and let any excess oil drain off. At this point you can remove the skins if you left them on before and prefer no skin.
Let cool before packing into your bento box, or freezing.
You can defrost the chicken in a microwave, or in a dry pan with a lid on over low heat.
Kayu (or okayu to use the honorific term) is a simple rice porridge, made from rice, water and a few other ingredients. When Japanese people feel sick, or they feel they’ve overeaten, they often turn to a bowl of kayu. It’s the answer to overfeasting, overdrinking, and general over-indulging. Kayu is related to congee and jook (or juk in Korean) - and loosely related to rice pudding and even risotto. All rice based food cultures have some kind of rice porridge.
Kayu is also really well suited to thermal bento jars . I did a little experiment, comparing kayu that had been kept warm in a lunch jar for about 4 hours, vs. some cooled kayu that I put in a bowl and heated up in the microwave. While the microwaved kayu was scorchingly hot, it had turned a bit gluey while it was cold. The kayu in the lunch jar was quite warm without being mouth-burningly hot, and had retained the smooth, soothing texture of just-cooked kayu better. (Although a bit of added water did fix the glueiness of the microwaved kayu.)
This kayu is made with brown rice with the addition of azuki beans. It’s a classic combination and a standby of Buddhist monks and other traditional vegans, because it’s packed with nutrition and fiber. The only thing I add to it is some gomashio or sesame salt, carried in a little parchment paper packet. It’s the perfect minimalist, one-pot, one-container lunch, that will help your body recover from the holidays. It’s vegan and gluten-free and everything too! An added bonus: even when you fill a 16-oz lunch jar like the one I’m used here with this kayu, it’s only about 300 calories, give or take a few calories depending on the amount of gomashio or other stuff you add.
It does take some time to cook, so make it ahead of time and keep a pot in the fridge, or freeze it in portion-sized units. It’ll keep for a few days in the refrigerator, and a month in the freezer.
This will make about 6 cups of fairly thick kayu. To make it thinner, add more water. You don’t have to stick to the exact amounts I’ve listed here - just stick to the ratio of rice to water. I have used a 1:5 ratio, i.e. 1 cup of rice to 5 cups of water. I often make it at a 1:7 ratio too. At 1:10 or so it starts to become less of a porridge and more of a soup. I don’t recommend cooking more than 2 cups’ worth of rice at a time, especially brown rice, since when it turns into kayu it will expand more than you ever imagined possible.
Put everything into a heavy-bottomed pot that has plenty of room for the rice to expand in, and let soak for a few hours or overnight. Bring up to a boil over high heat until the water is boiling, then reduce the heat right down. Put on a lid, with a chopstick or spoon or something stuck in between the lid and the pot rim to keep the lid slightly open (this prevents the rice from boiling over). Cook, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.
Some rice cookers have a ‘porridge’ function. Use that according to the cooker’s instructions.
If you just have a regular straightforward rice cooker, put the ingredients in the pot and let soak as for the regular pot method. Switch the rice cooker on and cook. When the switch goes up, test the porridge - if it’s soft enough, you are done, otherwise switch the cooker on again and repeat. Repeat again if needed until the porridge is as runny and soft as you want it to be.
This is the method I use since it takes so little time. Put the ingredients in your pressure cooker - there’s no need to soak the rice. Lock on the lid and bring the cooker up to pressure. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 30 minutes. You’re done!
I don’t own a slow cooker, but I have read that congees and other rice porridges can be cooked successfully in one. Try putting all the ingredients in your cooker and leaving it to cook. It may take a while.
I’ve used some gomashio (sesame salt)  here, which really works well and adds to the kayu’s nutritional value. You can use any furkake of your choice instead, either store bought or homemade . Adding an umeboshi plum to kayu is classic too. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think that negimiso (miso-onion paste)  would work well too. Regardless of what topping you choose, I recommend carrying it along separately and mixing it into your kayu at the last minute, instead of mixing it in in advance.
For bento use, it’s most practical to make the kayu in advance. To reheat in a pan, just add a little water and stir until hot. If you’re reheating in a microwave, put the kayu in a bowl and add a bit of water. Microwave on the high setting for a minute, give it a good stir, then microwave again for 30 seconds to a minute until it’s piping hot. If you have frozen your kayu, defrost the rice enough so that you can stir it around before adding water. Pack your hot kayu immediately into your pre-heated thermal bento jar. (Pre-heat your jar by filling it with boiling water and leaving for a minute.)
Buchimgae or jijimi or chijimi is a thin, savory pancake from Korea. It’s similar to a Japanese okonomiyaki , but is a bit less complicated to make. (Also closely related is pajon, a pancake with lots of green onions.) It’s basically a pancake-like batter holding together a lot of vegetables and other ingredients. It’s a great way of using up leftovers, and holds up a lot better than okonomiyaki as a bento item I think. It makes a nice change from rice or bread based bentos.
Here are two batter recipes. One is a traditional one using wheat flour and beaten egg, the other one is a vegan and gluten-free variation. Use the one that suits your needs. The traditional one is a bit lighter and crispier, and the vegan one is denser.
To make about 4 pancakes
Heat up a frying pan or griddle, and coat with oil. (Using a little sesame oil adds a wonderful nutty flavor to the pancakes.) Mix the batter and the other ingredients together - the ratio of filler to batter should be quite high (the batter should just hold together the other things). Spread out as thinly as you can on the hot griddle or frying pan. Cook over medium-high heat until crispy and golden brown, then turn over and cook on the other side. Cut into wedges or squares.
In the meantime, mix together the dipping sauce ingredients. Serve in a small bowl alongside the pancakes. (You can also mix up a large batch of the dipping sauce, minus the green onion, and store it in the refrigerator.)
One pancake is about 350-400 calories, depending on how much oil you use, what ingredients you put in, and so on.
These pancakes can be frozen. Cut into wedges or squares, and wrap well in plastic wrap and store in ziplock bags or freezer containers. Put them in an dry non-stick frying pan over lot heat to defrost and crisp them up.
Sift the flour and salt together. Combine the egg and water. Add the liquid to the flour gradually, to form a thinnish batter. If you can, set aside to rest for at least 1/2 an hour.
After some experimenting, I discovered that using potato flour or dessicated potato flakes makes the pancakes a bit lighter and ‘bouncier’ than using rice flour alone. If you can find potato flour or potato starch, use that instead of the dessicated potato flakes. The gram flour is used mainly to add protein.
Mix or sift together all the floury ingredients. Add the water to it in stages, until you have a thinnish batter. You may need more or less than 350ml (the amount seems to depend on how dry the flours are). If you can, set aside to rest for at least 1/2 an hour.
Don’t be afraid of the kimchi by the way - they aren’t really that spicy when cooked like this. They just add lots of umami and a pleasant warmth.
Above is a very simple chijimi bento. I used the vegan batter, and added some edamame and fried tofu (aburaage) strips, to make the pancakes complete nutritionally. The dipping sauce is in a small container. Even at room temperature they were delicious! I made the sauce on the spicy side by adding a lot of chili oil.
Carrot rice is basically just rice cooked with carrots and some flavorings. It makes the rice colorful, as well as sneaking in some more vegetable content into your meal, bento or not. (It should work on kids too.) It does not taste ‘carrot-y’ at all, just slightly sweet.
I’ve been experimenting with different ways of making carrot rice, and these are the two methods that produce the best flavored rice so far with the least effort. One or the other may fit your routine better, so they are both here.
This produces a slightly paler (rosey) colored rice compared to the other method. It’s the one in the left half of the photo.
To make 2 rice cooker cup’s worth, which is about 4 cooked cups:
Chop up the onion finely. Sauté it in the oil or butter until limp.
Wash the rice as usual. Add the carrot juice to the rice cooker with the washed rice, and top up with water to the 2 cups mark. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cook the rice using normal settings.
This is good if you want to eat carrot rice for dinner and have extra for your bento the next day, or to freeze a batch.
This method is very easy, and great when you have frozen or leftover rice that you want to jazz up. It makes a speckled orange-and-yellow rice. It’s the one on the right half of the photo above. This makes 2 cups worth of rice.
Grate the carrot finely. (To get half a carrot grated, take a whole carrot and grate down to about half. Use the rest for another dish). Grate the onion to produce about 1 Tbs. of pulp and juice. A microplane grater is the ideal implement for both grating tasks. (See Essential equipment ).
Mix these together with the oil or butter, salt and herbs.
Spread the rice on a microwave safe plate. Spread the carrot mixture on top. Cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 2-3 minutes (depending on your wattage). The carrot should become completely soft. Mix well into the rice. (To deepen the color you can drizzle on a tiny bit of soy sauce.)
I prefer the second method, since I can use any plain rice I have on hand including the frozen stash I usually have . Plus cooking times are the same for brown or white rice, since the rice itself is cooked already. Either one is good if you want to bring a little cheery color to your bento. Carrot rice makes nice pre-flavored onigiri.
Do you know about chana dal? I didn’t myself until last year, when I was doing research on diabetic-friendly foods (for myself, when I was hospitalized with a bad infection  and diagnosed with pre-diabetes, as well as my father, who has the full blown kind). Chana dal, also called cholar dal or Bengal gram dal, looks rather like yellow split peas, but it’s actually a form of chickpea (also called garbanzo, ceci). While it is a carbohydrate like any dried bean, it does not raise your blood gluose levels much at all. In other words it has an extremely low glycemix index of 8! When I first got out of the hospital after my surgery last summer and was rather obsessed with my blood sugar levels, I really got into chana dal. It’s great in just about any dish that calls for regular round chickpeas, cooks a bit faster - especially in a pressure cooker - and has a mild, slightly sweet flavor, and a lot less of that sort of cement-like smell and texture that chickpeas have. I now use it instead of chickpeas in hummus and falafel, and it’s become a regular carb-staple in our house, even though I am no longer as worried about my blood sugar levels. (They seem to have stabilized at a pretty normal level now, unless I do something silly like eat a whole chocolate cake in one sitting. Um, not that I do that of course. ^_^;) You can buy chana dal at Indian or South Asian grocery stores - it’s a standard staple in India - as well as health food stores. I see it becoming more and more trendy as time goes by.
Chana dal may look like split peas, but they do take longer to cook. Presoaking them for a few hours or overnight helps. A pressure cooker really makes the job go faster - I can cook a cup or two from dry in my pressure cooker in about 30 minutes.
This dish is not only diabetic-friendly, it’s also vegan and gluten-free, besides being a one-pot complete meal. Oh, and tastes great too. Fennel is a common winter vegetable around here - if you haven’t cooked much with it I hope you give it a try, because it adds a wonderfuly aniseed flavor to anything. Almonds add a nice crunchy texture and lots of flavor, besides being another food that’s quite good for you. (Use another nut if you like, or even toasted sesame seeds.) You can make this dal in a regular pot, which will take a bit longer and leave the fennel pieces with a little bite to them, or in a pressure cooker, where the fennel melts away and forms a sauce for the chana dal. Either way it is terrific. For bentos, its works great as a thermal lunch jar  one-item bento, or cold in a regular bento box.
Makes about 6 cups cooked. You can get chana dal and all the spices at any Indian/South Asian grocery store. (Note: in southern France they don’t have dedicated Indian grocery stores (although there are multi-ethnic stores like Paristore) so I stock up on my spices, dal, and other Indian goodies when I go to Switzerland, where there are sizeable Indian and Sri Lankan expat populations.)
Rinse the chana dal and remove any stones, etc. Put the chana dal in a pot or bowl and add enough water to come up to about 2 inches / 5 cm above the level of the beans. Leave to soak for several hours or overnight. (Note: if you are using a pressure cooker you can skip the soaking part.) When you’re ready to cook them, drain them, put them in a pot or pressure cooker, and add fresh water to come up to about 1 inch / 2 cm above the level of the beans.
Chop the onion, ginger and garlic finely. Slice the fennel fairly thickly (about 1/4 inch / 1/2 cm thickness is fine), reserving some of the green leafy bits for garnish.
Heat up the oil in a frying pan over high heat and add the onions. Sauté until limp, Add the ginger, garlic and fennel. Add the spices and stir. Your kitchen will smell great from the aromas.
Add the sautéed vegetables with spices, salt and pepper to the pot with the chana dal. If you’re using a pressure cooker, bring it up to pressure then cook for about 15-20 minutes (less time if you presoaked the chana dal). If using a conventional pot, bring the pot up to a boil, put on a lid and lower the heat to a slow simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pot sit for another 10 minutes.
While the chana dal is cooking, toast the almond slices in a dry frying pan over medium heat until browned and smelling very almond-y.
Taste the chana dal and adjust the seasonings if needed. Remove the cardamon pod. Stir in half the almonds, reserving the rest to sprinkle on top. Serve hot or cold with the reserved green fennel leafy bits and reserved almond slices on top. If you’re packing it in a lunch jar, you can carry the reserved almond slices separately and sprinkle them on top just before eating.
Making a big pot of this makes sense - it keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, and you can also portion it out and freeze it. You can cook it down, mash it up and make little patties out of it to pan fry on both sides too.
If you want to cut down on the number of spices, use some curry powder and garam masala instead, though it’s better with the individual spices.
If you want to know more about chana dal as it pertains to diabetics or anyone concerned with the glycemic index or GI of foods, see this great article  on David Mendosa’s site. There’s a lot of other interesting information about food for diabetics too.
Here’s another easy egg recipe made with 1 or 2 eggs. It’s made in the microwave, and the method can be used for an ‘omelette’ with all kinds of additives. Here I have used a little bit of leftover cheese and some parsley. It goes well in a rice based or bread based bento. Cooking egg in the microwave is mentioned in several bento books and magazine articles, from which I’ve adapted the following method.
To make a 2-egg omelette. Halve quantities for a 1-egg version.
Mix the egg, salt and water or milk together in a small microwave safe bowl with a fork. Cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap.
Microwave on HIGH for 1 minute 45 seconds (for a 1-egg version for 1 minute). It will look like this - cooked on top, still uncooked beneath.
Stir it up well with a fork, breaking up the cooked egg solids.
Mix in the parsley and cheese.
Re-cover with the plastic wrap. Microwave on HIGH for 1 minute 30 seconds (for a 1-egg version for 45 seconds). It will come out looking like this, and it should be cooked all the way through.
Spread out a double thickness of paper towel, and plop the omelette in one piece (with a spoon) from the bowl. (Be careful, it’s hot!) Note: I prefer using paper towels here instead of plastic wrap, which is the norm, since the paper absorbs any excess moisture and oil, and also lets the omelette cool a lot faster.
Roll up the paper towel tightly and twist the ends, as if you were wrapping a piece of candy. Leave like this until cool.
Cut into pieces. This is good with a tiny bit of ketchup, or just as-is.
You can add all kinds of things to this instead of the cheese and parsley, such as chopped up tomato (deseeded), cooked and chopped vegetables of any kind, herbs of your choice, chopped up ham, and so on.
Chicken nanban is fried chicken that’s been briefly marinated in a sweet-sour-salty and slightly spicy sauce or dressing called nanban sauce . The recipe for basic, make-ahead-and-stock nanban sauce is over on Just Hungry . Normally chicken nanban is deep-fried, but my bento friendly versions are either shallow-fried or simply panfried, cutting down a bit on the fat as well as avoiding the Fear of Frying that many people have. Quite a lot of popular Japanese bentos have deep fried items in them, but I usually to re-interpret the recipes so that they can be pan-fried or shallow-fried. (The chicken karaage that I have in the book  for example is shallow-fried in a frying pan.)
Chicken nanban is often served smothered with tartare sauce. I don’t think that’s appropriate for bentos, but you can pack a little container of mayo with a few dill pickle slices or small cornichons with your chicken nanban, to have the flavors of tartare sauce in deconstructed form so to speak.. Tabasco is an interesting addition if you like things spicy.
Both recipes make 4 to 5 bento-sized portions, although these little nuggets are so good that you might find them disappearing rather fast.
The photo below shows the lower-fat pan-fried chicken nanban on the left, and the shallow fried chicken nanban on the right. They both taste great, though the shallow fried chicken nanban is closer to the original. (After the photo shoot this ended up being my lunch as-is, with a bit of nanban sauce drizzled on the lettuce as a dressing. It was terrific.)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: March 06, 2011
Japanese, chicken, bento-friendly
A panfried version of a popular Japanese chicken dish that us normally deep fried. The sour-sweet-salty nanban sauce is the key. This still has the nanban flavors, but leaves out the batter coating.
Prep time: 5 min :: Cook time: 10 min min :: Total time: 15 min
Yield: 8-10 pieces
Serving size: 2-3 pieces
Calories per serving: 80 t0 120 calories
By Makiko Itoh
Published: March 06, 2011
chicken, japanese, bento-friendly
This version of chicken nanban is shallow-fried in a frying pan. It has the thin egg-batter coating that is characteristic of the deep friedchicken nanban you get in restaurants.
Prep time: 8 min :: Cook time: 10 min :: Total time: 18 min
Yield: 8-10 pieces
Serving size: 2-3 pieces
Calories per serving: 120 to 180 calories
I’m a bit under the weather at the moment, but I wanted to show you a sneak peak of a bento my mother made (she’s visiting here for a month). It’s very classic, very Japanese - but made with ingredients that are pretty easy to get here.
It features haiga-mai (sprouted brown rice) mixed with my mom’s all-purpose Japanese-flavored winter-vegetable mix (recipe for the mix here ) in one compartment…
…and in the other compartment is some more of the stewed carrot, potato and onion that featured in the previous bento  (recipe is now here ), plus a piece of griled salted salmon , some blanched spinach , this time with a bit of soy sauce and dashi, and tamagoyaki .
Basically all the parts are from bento stash. The rice was that vegetable mix mixed into defrosted premade rice ; the spinach was from a batch that was blanched and squeezed out all at once; the salted salmon was premade and stored cut into pieces in the freezer; and my mother made a big batch of the stewed vegetables that lasted us for a couple of bentos and a few dinners too. The only thing made from scratch so to speak was the tamagoyaki. But it all tasted wonderfully fresh, and pretty healthy too (maybe a bit heavy on the carbs, which can be adjusted). In other words, a classic everyday Japanese bento.
I have to admit that I almost didn’t post this recipe, because - well, it’s not the best looking dish ever, right? ^_^; But still it does taste absolutely great, and since I know many vegans and vegetarians are always on the lookout for tasty protein options, here it is! It’s basically extra-firm tofu that’s sautéed in a mixture of aromatic vegetables and miso and spicy kochujang (gochujang), with some broccoli thrown in there too. It’s a great topping for rice, or can be eaten all on its own if you are doing low-carb. It keeps in the refrigerator for just a couple of days really, which is why I haven’t listed it in the johbisai (staples)  section. But still I’d recommend making at least one large tofu block’s worth at a time, since it’s really good. Vary the spice to your liking. To read more about miso as well as kochujang (it’s pronounced so in Japan, but gochujang is more widely used), one of Korean cuisine’s greatest contributions to the world, see the Miso Primer .
Yields about 5 cups, enough for at least 2-3 bento or regular meals
Drain and cut the tofu into small dice, about 1/3 inch / 1 cm or so square. Bring a pot of water to a boil and put the tofu cubes in, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain well. This boiling o the tofu ironically helps to rid them of some moisture as well as cooking them a bit, making the cubes firmer and less likely to fall apart. This is a handy and faster elternative to pressing moisture out of the tofu, especially if you are using it cut up into small pieces as you are here (see How to use tofu in bento-friendly recipes ).
Blanch the broccoli florets until they’re just cooked, drain and set aside. For this dish you can use frozen broccoli too.
Slice the onion very thinly. Finely chop the garlic.
Combine the miso, kochujang, soy sauce, sugar and enough water to form a thin paste.
Heat up a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the sesame oil and onion. Saute until the onion is getting brown on the edges. Add the garlic, then after a couple of minutes add the tofu cubes. Saute until the tofu is getting a bit brown. Add most of the combined miso paste and stir around until the tofu is coated. Taste one and adjust the seasoning with the remainder of the paste if you think it’s needed, or a bit more soy sauce. (Tip: If you plan to use it with rice or another grain, make the flavor a bit stronger; if you plan to eat it on its own, hold back on the paste a bit or it may be too salty.) Add the broccoli and stir around until it’s heated through.
This will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. It does not freeze well since the texture of the tofu changes.
Try making this with miso only for a less spicy version.
I’m Japanese, so I love the taste of curry. (If you’ve been to Japan you’d know this makes sense.) This is a very quick and easy vegan dish that could be the main protein in a bento, or a filler. You can use any kind of beans here, but I do like the dense rather fudgey texture of kidney beans. They’re not just for eating with chili! I’ve made this quite spicy, but you can tone it down if you like by adjusting the amount of chili powder. The sweetness of the vegetables counteracts the spiciness. It tastes terrific at room temperature, and can be made in advance. It lasts for a couple of days at least in the refrigerator, though it tastes best when it’s freshly made so I don’t make a big amount at one time.
All the spices used were bought at an Indian grocery store, which has a high turnover, and always has fresh spices. I don’t use Japanese curry powder for this kind of recipe because it’s ridiculously expensive here. (And yes, I do use pre-ground powders since they save a lot of time.)
This makes about 3-4 bento servings.
Chop up the pepper, carrot and onion into fairly small dice. (You can do this if you like by pulse-chopping it in a food processor, but I prefer the chunkiness of hand cutting.) Chop the ginger and garlic flnely.
Put all the vegetables into a large non-stick frying pan. Add a little water so that it comes up to about half the height of the vegetables. Over high heat, ‘stir-fry’ the vegetables in the water, adding a little more water if it gets sticky on the bottom of the pan, until the vegetables are tender. (This trick which I use quite a lot saves on the amount of oil added.)
Push the vegetables to one side so that there’s a clear space on the pan. Add the oil, and the spices, and stir around so that the spices infuse the oil. Stir together with the vegetables.
Drain off the can of kidney beans, reserving about 1/2 cup of the liquid. Add the kidney beans to the pan, with the reserved liquid. Toss around until the kidney beans are coated with the spicy sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
You can use this in a rice-based bento, or with flat bread like naan or pita.
Takarabukuro (宝袋) is a treasure bag. In food terms, it’s a small parcel that is cooked in a fried tofu skin (aburaage 油揚げ）bag - the one that’s used for inarizushi . Here an egg is dropped gently into the bag, and then poached - so, an egg in a treasure bag! It is delicious hot or cold, and is very nice in a bento box as a main or secondary protein.
Rather than starting with a whole aburaage, I cheated a bit and used a pre-cooked inarizushi bag. (Here is how to cook your own inarizushi bags or skins .) I do usually have some aburaage in the freezer these days, but when I first came to live in Switzerland I found them very hard to find. On the other hand I could find canned or vacuum packed inarizushi skins even at generic gourmet food shops! I am guessing this is because aburaage has to be kept frozen or used right away, while cans and vacuum packs are easier to stock. In any case I’ve given instructions for using the premade inarizushi skins as well as uncooked aburaage.
For the poaching liquid, which can cook 4-6 egg-bags at a time:
Peel the carrot and cut up. Bring the poaching liquid ingredients together in a pan and bring up to a simmer.
If you are using aburaage, pour boiling water over them and leave until cool enough to handle. Drain well, roll over with a round chopstick to loosen them up, cut in half and carefully separate open up into a bag. Or, cook a batch of inarizushi skins , and use some for these eggs and keep the rest for inarizushi later!
If you are starting with inarizushi skins, that work has been done for you! This is the one I started with.
Open up one inarizushi skin bag or aburaage bag, and stand it up in a small cup. Break an egg and carefully slip the contents into the bag.
This is the most fiddly part. Tie the open mouth of the bag shut with the green onion strip or the parsley stalk. You can also skewer it shut with a cocktail stick. You don’t have to worry about making it airtight, just closed enough so the egg doesn’t float out.
Put the bags carefully in the simmering water - lower the heat if it’s bubbling too hard. Poach for 10-15 minutes until the bags feel a bit firm if you poke them lightly, and the carrots are cooked. (You can put daikon radish, or turnips, or potatoes, or any long-cooking hard vegetable in here and cook them with the bags.)
When the bags are cooked, they’ll look like this.
You can cook them in advance and store them in the refrigerator in the poaching liquid. They’ll keep for a couple of days. You can put them in your bento as whole bags, or cut in half to reveal the egg inside.
The egg will have absorbed a lot of flavor from the poaching liquid, but if you find it too bland you can pack a small bottle of soy sauce to drizzle on it.
Few things are as easy to make or as tasty for lunch than a simple tuna salad sandwich. It’s one of my favorite things to make when I’m too busy or occupied for more involved cooking. But porting around tuna salad when the weather is warm can be a bit of a problem.
I’ve been experimenting with freezing tuna salad in different ways, or rather stages of development as it were, as well as different tuna salad mixes.
I’m sure you have your own favorite recipe for tuna salad. For freezing though, it’s best to keep out any raw or watery vegetables, because they can turn mushy and soggy. So if you want to add the crunch of chopped celery or onions or pickles and so on, carry them along in a separate container and add them to your sandwich just before you eat. One thing that does freeze surprisingly well is capers, but those too are better added later.
It’s also important to drain away the water in water-packed tuna as completely as possible. The more watery your tuna is, the more it will become after defrosting. This isn’t an issue with oil-packed tuna, but I guess most of us are using water-packed tuna these days.
You might call this tuna-mayo.
Mash it all together to a smooth paste with a fork.
My sister Meg used to work at the Toraya tea room in New York, and made a fantastic tuna salad plate with miso dressing. This is a tuna salad spread that takes those flavors.
Mash it all together to a smooth paste with a fork.
This one is a bit salty, but delicious!
Chop up the olives and anchovies very finely. Blend with the tuna and mayonnaise. Add the capers to the mix or sprinkle them onto the sandwich just before eating. (This is also great mixed pasta.)
Once you have the tuna salad made, you can freeze it in a number of ways. (Don’t keep frozen tuna salad for more than a month if you can help it.) With all of the methods, the frozen tuna salad defrosts completely in a couple of hours, so it’s ready to eat by lunchtime.
Make a batch of tuna salad, pack into a ziplock bag, flatten out and freeze. Break off chunks as needed.
Pros: The easiest way to have some ready-to-go tuna salad. Due to the oil in the mayonnaise, the tuna salad doesn’t freeze hard, so you can just break off as much as you need at a time. Good for making tuna salad onigiri too! Just use a chunk of the frozen tuna salad as your onigiri filler. (You can also freeze premade tuna salad onigiri - as long as you keep them on the small side they will defrost to an edible state by lunchtime.)
Cons: Your hands get a bit fishy as you handle the tuna chunks. The broken off chunks may not be that neat (though when they defrost into tuna paste, your sandwich won’t even notice). You will probably want to wrap the chunks up in some plastic or put them in a bento cup (or cupcake liner) in a corner of your bento box.
Make a tuna salad sandwich as usual, wrap in plastic film or put in a ziplock bag.
Pros: You have a ready-to-go sandwich! Just bring along some crunchy/crisp vegetables like lettuce, tomato slices, cucumber…whatever strikes your fancy.
Cons: You can see the biggest problem with this in the photo: this frozen sandwich has only been out of the freezer for a few minutes, but there’s already condensation inside the plastic. Frozen sandwiches do end up a bit moist, though not to the point of being inedible provided your tuna salad filling is quite moisture-free.
Divide the tuna salad into individual portions that are about the size of your sandwich bread. Wrap each portion in plastic wrap and freeze.
Pros: This is the neatest way to pack tuna salad. You can just pack one of the portions with bread and some veggies into a box and go. The frozen tuna salad will have defrosted by lunchtime, and will also keep your whole lunch cool.
Cons: You do use up some plastic film. If you use different shaped bread you’ll need to re-distribute the tuna salad on the bread, though that’s not a big deal.
For what it’s worth, I use method 1 the most, followed by method 3.
Finally, here is a sort of tuna salad ‘sandwich’ (which is actually a variation of oshizushi or pressed sushi), using sushi rice instead of bread. This makes two or four ‘sandwiches’.
Mix the sushi vinegar and rice together well, and let cool to room temperature.
Line a small square container (a freezer box, or a square bento box) with plastic film or kitchen parchment paper, with enough extra to hang over the sides. Spread out half of the rice evenly, with moistened fingers or spoon.
Spread on the tuna salad - at this point you can add things like capers or chopped celery if you like. You could also use frozen tuna salad here, spread out as evenly as possible.
Top with the rest of the rice.
Gather up the plastic film or paper over the rice, and press down firmly and evenly with your hands.
Take the rice sandwich out of the container, and slice right through the plastic film or paper into half or quarters. Keep the plastic or paper there, to protect the hands while eating.
You can make this with plain (not sushi) rice too, but I prefer the extra zing of sushi rice. Sushi rice also keeps a bit better than plain rice, due to the vinegar and salt.
This rice ‘sandwich’ can be frozen too! Cut it into pieces, and store in a freezer box or freezer bag. The pieces will defrost in a few hours, so can be packed as-is. (If you freeze it as a whole lump, it may take a bit longer to defrost.) If you do freeze it, leave out the capers and celery. Note that I do not normally like to freeze sushi rice but for some reason this combination defrosts fine.
I'm always on the lookout for vegan/vegetarian protein recipes that are bento friendly, and this flat oven baked loaf is another one. It's called triple-soy because it has tofu, edamame and miso in it. It has a very dense, rich texture with a sweet-salty glaze. One or two small squares are quite enough for a bento. It may fall apart a bit during transport, but that doesn't affect the texture or flavor. If you can, put it in its own compartment in your bento.
This is adapted quite a lot from a recipe in one of Yumiko Kano 's vegan cookbooks. Her recipe used a lot of very Japanese ingredients that may be difficult to get a hold of outside of Japan. So I've experimented and used a lot of more universally available substitions. The only ingredient that you may not have on hand is kuzu or kudzu powder (more about kuzu here ), but it's such a great thickening ingredient that it's worth having on hand. Kuzu is superior to cornstarch, flour and so on since sauces thickened with it stay clear and thick even after cooling. But if you can't get kuzu, just use cornstarch or potato starch instead.
(Added April 18, 2013: I have revised this recipe to make it even simpler than it was previously. It's gluten free as long as you you use gluten free versions of miso and soy sauce. A food processor of mixer is suggested for making this dish.
Prep time: 20 min :: Cook time: 25 min :: Total time: 45 min
Yield: 1 loaf
Serving size: 1 square (about 1/9th of a loaf)
(below is for search engine purposes only)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: July 21, 2008
Type: japanese, vegan, gluten-free
Chicken tenders, or thin pieces of chicken breast, cook up very fast and are low in fat. They are a bit more expensive than chicken dark meat, but otherwise are perfect for bentos.
This marinated and grilled chicken really just takes minutes to prep and to cook in a grill pan. They go well in a rice-based bento, in salad, sandwiches and more.
There’s a bonus just-mix yogurt dressing or sauce recipe below too!
For 1 bento serving:
(double/triple etc. for more meat)
Mix all the ingredients together. Marinate overnight.
Heat up a grill pan, or a regular non-stick frying pan. Drain off any excess marinade. Grill the chicken pieces for about 2-3 minutes on one side, flip over, and turn off the heat. The chicken will finish cooking from the heat of the pan. Cool before packing into your bento.
Contains about 100-130 calories per 100g / about 3 oz (raw weight) serving, depending on how much of the oil you drain off.
Note: Vary this by adding some dried or chopped fresh herbs etc. to the marinade. Thyme, rosemary, fresh tarragon, oregano, etc. are all nice.
This is not really a recipe, but it’s a great low-fat dressing for salads and things.
Just mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of thick or Greek yogurt with this stuff called Chutney Podina Masala, which is available at Indian grocery stores:
It’s a powdered mix, which has (reading off the back of the box) salt, mint, dry mango, pomegranate seeds, chilli, coriander, black pepper, musk melon, caraway, nutmeg and maleic acid (a commonly used acidulant). It’s spicy, minty, salty and a bit sour. I add about 1/2 tsp. per tablespoon of yogurt. I have also been known to put spoonfuls directly in my mouth.
Alternatively, you could use any kind of ‘spice mix’ plus salt. I have tried things like leftover taco seasoning, those Emeril’s mixes, Montreal Steak Rub, garlic salt, and so on. Experiment!
Negimayaki (ネギマ焼き） or negima as it’s often abbreviated, is scallions or green onions wrapped in thinly sliced meat and pan fried. It’s usually made with thinly sliced beef or pork in Japan. The thing is though, while very thinly slice meat is a standard cut available at any supermarket in Japan, here in Europe it’s not. If I want that cut I have to ask the butcher to do it for me, or slice it myself.
However, ham and cured meat slices of all kinds is very easily available here, so that’s what I use for this version of negima. The advantage of using ham, besides its availibity and handiness, is that it’s already flavored, so you don’t have to add any more seasoning. The saltiness of it flavors the green onion inside too. These cook up very quickly.
Cut the green parts of scallions or spring onions into pieces about 5cm / 2 inches long. Put on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and microwave on HIGH for about 2 minutes. (Alternatively you can cook them in a pan covered with just enough hot water, for about 3 minutes.)
Cut the ham into pieces that are just a bit narrower than the length of the green onion pieces. Take small bundles of the onion and wrap the ham tightly around them.
Heat up a non-stick frying pan and add a tiny bit of oil. Put the ham-and-onion rolls with the roll ends down in the hot pan. Leave until the bottom is a golden brown (this also seals the ends). Turn over 2-3 times more to brown the ham all over.
You shouldn’t need any more salt, but if you like you can sprinkle on some allspice, or Chinese 5 spice powder, or chili powder, for a little extra oomph.
You can make as few or as many of these rolls as you require. They freeze very well. Reheat in the microwave or in a frying pan over medium-low heat with the lid on.
See the negimayaki used in this bento from today!
The ones I used were actually frozen about a month ago. This is the last of a batch of about 30 I made and froze. The rest of the bento is also made up of frozen johbisai or ‘stash’, plus leftovers. Click on the image to go to the flickr page that has lots of notes.
There are two commonly available cuts of meat (both pork and beef) in Japan that I can’t get here, nor do I remember seeing them in regular supermarkets and such in the U.S. or England. The cuts are komagire (小間切れ), roughly chopped meat, and usugiri (薄切り), thinly sliced meat. Both are from not-that-lean parts. They are used a lot in bento recipes in Japanese cookbooks, because they cook so quickly and are very economical. It would be great if these cuts became more widely available, but until then I make do with what I can get and what I think most people can get easily.
(A note for people in Switzerland: Fondue Chinois meat is the closest thing to usugiri, but the pieces are too small for most things…)
Update: I have posted a recipe for proper yasai no nikumaki (meat-wraped vegetables)  using thinly sliced/shaved sirloin beef, or ‘cheesesteak beef’.
The Guy (also known as Max) and I have a shared resolution this year: We Must Lose Weight And Get Fitter Or Else. He has high blood pressure, I have high or disturbingly fluctuating blood sugar. But we both have this basic problem, that we love to eat good food. And, especially during the day, we need our tummies comfortably filled or we get cranky.
One solution to this problem: soup for lunch! Soup for bentos does mean either that you need access to a microwave at lunchtime, or using a thermal bento or lunch jar . But on cold days, this little inconvenience is well worth it.
A really filling soup is a meal unto itself, so all you need to do is to fill up a lunch jar and go. If you get really hungry, add some cooked vegetables and perhaps a little carb - some rice or other grains, a piece of crusty bread, a couple of crackers.
This very hearty soup that is almost a stew is The Guy’s invention. The advantage of using meatballs is that they can’t overcook - they just absorb more flavor and get softer and moister and more delicious. I did add a twist to it by adding some miso as a ‘hidden taste’ (you don’t really taste miso, just the umami of the miso). Tip: Cut the carrots and celery into fairly large chunks rather than itty bits, to get the feeling you are ‘eating’ rather than just drinking soup.
I can attest for the fact that it is very filling on its own. The Guy snuck in some, packed in a lunch jar of course, during my last hospital stay. It was the best meal I had in there by far, and it was still piping hot after being in transit. This is not a quick-cook soup, so make it in quantity and have some for dinner, more for bento, and freeze the rest in portions. I’ll show you how it can be packed as part of a multi-course bento in the next installment. I don’t actually mind having this every day for lunch until the batch runs out.
Makes 8 hearty servings
For the meatballs:
For the soup:
Additions to soup at the end:
In a large, heavy bottomed pan, saute the 2 chopped onions and garlic cloves in olive oil over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent. Add 2 cups of plain water and bring up to a boil. Lower the heat to a slow simmer and simmer for about 10 minutes.
While that simmers, make the meatballs. Mix all the meatball ingredients together in a bowl - your clean hands are the best tool for this. Form into about 30 small meatballs.
Add the rest of the soup ingredients to the pot (except for the ones listed under “additions, plus 6 cups of water. Bring up to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Put in the meatballs (no need to brown them or anything beforehand). Simmer for at least half an hour.
Dissolve the miso paste in some of the hot soup liquid, then add the whole thing to the pot. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.
The soup improves after resting for a day or more. You may want to skim off the oil that accumulates at the top.
To serve, garnish with more chopped parsley. (Don’t put the bay leaf or the parsley bunch in any of the servings.)
Estimated calories per 1 cup serving with 3 meatballs is 200 calories, give or take a few calories.
This soup freezes very well - mainly because no potatoes are included. Frozen cooked potatoes turn into an awful mealy mush. If you want potatoes with your soup, just carry along some boiled potatoes separately.
It’s now the height of summer (at least here in the Northern hemisphere), which means outdoor bentos and picnics! Chicken wings are great finger food, but you can make them even more convenient, not to mention cute, by turning them into chicken lollipops, also known as cherrystone chicken or chicken cherries. Back in the day I used to hang around a chef (rather, he tolerated me while I pestered him with questions) who used to work in a hotel restaurant in the ’80s, where he had to turn out hundreds of these little things for banquets. He could whip them out by the dozens in mere minutes, but I take a little longer. They are a bit fiddly, but not hard to do.
First let’s examine a chicken wing, as it usually comes from the supermarket.
You see that it has three sections. The tapering part is the wing tip, and doesn’t have much edible meat on it, so I usually freeze it and use it for making chicken stock. The middle part has two bones in it; experienced chicken-wing-dissecters can remove the smaller second bone and make a lollipop out of the remainder, but that’s rather fiddly to do, so I usually use the middle part for something else, such as buffalo chicken wings. The part that we want is the third, thickest part.
So let’s cut apart the wing. We need a sharp, small knife. This is a boning knife, with a tapered shape that is quite handy for various boning tasks, but you could use a straight blade knife too. It just has to be sharp. A dull blade may slip, which is dangerous!
Grab hold of the tapered wing tip and find the first joint. Cut through or to the side of the soft cartilage, rather than the bone. Your knife should go through easily.
Here’s a closeup of that joint. As you see i’m cutting through the white cartilage. You might get little bits of loose cartilage here, which you should just cut off and discard.
Now cut through the second joint, in the same way, aiming for the cartilage again.
Cut apart cleanly.
And here are the 3 wing pieces. As I mentioned above, I usually freeze the wing tips to to make chicken stock with (they are wonderfuly gelationous, so are perfect for this). The other two sections can be used in any recipe that calls for wings just as-is.
Incidentally, many butchers (or rather mechanical chicken cutters or whatever that do this for supermarkets) really do this sloppily leaving bits of cartilage hanging, not to mention bone splinters. If you can do this yourself the results will be a lot neater.
Let’s turn the thick piece of chicken wing into a lollipop. You’ll see that it looks like a little drumstick. Grab the thin end firmly, then carefully cut through the skin surrounding the bone, using a sawing motion and turning the thing around. Don’t try to force it, let the knife do the work.
Once the skin is cut all around, use your knife to scrape down the meat from the bone. You may need to cut through a couple of sinews. Push the meat down to the other end.
Using your fingers, pull the meat over the fat end of the bone so that it’s inside out.
Here’s a completed lollipop.
I timed myself, and I can crank these out at a rate of about 3 per minute. If you are just starting it will probably take longer, but don’t rush it or you might cut yourself! (I actualy have a scar from many years ago on my thumb from where I cut it making these.)
You can cook them in any way you like - fried, roasted, with barbeque sauce, etc. I usually use my basic chicken karaage recipe  (though I used canola oil/rapeseed oil rather than peanut oil for the ones in the photos here) and turn them into lollipop karaage, which is great hot or at room temperature in a bento box.
Here’s a recent roadside picnic we had, with some chicken lollipop karaage and brown rice onigiri. In the background are some stewed green beans that my mother made (I’ll post the recipe soon). It was really delicious, way better than bought sandwiches for sure.
And as you can see, they are very easy to grab with your fingers and nibble.
First off, I haven’t actually uploaded a complete bento here in ages, so here is one! It features Japanese Scotch eggs, which you see in the near-most box. (The rest of the bento consists of cucumber slices with sea salt; a carrot and celeriac salad; onigiri with umeboshi filling; banana and mini-cupcakes. The whole bento is about 1100 calories - I intended it to be for 2, but ended up eating the whole thing by myself!)
The original Scotch egg  is a British pub snack, made by wrapping a hardboiled egg in sausage meat and deep frying it. The Japanese version uses a ground beef/pork meat mix, and is either deep fried, panfried or baked in the oven. I usually bake them or panfry them, though deep frying is best if you want perfectly round Scotch eggs.
Japanese style Scotch egg is considered to be rather retro in Japan these days. They are typical of yohshoku or youshoku, Japanese-style Western cooking, where foods from the West have been adapted (mostly in the post-WWII period up to the 1970s or so) to suit Japanese tastes and available ingredients. (More about yohshoku .)
I rather hesitated to post this recipe since it doesn’t quite fit the usual criteria for recipes here. It takes some time and effort to make, so it’s not practical for a busy morning. It’s not very low in calories. And, it doesn’t really freeze well, because frozen hard boiled egg turns rubbery (though I have frozen it on occasion), so it’s not even a good make-ahead staple item! Other than that though, it is quite delicious at room temperature, so very well suited for bentos. You can make a few and keep them in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Or make them for dinner and leave one for next day’s bento! That bright yellow and white egg against the brown of the meat is very cheery.
Update: If you found your way here from this entry on the Guardian Word Of Mouth blog , which in turn references an entry on the Chowhound forum , Scotch eggs are categorically not a staple of the Japanese New Year feast (osechi). It could just be that the Chowhound poster who said this just happened to encounter it at some time, in someone’s house. Hey, my aunt liked to serve mounds of vegetable tempura at New Year’s to feed a crowd easily, but tempura isn’t really a traditional part of New Year’s in most households either. Maybe your aunt likes to serve her special coconut cake or something at Christmas, but that doesn’t mean that coconut cake is a Christmas staple in most households. This is how erroneous information spreads on the web, I guess. Anyway….enjoy this very Japanese recipe with English roots!
Amounts are for 4 Scotch Eggs. Each is 450 to 550 calories, depending on how fatty the ground meat is and your cooking method. (You can make one, and pack just one half per bento. Even a half is quite substantial.)
If using an oven, preheat it to 200 °C / 400 °F.
Combine the meat, onion, raw egg, bread crumbs and seasonings in a bowl. Mix well with your hands until the meat gets paste-like and a bit sticky.
Divide the meat mixture into 4 portions. Flour the surface of a hard boiled egg.
Take one portion of meat and spread it out on your palm. Place a floured egg on top.
Carefully wrap the meat mixture around the egg.
Completely surround the egg with the meat mixture, and form into a ball with your hands.
Lightly flour the surface of the meat ball.
Repeat with the rest of the meat mixture and eggs.
If you’re going to bake these, put them spaced well apart on a lightly greased baking sheet (or line the baking sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper). Bake 20 minutes, then turn and bake another 15 to 20 minutes.
If pan frying, heat up a large frying pan with a little oil. Put in the Scotch eggs, and fry them on one side until browned, then turn to brown the other side. Keep turning until all sides are browned. Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pan with a lid or a piece of aluminum foil, and continue cooking until the meat is done, turning a couple of times. This takes about 20 minutes total.
If deep frying, do so in medium-hot oil that is deep enough so that the Scotch eggs are at least half immersed. Deep frying takes the least time, about 10 minutes, but it is the most caloric method, and cleanup is messy (as it is when you deep fry anything meaty).
When the Scotch eggs are done, let them cool down before packing in a bento box. Cut in half to expose the egg inside. I like to brush a little ketchup on the cut sides of the meat part and a little on the outside, but this is optional.
For various reasons, I’ve been staying away from eating bread recently. This has led me back to an old favorite that I hadn’t made in a while, rice burgers. Rice burgers are made with rice that is formed into two flat patties, then made into sandwiches. Here are my original instructions for making a rice burger . Rice burgers are great for people who like onigiri (rice balls)  but want a high filling vs. rice ratio.
One problem I had was that with some fillings, the rice would fall apart while I was eating the burger. I tried putting nori seaweed on the outside of the ‘bun’, as you would on the outside of an onigiri, to keep the rice together, but the rice would still fall apart on the inside if the filling was too loose or a bit oily or something. A kinpira burger is a really tasty vegan treat, that is great either with a complete bento or as an in-between meals snack. The ever popular Easy Carrot Kinpira , the classic burdock root and carrot kinpira , or the Forgotten Vegetable Kinpira  all work well. However, leftover kinpira does tend to a a bit limp, and the oil used to stir fry the vegetables can make the rice of the burger ‘buns’ fall apart easily.
I was talking about this to my sister back in Japan, and she mentioned that at MOS burger (the Japanese fast food chain that serves rice burgers) they put the nori seaweed on the inside of the rice patty, the side that goes next to the filling. Doh, why didn’t I think of that - so simple and obvious. So I gave it a try, with some leftover classic kinpira  that had gotten a bit soggy.
The nori not only held the rice of the ‘buns’ together, it acted as a sort of moisture and oil shield too, preventing the rice from falling apart while eating. Here’s the burger with a couple of bites taken out.
To put on the nori seaweed: Just roughly cut or rip a piece of nori that is the size of the ‘bun’. After forming the ‘bun’ following these instructions , press the nori onto one side. Pan-fry the ‘bun’ in a lightly oiled and/or non-stick pan on both sides. For an even sturdier ‘bun’, you can try putting nori on both sides of it, though I find a ‘bun’ covered with nori on both sides tends to be a bit harder to bite through.
(Note: every time I post a recipe with nori seaweed, someone always comments ‘waah I don’t like nori, what can I use instead?’ In this case, the stick-together-rice nature of the nori is the whole key, so you can’t substitute something else.)
Since I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes back in July when I was hospitalized with a zombie bite , I’ve been fairly diligent in sticking to a low-carb diet. My blood sugar levels have dropped to nearly normal levels in the last couple of weeks - this is probably due as much to the fact that my body is no longer having to fight infection, as much as the low-carb eating and medication I’m taking. Still, I think that sticking to the low-carb is helping.
I have loosened up a bit on the carbs - I’ve added back some rice, whole wheat pasta and so on, and the blood sugar is holding steady. Still, I am staying away from bread as much as possible, since for some reason bread makes me blood sugar spike more than rice. I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would, but I do get a yearning for a simple sandwich now and then.
I saw this method for making sandwich ‘bread’ in a Japanese low-carb cookbook  for diabetics. It’s basically to use deep fried kouya or koya tofu (dofu) , or freeze dried tofu, as the ‘bread’. I’ve tried this out a couple of times, modifying the original recipe - I shallow fry it rather than deep frying it for example, and use regular vegetable stock rather than dashi. Note that the method is similar to the fried frozen tofu nuggets .
I’ve already written in much detail about koya tofu or kouya dofu a while ago on Just Hungry . It’s freeze dried tofu. If you can get a hold of it, it’s a really handy thing to have in your pantry. Look for kouya dofu at Japanese grocery stores - general Asian or Chinese stores and Korean grocery stores may not have it (though Korean stores are worth a try). Here’s a package that I bought from Japan Centre  by mailorder. These are about 3 inches (8cm) square when dried. If you can only find small ‘soup’ sized kouya dofu, you can turn them into mini-sandwiches, but do try to find the bigger squares, which will end up really looking like sandwiches.
Soak the dried kouya dofu in plenty of cold water. They will turn soft in 5-10 minutes, depending on the brand. If you squeeze the middle and no longer feel any hard core, they are ready.
Here are a couple that have been soaked and squeezed out.
Bring up a pot of vegetable soup stock or dashi stock to a boil. It’s fine to use soup stock cubes or granules for this, though homemad stock would be better. I usually just use a stock cube. Drop the kouya dofu in, and simmer them for a few minutes. Drain well and press lightly to get rid of excess moisture. (Sorry, I for got to take a photo of this step…)
Heat up a frying pan with olive oil or butter. Fry the kouya dofu on both sides until golden brown and crispy. (The original recipe called for deep frying, but I’ve just shallow fried them to cut down a bit on the fat.)
Drain the fried kouya dofu, and pat the surface with kitchen paper towels to get rid of excess surface oil. Cut the tofu in half horizontally, to end up with two ‘slices. Here you see one tofu that’s been cut in half, and another that’s still whole.
And here’s a simple cucumber and ham sandwich made with the halved ‘bread’. I put a little mayonnaise on the inside too. It tastes surprisingly good - not really like bread, but you get the feel of a sandwich. And it’s about as low-carb as you can get, as long as you watch what you put inside!
Calorie-wise, the ‘bread’ for one sandwich is around 160 calories, depending on how much oil or butter you use. Butter tastes better than oil…but oil is healthier of course. (Note, I did try toasting them in a toaster oven, and they didn’t get as nicely golden brown on the outside. I might try spreading them lightly with butter and toasting them though.)
I did try making the ‘bread’ without simmering the kouya dofu in stock - frying the soaked and pressed out tofu directly. That works, though the ‘bread’ is very bland. It also tastes a lot more greasy than the simmered version for some reason. If you want to fill it with a sweet filling (good for gluten-free people, a no-no for low-carbers) like peanut butter and jelly, you might try the non-simmered version, and blot off the surface oil as much as possible.
It just occured to me that kouya dofu might form an interesting base for low-carb french toast! I’ll try that sometime and report back.
You can make these the night before and cut them in half, ready to be formed into sandwiches. They do get soft after a while though.
The texture of regular, frozen tofu as I explained how to make here  is a lot moister than freeze-dried tofu, and so not as bread-like. You can give it a try if you like of course, but I prefer to just make those cutlets or fried nuggets from frozen regular tofu.
Inarizushi  are excellent for bento, but they can be a bit high in calories since they are stuffed with sushi rice. The original version  with a 100% rice filling has about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of rice per bag, which makes each inarizushi about 110 to 130 calories. On the other hand these inarizushi are about 80 to 100 calories per piece. The secret is in the filling.
I’ve mixed about 1/4 cup of stewed hijiki seaweed with carrots and shiitake mushrooms  to every cup of sushi rice. The recipe for stewed hijiki is here  - I just added a couple of raw shiitake mushrooms to it, omitted the fried tofu, and chopped up the carrots quite finely. I also used brown rice instead of white, for even more fibre and nutrition. An all-inarizushi bento with extra ingredients in the filling is, in fact, a pretty nutritionally complete vegan meal.
Hijiki and shiitake have almost no calories and are high in fibre and various minerals (more about hijiki ), and carrots don’t have a lot of calories either, so adding them to the rice mixture is a good thing all around. Try mixing other things into the rice stuffing too!
Inarizushi freezes very well, because the moist tofu skin protects the rice inside. Since I’ve stocked up on some Lock & Lock boxes , I’ve made batches of inarizushi and frozen them 3 or 4 at a time in 360ml boxes.
I’ve tried defrosting them in three ways:
Stewed hijiki keeps for about a week in the refrigerator, and also freezes very well. You can freeze it in small portions and then just pop a portion in a bento as a side dish, or mix it into rice, and so on. You can also mix some into a basic tamagoyaki to add texture, fibre and flavor. Here I used about 1/2 tablespoon for a 1 egg tamagoyaki .
Little burgers made with meat with or without tofu , canned tuna , or even beans  are a perennial bento standby - they remain rather juicy even when cold, and are quite economical too. Plus, they are great make-ahead items, to stash for a few days in the refrigerator or for about a month in the freezer.
This version is a variation on the basic Japanese style hamburger . Japanese style hamburgers are often made with a 50/50 mixture of ground pork and beef, but you can use 100% beef as I’ve done here. Some chopped up bean sprouts are added for extra texture, as well as to lower the overall fat/calorie count. You can make a big ‘half-pound’ size burger with this mixture but it will have less calories than an all-meat burger. Adding bean sprouts also makes the burgers more economical. In Japan, meat is expensive while bean sprouts are cheap, so bean sprouts help to keep the household budget trim as well as your waistline!
Here’s one split in the middle, so you can see the bean sprouts. Granted, they do look a bit weird, but trust me, these burgers taste great hot or cold.
I would suggest making a batch of the hamburger mixture, having big ones for dinner and reserving a few little ones for bento the next day or later. You can freeze these burgers either before or after cooking. I prefer to cook them and freeze them, so they can just be reheated/defrosted and are ready to go.
Makes about 24-30 small-to-mini sized burgers. Or you can divide the mixture into two and use half to form 2 big burgers for dinner, and the rest into mini burgers.
Sauté the onion in a little oil until transparent.
Moisten the breadcrumbs with the milk or water (you can also use fresh breadcrumbs, in which case you don’t need to ooisten them. Use a bit more than the 1/2 cup called for in that case.)
In a bowl mix the meat, onion, breadcrumbs, egg, salt and pepper together with your hands until a bit sticky. Add the bean sprouts, and mix in well.
Form into patties. Follow the directions for basic hambaagu  for cooking and optionally saucing the burgers.
If you are going to freeze the cooked burgers, cook them without sauce, and allow them to cool down. Put on a single layer on a plate or tray and freeze, then pack into freezer-safe bags or containers. They’ll keep for a month. To use, defrost in the microwave (or overnight in the fridge), then heat up over low-medium heat in a non-dry stick frying pan; when heated through, you can add the sauce as per the hambaagu instructions if you like. For bento-use burgers it’s best to cook the sauce down until sticky, so it doesn’t leak out of your box during transit. You can of course optionally pack a separate bottle of sauce along.
I find it’s best to heat the burgers through in a pan rather than heating them up in a microwave for the best texture. If you’re in a hurry though, just let rock-hard frozen burgers partially defrost (in the fridge or microwave), and pack them cold in your box; they will have defrosted by lunchtime - and yes, unless you leave your box in a hot room and you follow basic bento safety tips, they should be fine.
Whenever I put up a burger - or in Japanese-English, “baagu” recipe, someone invariably pipes up that they aren’t ‘burgers’. This is quite true: they aren’t American style beef burgers. If you watched the Top Chef All Stars season that aired a few months ago, you may have noticed that Fabio, who is from Italy, utterly screwed up what the (American) judges’ idea of what a ‘burger’ should be, and thus got eliminated. Instead of making pure beef batties with a salty crust, which is what they expected, he made sort of meatballs, or what used to be called hamburger steak (this only seems to live on in American food culture as the frozen dinner standby, the Salisbury steak). This style of ‘burger’ is what prevails in Japan, where often the American style all-meat hamburger is called ‘hambaagaa’ to differentiate itself from the ‘hambaagu’. American style all-meat burgers do not do well in bentos, as anyone who’s eaten a cold Big Mac can attest to. The meat gets sort of grey and sad and dry with congealed grease, the juices having run out to the bun, making the bread soggy and really sad. With the Japanese ‘hambaagu’ style of burger, even cold ones are perky and tasty, especially with a little sauce on them.
I’ve loaded up the recipe archives  with several chicken recipes, so now it’s time to add some more vegan  and vegetarian  recipes! To kick things off, here is a versatile, very tasty and very nutritious tofu based burger.
I haven’t done much in the garden this year, but I did rather randomly sew a whole lot of ‘cut and come again’ type greens seeds. Despite not taking much care of them, at the moment we are inundated with loads of slightly insect and slug-nibbled arugula or rucola, Swiss chard and other greens.
These vegan burgers are a very nice way to use up lots of greens like these in ways other than in salads. They are light yet very flavorful, so that even the most hardened carnivore is likely to gobble them up. They are good plain, or with a dipping sauce, and are great for bentos.
Makes about 12 to 15 small/mini burgers.
To prepare the greens: Cook the greens in boiling water for a couple of minutes until they are limp. Thicker leaves might have to go in first, then thinner leaves. Drain then plunge the greens in cold water. Drain, and gather up the greens into clumps and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Chop up fairly finely.
To prepare the tofu: If you have a big thick block, slice it in half lengthwise. Put on a microwave safe plate and microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes. Drain in a sieve, then wrap up in paper towels to draw off excess moisture. Alternatively if you don’t have a microwave oven, boil the tofu for about 3 minutes, drain well, then put into a sieve. Put a weight on top such as a bowl full of water, and let drain for about 10 minutes. Draining the tofu well is the key to having a burger mixture that is not too watery to hold together. (This holds true for any tofu-based mixture like this.)
Sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil until the onion is limp and transparent. Add the mushrooms, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are fairly dry and there are no puddles of moisture around. Add the chopped up greens and sauté briefly for a couple of minutes.
Put all the ingredients except the olive oil into a bowl, and mix very well with your hands, until the mixture is almost paste-like rather than crumbly. If it seems too wet to you add a bit more breadcrumbs and mix well again.
Heat up a non-stick frying pan or griddle and add a little olive oil. Form the burger mixture into small patties (put a little oil on your hands if the mixture sticks too much), and panfry with medium-high heat on both sides until golden brown. You can eat the burgers plain, or with a sauce - ketchup is fine!
For burgers on a bun: If you form this mixture into big patties, it might fall apart when you try to turn it. Try making small burgers and arranging 2 or 3 on your bun, and don’t forget to add some sauce.
As I’ve stated above, the key to making a mixture that stays together is to drain as much moisture as you can from the tofu. For this reason, you must use firm or extra-firm tofu, not silken or soft tofu, for this recipe.
For maximum flavor, try to use peppery greens as at least half of your greens mixture.
You can use any kind of mushrooms. (And yes you do need mushrooms for the texture. If you don’t like mushrooms or greens, or tofu, this is not the recipe for you.)
Make ‘meatballs’ (or very small slightly flattened burgers) with the mixture, and fry them until golden brown. Add to a tomato sauce (homemade or from a jar, whichever you prefer). Just stir them into your sauce near the end of your cooking time and simmer briefly, or they will gradually crumble away in the sauce. They are definitely not meat, but are still pretty good. If you’re not a vegan, adding some grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese to the mixture will make the ‘meatballs’ richer and better.
The last recipe in my chicken mini-marathon is this so-simple yet tasty miso marinated and pan-fried or grilled chicken. I’ve again used chicken thighs, but this works well with breast meat as well as other meats such as pork and beef, and fish too. Sweet-salty miso marinades like this are quite standard in Japanese cooking. (See New Potatoes with Sweet-Spicy Miso , over on Just Hungry.)
For every 1 medium to large chicken thigh (or 2 small chicken thighs, totalling about 70-80g / 2.5-3 oz or so) boneless chicken, use:
You can use skinned or unskinned chicken here. Cut the meat into bite-size pieces. Mix the marinating ingredients, and spread over the meat (your hands are the best tools for this). Wrap tightly and let marinate in the refrigerator overnight. If you don’t have time for this, let it marinate at least 10-15 minutes, and massag the meat a bit with your hands to help the flavors permeate.
To cook, heat up a non-stick frying pan or a cast iron grill; brush the latter thinly with a little cooking oil to prevent sticking. Panfry or grill over medium heat for about 4 minutes on each side, until the chicken is cooked through and the miso is darkly caramelized.
Let cool before packing into your bento box.
I have many more bento-friendly chicken recipes, but I’ll give them a rest for a while and turn my attention to other types of ingredients. In the next few posts I’ll show how I use these different chicken recipes in bento boxes.
[Update: Notes] I’ve gotten some notes from people, and seen some blog posts, about the miso flavor being too strong. The key here is the saltiness of the miso you are using. If it is a very salty type, you will want to cut down on the amount of miso - even down to 1 tsp. per chicken thigh rather than 1 Tbs. Taste your miso - if it’s mild enough that you can probably eat it as-is, or maybe spread on a slice of cucumber (one of my favorite snacks, by the way) then use the amount specified. If it’s too salty, cut down on the amount.
Something for the omnivores! Pork is the most popular meat in Japanese cooking, but so far I haven’t posted any (non-bacon) pork recipes on Just Bento, though I do have a couple over on Just Hungry that are bento-friendly, such as tonkatsu  (breaded and fried pork cutlets). This classic sweet-salty, intensely flavored miso marinated pork is really well suited to bentos. It is similar to miso chicken , but a bit more complex in flavor.
This makes enough for 2 to 3 bentos.
Time required: 5-10 minutes to marinade, some hours (up to 24) to marinate, and 5-8 minutes to cook.
If your pork cutlets are too thick (they should be about 5mm / about 1/5th of an inch thick), pound them out a bit with the side of a heavy knife or a meat tenderizer until they are thin enough.
Put all the ingredients except for the pork in a plastic ziplock bag. Mix the ingredients together by massaging the bag with your hands.
Put the pork cutlets in the bag, and close the bag up, expelling as much air as you can when you do so. Then, massage the marinade over the pork so that the pork is completely covered. See the photos below.
(Note: I’m using a method that keeps the hands as clean as possible, since the miso marinade is a bit messy. Of course if you object to the use of plastic bags, you can combine the marinade in a bowl or other container, then spread it over the pork with a spoon and your fingers.)
Make sure the bag is completely closed, and leave the meat to marinate for several hours or overnight. You should not marinate it much more than 24 hours though, or the salt in the miso will draw out the moisture of the pork too much and make it very dry.
When you are ready to cook the pork, pull them out of the bag, squeezing off as much of the miso as you can. The meat will have turned dark and rather transculent.
For bentos, cut the meat into bitesized pieces, and fry in a frying pan with just a little oil over medium heat for just 2-3 minutes or so on each side. Watch the meat so that it doesn’t burn (the miso on the surface may turn a bit black, but that’s ok.) When done, it should be cooked through but still juicy, and the surface should be a burnished brown.
Freezing: Put it in the freezer as soon as you put the meat into the miso marinade. The freezing process seems to retard the penetration of the marinade, so that it doesn’t draw too much moisture out of the meat. Thaw the meat marinade and all in the refrigerator the day before you intend to use it. You may want to freeze individual cutlets wrapped separately, so that you can pull out just as many as you need at a time.
If you don’t want to deal with messy miso in the morning, you can squeeze the meat out of the miso-marinade bag the night before,and keep it covered on a plate ready to just cook in a frying pan.
As I noted at the top of this article, pork is the most popular meat (not including poultry) in Japan, far more so than beef. In the town where my mother grew up, which is only about an hour from central Tokyo in Saitama prefecture, the local butcher didn’t sell beef until sometime in the 1980s, but he always had pork. (Lamb, goat and so on are barely known in Japan except as imports.) Pork even has a reputation for being quite healthy, since it contains the B-family of vitamins as well as plenty of collagen (which is supposed to keep your skin looking young.) The further south you go, the more popular pork is. Okinawan cuisine features pork very prominently.
One of the things I love about the new forum  is the members sharing their favorite recipes. Recently, Jiza, who is from Spain, shared a recipe for a classic Spanish tortilla . (A tortilla in Spain is a potato omelette, not the flat flour or corn bread or wrapper that’s known as tortilla in North America. That kind of tortilla comes from Mexico.)
Jiza specifies that the potato slices should be almost ‘boiled’ in oil. She and Loretta, another Spanish member of our community, agree that parboiling the potatoes is not an option. Loretta recommended slicing the potatoes very thinly and cooking them in the pan with a lid on, to steam-cook them.
That’s when I thought, why not make the potato pieces even smaller by grating them, as they are for a classic Swiss rösti? Rösti are crispy potato pancakes, made with shredded raw or parboiled potatoes. I am firmly in the raw-potato side when it comes to rösti, since I think that the creamy-starchy texture of raw potato cooked in butter or oil is far superior. The advantage of shredding the potatoes for speeding up the cooking process is quite obvious.
Anyway, first I made a proper tortilla following Jiza’s recipe  to the letter, with 5mm (about 1/4th inch) thick potato slices cooked in olive oil until tender. The resulting tortilla, especially when cold, was delicious. But, as Jiza said it does take about 30 minutes of cooking time, plus the time it takes to peel and slice the potatoes.
So next, I tried it with shredded potatoes. I could get by with a lot less olive oil for cooking the potatoes, and the total cooking time was reduced to about 15 minutes (plus the time it takes to shred the potatoes). The taste was just as good as the original I think. It’s great hot, but really seems to develop a wonderful flavor when cold. Perfect for bento!
So then, here’s my take on the Spanish tortilla, with a small Swiss influence.
This makes 2 servings; each serving is about 380 to 450 calories each, depending on how much oil you use.
Equipment needed: A small (20cm / 8 inch or so) non-stick or cast iron frying pan; another frying pan or a large plate; spatula; grater
Peel the potatoes and grate them coarsely with a grater or mandoline or food processor. Wrap the pile of grated potato in a few layers of paper towels, and squeeze out the excess moisture. This makes the potatoes cook quicker.
Heat up a frying pan with about 1 Tbs. of olive oil. Put in the squeezed out grated potato, and sprinkle a little salt over them. Cook over medium heat with a lid on until the potatoes are soft and a just a bit crispy. Take out and drain off any excess oil.
Beat the eggs with 1/2 tsp. salt, freshly ground black pepper. Add the cooked potato and mix well.
Heat up the frying pan again with about 1/2 Tbs. of olive oil. Pour in the egg mixture. Cook, uncovered over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the bottom is crispy and the top is almost set. Flip the omelette over - you could use a big wide spatula, or two spatulas, or flip it over onto a plate or a second frying pan inverted over the pan. Cook on the other side for another 5 minutes until the omelette is set.
Let cool before packing in a bento box. You could cut it into wedges, as I did here, or into small squares. The omelette alone is just about a meal unto itself, so I just put some fresh, unadorned mâche or lamb’s lettuce with it. The subtle nutty flavor of the mâche goes so well with the cold, hearty omelette. You could also use it as a filling for a very substantial sandwich.
You can make this the night before. I haven’t tried freezing it, so I can’t say if it hold up well there.
Both Jiza and Loretta mention a sort of ‘student version’ of tortilla , which uses potato chips mixed into the egg! I haven’t tried it, but you might want to give it a go, especially if you are a student with limited cooking space. (I actually may try it sometime myself…it sounds intriguing.)
Here are the Mona Lisa potatoes I mentioned earlier.
Inside, they are regular potatoes, but that ghostly white skin is so striking, isn’t it?
And some mâche or lamb’s lettuce:
Both taken at one of my favorite places in the world, the Marché Agricole (farmer’s market) in Velleron , just a few days ago.
This week, I’m aiming to make all of my bentos vegan or vegetarian. One reason is simply to have more vegan/vegetarian bento recipes up here! But the other more personal reasons are that, first of all, vegan/vegetarian meals often cost less than meat-centric meals, especially here in Switzerland where even the inexpensive cuts of meat and poultry are not so. The other is just for health; I often feel so much better when I’ve had a vegan bento.
This fried rice is a meal unto itself. There are some finely chopped vegetables as well as hijiki seaweed, and high quality protein in the form of brown rice and natto , those infamous sticky fermented soy beans. I have been hesitant about featuring natto-based recipes here or on Just Hungry, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that quite a few people actually do like it . Natto is an excellent and easily digestible source of protein, and when it’s cooked like this all of the gooey stickiness of it disappears. If you prefer though, you can substitute crumbled tempeh or even shelled edamame.
This makes enough for 2 to 3 bentos. Total calories: about 650.
The key to success with this recipe is to maintain a high heat at all times under your pan.
Chop up all the vegetables.
Heat up a wok or large non-stick frying pan with 1/2 of the vegetable oil. Add the green onions and the vegetables, and sauté until the vegetables are a little limp.
Add the natto or tempeh, and 1 Tbs. of soy sauce. Sauté until the stickiness of the natto has dissipated. Add the sesame oil.
Add the rest of the oil and the rice. Stir-fry until the rice and the other ingredients are evenly mixed. Push the mixture to one side, and add the rest of the soy sauce to the bare surface of the pan. Add the hijiki if you have it. Stir-fry a couple of minutes more until everything looks and smells toasty. Season with pepper (probably needed) and salt (probably not needed - taste some before adding!); let cool before packing in a bento box.
Sprinkle with some toasted sesame seeds or gomashio .
I always have a bit of a conundrum as to where I should post a new recipe. I’ve more or less settled on this formula: if it’s particularly suited for bentos, the recipe goes here on Just Bento, and if not, it goes over on Just Hungry . The exception to this is if it’s a sort of foundation Japanese recipe, that applies to a wide variety of recipes - then it goes on Just Hungry. Got that? If you want to be sure not to miss anything, I hope you decide to just follow both sites. ^_^
The negimiso  or onion-miso sauce recipe I posted over on Just Hungry last week belongs to the third category - it’s a foundation type recipe for Japanese cooking - but it’s really well suited to bento dishes. Here are three of my favorites - all quick to make if you have a batch of negimiso on hand.
For all of the recipes here, I’ve used variation no. 1 of the negimiso recipes , using a light brown miso and cooked to a loose-sauce state. I did use a sugar substitute for the sugar, but you can use regular sugar (which will be better). Any of the negimiso variations should work just as well.
For one onigiri:
Yaki onigiri is a filled or unfilled onigiri rice ball  that’s grilled until crispy on the outside, then coated with some sort of sauce. Negimiso is perfect for yaki onigiri.
For yaki onigiri, make sure your rice ball is quite firm, or it may fall apart. Don’t put salt on the surface, since the negimiso is salty enough. Filling the rice ball is optional. The negimiso alone will add plenty of flavor, so if you use a very salty filling like umeboshi, use less than you normally would, e.g. half an umeboshi.
The first step with any yaki onigiri is to pre-cook the rice ball to crisp and firm up the surface before applying sauce. The traditional way to do this is to use a wire grill that’s meant for grilling mochi cakes or fish, but you may not have one of these. Ridged grill pans don’t work too well either, because the ridges are too big and rough for a ball of rice.
There are two quick ways to accomplish this pre-cooking. One is to pop the rice ball into a toaster oven, and toast it on both sides. The other is to just cook the rice ball on each side for a few minutes in a dry non-stick frying pan (or a regular frying pan with a thin film of oil or sprayed with non-stick spray) over medium-high heat. I’ve used the frying pan method here for this brown rice and zakkoku (multigrain)  onigiri.
Once the surface has crisped up, the rice ball is far less liable to fall apart when you apply the sauce. Smear about 2 teaspoons of negimiso on the surface. The negimiso is quite potent, so you only need to put it on one side. Flip the miso-spread side down onto the pan, and just let it cook for a few seconds. If you let it sit miso-side down for too long it will burn. (If you are using a toaster oven or even a regular oven, just grill it on top for a few minutes until the miso starts to turn color.)
This negimiso yaki onigiri can be eaten hot as a snack or at room temperature in a bento.
Plan-ahead note: If you have leftover rice, form it into plain, unsalted onigiri and wrap well in plastic wrap. Freeze. To make yaki onigiri, just defrost one of your frozen onigiri and turn it into a yaki onigiri.
This is something I came up with when I was trying to make a yaki onigiri and it fell apart in the pan. I love the combination of crispy rice and the salty-sweet flavor of the negimiso. I actually make this more now than yaki onigiri!
Spread pre-cooked rice thinly in a non-stick frying pan, or a frying pan that’s been spread lightly with oil or sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. You can add a little sesame oil for flavor if you like, but only add a tiny bit - you don’t want this to get greasy. Leave the rice to cook over medium-high heat - resist the urge to stir it around! It will turn crispy on the bottom. Once it has become crispy, add about 2-3 teaspoons of negimiso per cup of rice, and stir around well to distribute the negimiso evenly. Let cook before packing into a bento box.
Negimiso is a great foil for the blandness of tofu. This is a very nice vegan protein dish that omnivores should like too, since it’s packed with umami.
Use extra-firm tofu that has been well drained - see using tofu for bentos . Cut into bite size pieces, and put in a single layer in a non-stick frying pan, or a frying pan that’s been spread lightly with oil or sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. You can add a little sesame oil or even butter for flavor if you like. Turn the tofu over after a few minutes to cook the other side. They should look like this.
Spread one side of the tofu pieces with negimiso, and turn over to cook for a few minutes. Again, the negimiso is potent so you only need to spread it on one side.
Pack these tofu nuggets with a plain, bland accompaniment like plain rice, not with the yaki onigiri or rice above, because that becomes too much of a good thing at once.
There are some dishes that are so basic to make that they barely ever get mentioned in cookbooks. Noriben (the word comes from nori and bento mashed together) is one of them. It’s a really basic bento, consisting of just 3 or 4 ingredients: rice, nori seaweed, soy sauce, and often dried bonito flakes. It’s tasty and inexpensive. It was standby for my mother when there was nothing else in the house except for a few pantry staples, and she had to make bento for two of the kids plus my father.
Whether or not you’d like noriben or not depends on whether you like the sea-taste of nori and soy sauce. It’s one of those things that Japanese people tend to think that only a Japanese person could really love. It makes most Japanese people feel very nostalgic.
For the sake of nutritional balance you might want to have other, not too salty things in your bento box with noriben, such as steamed vegetables, chicken, fried tofu, or a piece of grilled fish.
You will need:
Sprinkle the bonito flakes with a little soy sauce and mix with a fork or chopsticks. Rip up the nori into small pieces.
Fill the bento box about halfway up with rice. Put a layer of bonito flakes on evenly on top. Sprinkle with a little more soy sauce if it looks too dry.
Put a layer o nori seaweed on top evenly. If the nori tends to fly around, press down lightly with moistened fingers.
Repeat with another layer of rice, bonito flakes, and then a final layer of nori.
For an even simpler version, omit the bonito flakes. After topping the first layer of rice with nori, sprinkle with enough soy sauce to moisten the nori but not soak the rice through. Repeat with another layer of rice and nori, and sprinkle with soy sauce again.
Unlike the usual procedure where you let the rice cool down before closing the bento box, you can close up a noriben while it’s still a bit warm. The nori will become rather moist, but that’s all good - it’s quite delicious that way.
One word of warning: be sure to check your front teeth after consuming a noriben - you may be sporting a few black spots on your smile.
The photo at top has a smiley face made of takuan pickles, which is strictly optional.
Okowa （おこわ）is the name given to a type of rice dish in which sticky glutinous rice is mixed with all kinds of vegetables or meat and steamed. It’s related to Chinese sticky rice, which you might have had as part of a dim sum meal. If the rice mix is steamed in small packets, wrapped in a bamboo leaf, it’s called chimaki. You can mix any number of things in with the rice to make it a complete meal in itself.
The rice used is not the usual Japanese rice - it’s short grain glutinous rice, often sold as mochi rice （餅米）. (See Looking at rice  for the differences between rices.) It’s the kind of rice that mochi rice cakes are made from. When cooked, it becomes very sticky - the grains cling together much more than regular medium-grain rice does. Because of this, anything made with it is very filling. (Some people like to mix mochi rice and regular rice together, but I like the full-on stickiness of all mochi rice.)
By mixing a lot of vegetables and protein (the gu) in the rice, okowa can become a complete meal unto itself. I like to make it with all-vegetable ingredients or with added meat, depending on my mood and what I plan to make besides it. The base is the same though. Okowa is meant to be eaten at room temperature, makes great onigiri, and freezes very well, so it’s a nice change of pace for bentos from regular rice.
Okowa makes me feel very nostalgic somehow - it reminds me of my grandmother. It’s an old fashioned, very Japanese dish.
I’ve given two methods of cooking this: in a rice cooker, and in a microwave. Either way, it turns out great.
The things you add to it - vegan version:
The things you add to it - omnivore version:
Wash the mochi rice as per the instructions here . Strain into a sieve or colander and let it sit a while to drain away all the water.
Mix the sesame oil with the drained rice. Add the other ‘base’ ingredients, mix well and let it steep for at least 20 minutes.
In the meantime, dice the carrots, chop up the shiitake mushrooms, finely chop the ginger, and cut up the fried tofu skins. If you’re doing the meat version, chop up the meat if needed, and chop up the green onions.
If you’re cooking this in a rice cooker, put the rice, liquid and the ‘things you add to it’ into a rice cooker, and cook using the regular setting. When it’s cooked, fluff it up well and take it out of the cooker. Do not keep okowa in the rice cooker the Keep Warm setting - it will start to go funny rather fast.
If you’re using a microwave, put the rice, liquid and the ‘things you add’ in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic film. Microwave on HIGH for 12 minutes. Take out, and mix well. Re-cover, and microwave on HIGH for another 3 minutes. Mix well and recover. Let it sit, covered, for at least 10 minutes. (This method was featured on a recent issue of “Today’s Cooking Beginners” （きょうの料理ビギナーズ); they nuked it for 12 minutes - then 2 minutes - 2 minutes, but I found that 12 minutes - 3 minutes works fine.)
Let the okowa cool to room temperature. You can use it as-is, garnished with a little pickled red ginger as shown in the photo. You can also make onigiri (no filling needed) - just wet your hand slightly and form into balls, or use the plastic wrap method  (without the salt). The rice will stick together very well.
You can freeze okowa - I like to make them into onigiri first. Then you can take one one onigiri at a time.
You mix in any kind of vegetable and/or meat combination with the basic rice and flavorings. Some traditional additions include fresh mushrooms of all kinds, boiled bamboo shoot, precooked chestnuts, sweet potato, various mountain greens, and so on. On the meaty side you could add roast duck, char siu pork, finely diced sausage…
You can also vary the flavor by using another oil instead of sesame, using chicken stock instead of the dashi, and so on. Experiment!
I have been trying to incorporate more dark leafy green vegetables into our meals lately, not only for health reasons, but for the taste too. Spinach and Swiss chard are standards for me, but lately I’ve been playing around a lot with the kale family and cavolo nero, a type of dark leafed, loose cabbage. Kale is a bit tough, so I like to blanch it before stir frying it, adding to soups, and so on.
This is a complete meal-in-one recipe, that also cooks in one pan for less cleanup. It’s great hot or cold, so it makes an interesting non-traditional bento. Make it for dinner, and bring leftovers for lunch! Besides the kale, it also features tiny new potatoes that are sold around here at this time — they are popular for Christmas dinners. New potatoes have a subtle iron taste that complements the similar taste present in kale. If you can’t find new potatoes where your are, substitute firm, ‘waxy’ type potatoes rather than the floury baked potato type. Dried cranberries are added for a touch of sweetness, which fits very well with the kale. And, it has chunky bacon or panchetta or lardons in it, because you know, everything is better with bacon.
This recipe is featured in Bento No. 70 .
Makes 4 servings, enough for dinner for two plus bentos the day after
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Wash the kale, and rip off the leaves. If you have very long leaves you may want to cut them in half or thirds so they fit in the pot. Put the kale in the boiling water and cook for 4-5 minutes. Drain, and refresh under cold running water. Take bunches of the cooked kale and squeeze out as much water out of them as you can. Chop up finely. (You may want to do this part in advance to save time - the chopped kale will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator.)
In the meantime, scrub the new potatoes and cut them into half. If you’re using regular potatoes, peel and cut into chunks.
Put the bacon cubes in a large frying pan, and fry them over medium heat until they are crispy-brown on the outside. Take the bacon out, wipe out most of the bacon fat with a paper towel if there’s a lot there, and add the garlic and potatoes. Saute for 5-6 minutes over high heat, until the potatoes are lightly browned. Add 2 cups of water to the pan, and put a lid on. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Add the chopped kale, and stir and season with salt, pepper and soy sauce. Add the cranberries, and put the lid back on. Let it cook over medium-low heat for another 10 minutes. The garlic cloves should be soft enough to just mash up at this point; do so and stir it into the kale.
Serve hot or cold. If packing in a bento box, let it cool first.
I love chicken wings, especially for bentos. They are small and much easier to pack than legs, and come with a readymade handle, especially the drumettes (the thickest part). So I try various recipes for them. Many of the tastiest ways of cooking chicken wings involve deep-frying. I don't know about you, but as much as I love fried chicken, especially karaage , I do not like deep frying too often.
This is an oven baked version that tastes very fried-chicken like, with a crispy finish that stays that way for a while even when cold. I've given them a spicy-savory-sweet flavor; the spice comes from gochujang, a miso-like Korean chili pepper paste that I have a serious crush on. (See my previous recipe using gochujang .) They are of course, perfect for bentos. I'd suggest having some for dinner and setting aside some for bentos. You may have to hide the ones set aside from midnight fridge raiders though.
Oven baked spicy Asian flavored chicken wings that are great hot or cold.
Prep time: 15 min :: Cook time: 20 min :: Total time: 35 min - does not include marinating time
Yield: 24 pieces
Serving size: 3 to 6 pieces
If you don't have sake substitute dry sherry or even white wine. If you can't do alcohol use unsweetened apple juice instead, but it will have a different flavor. Use just 1/2 tablespoon of sugar if using apple juice.
If you really like spicy, serve with a dollop of gochujang on the side to smear onto the wings.
The wings will last for a couple of days in the refrigerator, and up to a month frozen. They will lose the crispiness over time, but you can re-crisp them by putting them in a preheated oven for a few minutes. They taste nice even if they aren't crisp though.
(Below for search engine purposes)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: May 02, 2013
Type: Asian, chicken
Chicken Karaage  or Japanese/Chinese style deep fried chicken (here’s the recipe I posted for it 6 (!) years ago ) is a great bento item, since it’s flavorful and non-greasy even when cold. But many people find deep frying in general, and deep frying in the morning in particular, quite intimidating. Besides, even if it is lighter than your regular southern fried chicken, I guess many people find it hard to justify eating fried foods for lunch at any time.
To address both those concerns, here’s a recipe for pan-fried crispy chicken that uses precooked chicken or turkey. Dark meat works best (though you can try it with white meat), so this is a way to use up your leftover Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey thighs and legs, leaving the white meat for late night sandwiches with cranberry sauce and such treats. You just need enough oil in the pan to prevent the surface of the chicken from sticking, and to give it a nice crisp finish. Since the meat is already cooked, there are no worries about leaving it in long enough to cook through - it just has to heat up.
To add crispiness, fiber, and vegetable-goodness to the chicken, I’ve used some thinly shaved or sasagaki cut burdock root (gobo) . You could use any hard root vegetable instead of gobo - carrot should work fine, parsnip or salsify would be great. Even sweet potato should work.
Makes 10 to 12 nuggets
The key to success with this dish is to have chunks of chicken or turkey that are cold (refrigerated) and firm. Overcooked meat that’s already falling apart will turn out rather messy, though it may still taste good.
Combine the chicken or turkey chunks with the soy sauce, ginger and sake in a bowl. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator for 1/2 an hour if possible; if you’re short on time, just massage the flavors in with your hands a bit and proceed.
Add the shredded vegetables and cornstarch to the bowl. Toss or stir to coat the chunks all over with the cornstarch and the vegetables, pressing the coating onto the pieces of chicken or turkey. You may end up with some chunks of only vegetable, but don’t worry, just cook those along with the nuggets.
Heat up a large frying pan over high heat with enough oil to coat the bottom to a depth of about 1/8th of an inch (.2 cm or so). Add the nuggets, spread apart so they’re not touching, to the pan. Cook until golden brown and crispy (2-3 minutes), turn over and repeat. You may need to turn them over one or two times more to get the desired degree of crispy-golden-brownness.
Remove the nuggets from the pan and drain well on paper towels. Eat as is piping hot, or let cool to room temperature before packing into a bento box.
This does taste better when eaten fairly soon after it’s made, so I would suggest not making it earlier than the night before you intend to eat it.
Shameless plug: you can find more panfried chicken nugget recipes in The Just Bento Cookbook  ^_^;
Speaking of cold turkey breast with cranberry sauce sandwiches, although I am emphatically not a fan of roast turkey (yes I’ve tried it brined, fried, Turduckened , etc. - don’t try to convince me otherwise, won’t work) I do love cold turkey sandwiches. Being that I’m in Japan this week I will miss out on that this year, as well as my favorite Thanksgiving side, which comes from Paula Dean. It consists of chilled canned cranberry sauce, the kind that plops out in one gelationous lump, sliced into rounds and sandwiched with thick slices of Philadelphia cream cheese. I know it sounds very suspicious but it’s so good.
Happy Thanksgiving (and feasting) to everyone in the U.S.! ^_^
Although I use chicken quite a lot in my bentos, I realized that I have very few bento-appropriate chicken recipes up here on Just Bento, or even over on Just Hungry . I am going to rectify this situation over the next few days, so if you are a chicken fan, stay tuned!
The first chicken recipe is one I have made for years and years - tender, lemony white meat nuggets that are infused with lemon. They very quick to make, good hot or cold, and versatile. They are pan fried, not deep-fried, so they are not crispy on the outside, but are delicious nevertheless. You can use them in a rice based bento, with noodles, or as a sandwich filling. They can be eaten as-is with a cocktail stick or the fingers too.
This makes about 15-16 nuggets, enough for 2 large bentos or 3-4 smaller ones. Cooking time: about 10 minutes.
Blot the moisture off the chicken breast meat with paper towels and cut into bite sized pieces. Put into a bowl and season with salt (go light on the salt, especially if you plan to drizzle on some soy sauce later), pepper, and the juice of half a lemon and toss well. Leave to marinate for a couple of minutes, then drain off the excess moisture.
In the meantime, heat up a large frying pan with the olive oil.
Coat the chicken pieces well with cornstarch. Lay each piece flat in the pan, taking care they don’t overlap. Let cook over high heat until crispy and golden brown (about 3-4 minutes), then turn over and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes until browned on the other side. Optionally drizzle a tiny amount of soy sauce over the chicken to give them a caramelized color. Finish off by squeezing the juice from the other half of the lemon over it all.
Take off the heat, and let cool before packing into your bento box. If you want it even more lemony, pack a lemon wedge alongside the nuggets.
Try using white wine, sake, mirin or Masala wine instead of the lemon juice, or in addition to it.
Komachibu is a small round form of yakifu, grilled and dried fu. Fu is a traditional Japanese form of wheat gluten, that is a good vegan protein source. (Read more about fu  and how it actually preceeds seitan.) If you like to use seitan, you’ll probably like fu as well. Komachibu is available at any reasonably stocked Japanese grocery store (in the dried food section).
Komachibu are about the size of a large coin. When they are reconstituted in water, they swell up to about the size of a small scallop (they do shrink back down a bit when cooked with this method). The texture is very soft, like very very tender scallops. I don’t pretend that they are as good as real, fresh scallops of course, but if you’ve given up shellfish for dietary reasons, these are not bad at all. And, they are terrific in a bento box, vegan or not.
I’ve given two variations, one with a Japanese flavor and one with a more Western/European flavor. Note that the key is to add in lots of umami to the bland komachibu, via the mushroom liquid, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce and so on.
Cooking time for either method is about 5-10 minutes (longer for the European method since you have to chop the shallots and so on), not including the mushroom soaking time.
Soak the dried mushrooms in about 2 cups of water, preferably overnight. You will be using the soaking liquid here, not the mushrooms themselves. Reserve the mushrooms for another time in the remaining soaking liquid and use up within a couple of days.
Soak the komachibu in cold water to cover until soft. This only takes a few minutes. Drain off the water and squeeze out the komachibu gently.
In a small frying pan, put in a little olive oil and the shallots and ginger. Sauté until the shallots are transparent. Add about 1 cup of the mushroom soaking liquid, wine, thyme and the Worcestershire sauce, and add the komachibu. Let simmer until the liquid is almost all gone. Turn a couple of times that both sides of the komachibu get caramelized. Season with a little salt and pepper, and garnish with the parsley (optional).
Serve warm or at room temperature. If serving warm, it’s nice to drizzle a little olive oil on top.
Soak the mushrooms as for the European style, preferably overnight but at least an hour or so.
Soak and reconstitute the komachibu as for the European style.
In a small frying pan, combine 1 cup of the mushroom soaking liquid and all the other ingredients. Add the komachibu. Simmer until the liquid is almost gone, turning a few times to cook both sides evenly.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
You can use the soaked mushrooms in a stir-fry later. You can also cook it with the komachibu: just add the the mushrooms, cut into bitsize pieces, with all the soaking liquid and the flavoring ingredients, and simmer until the liquid has reduced to about half. Then add the komachibu. You can then serve the mushrooms with the komachibu, or as another dish. I prefer the komachibu on its own, because the meaty texture of the mushrooms tends to overwhelm the delicateness of the komachibu.
Adding to an ever-increasing number of bento-appropriate mini-burgers recipes here on Just Bento, here is one that turns out little green burgers that are as visually striking as they are tasty. What’s more, they are vegan, gluten-free and inexpensive. I always try to have a bag of frozen green peas stocked in the freezer, and they really come in handy in the winter months when locally (or even reasonably locally) grown fresh vegetables are rather scarce. Green peas are great just cooked as-is, or mixed into stir-fries, but they’re also very nice mashed up. The most famous example of this are that British staple, mushy peas. Green peas are also packed with protein and various vitamins .
These mini-burgers or nuggets have a Mediterranaan flavor from the addition of finely chopped black olives and rosemary, but the idea for the crusty coating came from the Everything Bagel, a type of bagel that is coated with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried onion and garlic flakes. The black poppy seeds form a nice color contrast with the green peas. The Dedicated Omnivore gives these a big thumbs up on taste and texture.
If you are using these as part of a totally vegan bento, pair them with a whole grain like brown rice, or a whole grain bread. (They’d be excellent as the filling in a rice burger .)
Makes about 10 mini-burgers, about 40 calories each
The burger mixture:
About 1 tsp. dried garlic flakes
Olive oil for cooking
Put the peas in a small sauce pan, and barely cover with cold water. Add about a teaspoon of salt, and bring up to a boil. Lower the heat and put a lid on, and cook for about 5 minutes or until the peas are bright green and cooked through. Drain well.
If you have a food processor or mixer, put all the burger mixture ingredients in the bowl and process until smooth. Adjust the amount of salt to your taste. If you are doing this by hand, mash up the peas finely first, then mix well with the other ingredients.
Heat up a non-stick frying pan or griddle with a little olive oil on medium heat.
Mix the poppy seeds, onion and garlic flakes on a plate. Take heaped tablespoons of the pea burger mixture, flatten them a bit in your hands (it does get a bit messy) and coat them on both sides with the poppy seed mixture. Carefully put into the pan, and cook on both sides for about 4-5 minutes each until crispy but not burned.
Let cool before packing into bento boxes.
You can freeze these fairly successfully, though try to use them within 2 weeks. Just cook them up, let cool and freeze. You can defrost them in a microwave, but ideally you’d reheat them in a frying pan over low heat.
I tried making these with canned kidney beans, but they weren’t as good. The fresh flavor and sweetness of the green peas really makes a difference. I’ll try them with edamame sometime, which might be interesting.
This is the kind of bento item that you see quite often in homemade Japanese bentos - a simple deep fried fritter or nugget. I haven't featured a lot of these on these pages, because I know that many JustBento readers are leery of deep frying in general. However, they are quite easy to make, especially if you make them for dinner and reserve one or two for next day's bento - or even freeze a few. The general theory behind including a bit of fried food in a bento is to make it just a bit more filling and substantial. And remember, for a bento you only need one or two.
These little roll-ups are stuffed with mushrooms, but you can use other vegetables too. See the Notes below the recipe. Since only a little meat is used with the addition of mushrooms, they're not that high in calories, even if they are deep fried. If you want to make a big batch for freezing, allow for about 1 beaten egg per 6 to 8 rolls.
Prep time: 15 min :: Cook time: 5 min :: Total time: 25 min
Yield: 6 rolls
Serving size: 1 roll
Calories per serving: 80
So what else can you roll up in a bit of meat and deep fry? A lot! Some suggestions:
One of the big obstacles I run into when trying to make a Japanese bento recipe is the differences in cuts of meat. Frugal Japanese home cooks rely heavily on thinly sliced meat strips (usugiri), roughly chopped meat offcuts, especially of pork (komagire) and ground meat. Of these, only the last one is widely available in the countries where most of the readers of JustBento hail from (though in Japan ground pork is used much more than ground beef).
In any case, I do hope you'll give this a try, perhaps using one of the meat-substitutions I've mentioned above if usugiri meat is not available where you are.
(below for search engines only)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: September 30, 2011
Type: Japanese, bento, washoku, meat, fried, pork, mushrooms
Last year I posted a recipe for Potato Oyaki , little mashed potato pancakes or dumplings filled with salty-sweet meat soboro  and pan-fried until crispy on both sides. It’s been one of the most popular recipes posted on this site, despite the fact that I managed to bury it within a whole bento description, so that if you were searching for individual recipes in the recipe index, you couldn’t find it!
To correct this oversight, I have repeated the recipe for the Potato Oyaki here. To accompany it is a new variation recipe that uses sweet potatoes and finely chopped cooked carrot. This has a small amount of ham and cheese in the middle; you could do so with the same meat soboro  used for the Potato Oyaki, or any precooked chopped meat. It’s also good without any stuffing. If you happen to have any leftover boiled or baked sweet potato and carrot from Thanksgiving dinner, this is an interesting way to transform it for bentos.
Now, why is the Sweet Potato Oyaki shaped like a pig? That mystery will be revealed later.
First up is the Potato Oyaki recipe, with some modifications from the originally posted recipe .
Makes 8 oyaki, each approximately 2.5 inches / 6 cm in diameter.
Make the potato dough the night before or earlier. Use hot mashed potatoes; if you are using leftover mashed potatoes, heat them in the microwave for 2-3 minutes on high until hot. Add the cornstarch and salt, and mix well until the dough has cooled.
In the morning, take out the cooled mass and knead it a bit, and divide into 8 pieces. Round and flatten each piece on your palm. Put 1 heaping teaspoonful of soboro in the middle. Gather the dough over the filling, then make a smooth round flat cake. (The dough is very easy to manipulate so this doesn’t take much time).
Heat up a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat.Drizzle a little bit of sesame oil in the pan, then put in the formed oyaki (do this in 2 batches if your pan is small). Cook until browned underneath, 5-6 minutes, then turn and cook an additional 3-4 minutes. Brush the cooked side with a little soy sauce using a brush or drizzle on a bit with a spoon. Turn once more and brush the other side with soy sauce.
Remove from the frying pan to a plate, and let cool before packing into bento box.
Formed oyaki can be frozen. Place in a single layer on a sheet of freezer paper on a metal tray. When frozen solid, put the oyaki into freezer bags or a freezer safe container. Use up within a month if possible. The best way to defrost them is in a non-stick frying pan over low heat, which will crisp them up on the outside nicely. You can also microwave them on the high setting, 3-4 minutes for 1 oyaki, 8-10 minutes for 4.
Next up is the sweet potato variation.
Makes 8 2.5 inch / 6 cm diameter oyaki as above, or 20-24 small pig shaped oyaki
Make the potato dough the night before or earlier: Sweet potato is more watery than white potato, so after it mashed, put it in a dry pan over low heat, and stir until it’s dried out and rather floury. Add the cornstarch or potato starch, salt, sugar and carrots. Mix well. Let cool, and store in the refrigerator.
Mix the cooked ham and cheese together well with your hands to form a sort of ham-cheese paste.
Take out the cold dough and knead for a couple of minutes. Divide into 8 pieces for regular sized oyaki, or 20-24 pieces for little oyaki. Fill each piece of dough with the ham-cheese paste, and form into rounds or pigs or whatever strikes your fancy.
Heat up a non-stick frying pan with a little olive oil over medium heat. Put the oyaki in the pan, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Cook on the first side for 4-5 minutes, turn and brush with a little soy sauce. Cook on the other side for 2-3 minutes. Turn again and brush with a little more soy sauce.
Remove from the frying pan to a plate, and let cool before packing into bento box.
These can also be frozen - follow the instructions for Potato Oyaki.
Although I use rice or bread in most of my bentos, I do like to mix it up with various other grains on occasion. Quinoa is probably my favorite alternate grain; it has a fun pop-y texture and nutty flavor, especially if you sauté it a bit in oil before steaming, and is so high in protein that it can considered to be a serious alternative protein source. This is really a carb and protein dish all in one.
While most quinoa recipes seem to be vegetarian, this one is not, though you can easily turn it into a vegetarian or vegan dish. I’ve added just a little bit of dried sausage or saucisson sec though - its meaty, assertive flavor really goes well with the quinoa and the fresh peas. (In France, peas are often cooked with bacon.) Saucisson sec just means dried sausage, so you can use salami, chorizo, pepperoni, or any similar hard sausage that you can eat sliced without cooking. Whole brown mustard seeds add a little bite. This dish can be made in advance, eaten for dinner one day and bento a day or two later.
I’ve used fresh peas here, which are in season where I live, but frozen peas will work just as well.
Makes about 4 cups cooked, for 4 to 8 bento sized servings. About 1000 calories total for the whole amount.
Sauté the onion, garlic and sausage in the olive oil over medium-high heat, until onions are limp and the sausage has rendered its fat and is turning a bit crispy. Add the quinoa and sauté briefly until it is lightly browned. Add the mustard seeds and sauté for a minute or two, to bring out the flavor.
Add the water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, add the salt, pepper, herbs and green peas, and put on a lid. Let it cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until the water has been completely absorbed and the quinoa is no longer hard. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Serve warm or cold. This will keep in the refrigerator, well covered, for 2 to 3 days. You’ll want to pack a spoon with your bento to eat this.
This is a very easy vegan main dish that’s as pretty as a picture. It’s packed with protein from the quinoa, and all kinds of good vitamins and such from the parsley and peppers. It also holds up in the refrigerator for a few days, since the lemon juice, salt and oil help to keep it fresh tasting. I made a fairly large batch and ate it over the course of a week! You can also play with the base and add things like chopped up olives, cooked beans, cheese (vegan or not), flaked canned tuna and so on. It is inspired by a recipe in Saisai Lunch ; the original recipe uses okara instead of quinoa, and uses the salad as a topping on a bed of rice. I think my quinoa version, which is designed to be eaten on its own and not as a rice topping, is just as nice if not (dare I say) more so.
You can double, triple or more the recipe very easily. This makes about 4 cups of salad.
To cook the quinoa: Rinse it briefly under running water, then put into a pot with the 2 cups of water and the vegetable stock cube. Bring to a boil, then put on a lid and lower the heat. Let cook for about 15 minutes until the water is almost all gone. Take off the heat and let rest with the lid on for about 5 minutes. Drain off any excess water (there shouldn’t be much at all) by putting the quinoa in a sieve or colander and shaking. Put into a bowl to cool down.
In the meantime, chop up the sweet peppers; de-seed and chop up the chili pepper. Finely chop the garlic clove. Sauté the vegetables with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, until the vegetables are limp. Take off the heat.
Chop the parsley up finely.
Combine the dressing ingredients and mix in well with the quinoa. Add the cooked vegetables. Add the parsley (you should add it when the quinoa is not hot any more, to preserve the bright green color) and mix well.
Taste, and add a little more salt, pepper or lemon juice as you see fit.
This keeps well in the refrigerator, well covered.
Per cup (about 210g): 350 calories, 12g fat, 9g protein, 47g carbohydrates, lots of fiber and vitamins A, C, K and more
Parsley is a very nutritious food , with more goodness in it than most green vegetables. Don’t just use it as a garnish - put tons of it into soups, stews, salads and so on.
The vegetable stock cube and the soy sauce add a bit of umami, which perks up the bland flavor of quinoa quite a bit.
If you are a quinoa fan, this quinoa kedgeree  is also recommended, though for bento make sure the fish is cooked through.
Here’s the first recipe from my minimal non-kitchen kitchen (see previously ). This recipe has proved itself to be a keeper already - I’ve made it 3 times in the past couple of weeks. It is basically a vegetable frittata that is cooked in a rice cooker. I even use the rice cooker bowl as a mixing bowl. It doesn’t get browned and crusty on the outside as with an oven-baked or stovetop fritatta , but turns out really nice and fluffy-creamy in texture. It’s a great all-in-one recipe that has protein, carbs and vegetables.
One of these will make 2 to 4 servings, so in our house that means a breakfast and a lunch for two people. It’s great on its own, but really makes a fantastic sandwich, put in the middle of a crusty loaf of bread. Add some fresh fruit and you’re all set.
Makes 2 to 4 servings
The egg mixture: * 6 large eggs * 2 Tbs. grated cheese of any kind (optional) * salt and pepper * 1 Tbs. olive oil
Heat up the frying pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the garlic clove, and let the oil heat up until the garlic is lightly brown. Discard the garlic clove.
Add the vegetables. The key with the vegetables is to cut them up as small and thinly is you can, so that they cook fast. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the rice cooker bowl. Spread it around the bottom and about 2 inches /5 cm up the sides, using a paper towel. Add the eggs, grated cheese, salt and pepper, and beat the eggs in the bowl (take care not to scratch the surface if you’re using a metal fork for this). Add the vegetables and distribute them evenly in the egg mixture.
Put the bowl in the rice cooker and switch on, using the regular rice setting. When the cooking cycle finishes, the frittata is done! Here’s how it looks straight out of the cooker:
Let cool completely before cutting into wedges and packing up for a bento. Optionally add a little ketchup or tomato sauce before eating.
This will keep, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
The vegetables can be cooked in advance and kept in the refrigerator, well covered, for 3-4 days, then added to the egg mixture before cooking. You can also use any leftover cooked vegetables you have around instead.
If you don’t have a cooker or burner: If you have a microwave, you can put the chopped up vegetables on a plate, drizzle with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, cover with plastic film, and microwave on the high setting for 5-6 minutes.
I’m slowly getting back to regular cooking in my not-a-kitchen kitchen. In my quest to assemble a minimalist, functional not-kitchen kitchen, so far I have acquired the following equipment:
Besides these things, I already have my old, trusty, slightly beat up 5-cup Zojirushi rice cooker. It’s more than 15 years old already but still going strong. It’s similar to this newer Zojirushi rice cooker , so a new one would cost $185, but I could probably get by with a cheaper model too. Besides the rice cooker, I have the following cooking equipment and such:
I am still procrastinating about getting a microwave oven, since I’m not sure if we are going to go for the built-in type of microwave for our final kitchen in the house or a standalone. I’m also waffling over whether or not to get a tabletop grill, a George Foreman type grill, an electric barbeque, and other things. I have been spending hours wandering around stores like Boulanger  and Darty , the French equivalents of Best Buy or the appliance department at Sears, taking notes and muttering to myself while the store attendants eye me suspiciously. But in the meantime, we have been surviving fine with the minimal equipment for most of our meals. (I suppose that the pressure cooker may seem unusual to have, but we’ve been carrying it around for a full year, and I mainly use it as a regular pot for boiling pasta and such.)
In any case, I’ll be posting more of my minimal-kitchen recipes here or on Just Hungry , depending on how bento-friendly they are of course!
(On the forum  and elsewhere, I frequently hear vegans lamenting the lack of vegan protein-rich dishes. Such dishes do exist in traditional Japanese cooking, and I try to introduce them to you. Not all dishes are that simple to make, though if you read through the recipes they aren’t really that hard. Anyway, here’s one vegan one-pot dish that is good hot or cold, so is very suited to bentos.)
There are all kinds of stewed dishes in Japanese cooking, called something-ni (煮). Collectively these are called 煮物 - ninomo. This is sort of a vegan variation on a classic nimono called chikuzen-ni (筑前煮), which is a staple of the New Year period and the winter months.
Chikuzen-ni gets its umami from chicken pieces and a rich dashi made from konbu seaweed and lots of katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes. Here I’ve skipped the dashi (though you could use vegan dashi  for even more flavor), but I’ve used one of my favorite vegan proteins, atsuage or thick fried tofu, and added a lot of umami by using shiitake mushrooms, leek, and miso to finish. There are three kinds of root vegetables in this: taro root (satoimo 里芋 in Japanese), lotus root (renkon 蓮根）and carrots, so it’s full of fiber and nutrition and is a fairly complete vegan meal. I used it for a bento last week , and found it very filling. (I meant to use the leftovers for another bento round at least, but it got eaten up by someone…)
If you can’t get a hold of taro roots or dislike the slightly slimy texture, substitute boiling potatoes (the kind you use for potato salad, not baking potatoes). If you can’t get lotus roots, just leave them out and use more carrots.
This is not a quick recipe, but you can make a potful of it and can last you for several days of bentos and other meals.
Equipment suggested: A heavy bottomed pot, such as a cast iron enamelled pot
There’s a lot of prep work with this. You can do the prep part a bit in advance, then put everything together. Using pre-cooked or frozen lotus root and taro roots saves you lots of time!
Peel the lotus root, cut into slices (cut in half if they are very big), and boil for about 5 minutes in water with a little vinegar added - see how to cook lotus root . Drain and set aside.
Wash and peel the taro roots. If necessary, cut the big ones in half and peel off the sharp edges, so they are all sort of round. (See more about taro roots ).
Peel and roughly cut up the carrots.
Cut the stems off the shiitake; leave whole or cut into thick slices.
Blanch the fried tofu in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then drain. This gets rid of excess surface oil. Cut the tofu into chunks.
Slice the leeks roughly.
Heat up the oil in the pot, and add the leeks. Sauté until limp. Add the vegetables (except for the snow peas) and the tofu pieces and sauté briefly. Add the soy sauce and enough dashi or water to cover. When it is bubbling, put a pot lid that is smaller than the diameter of the pot you’re using right on top of the food, so that it’s holding everything down. (This is the otoshibuta method used a lot in Japanese cooking, explained at the end of this recipe .)
Let everything simmer, stirring up from bottom occasionally, over low-medium heat until the taro root and carrots are cooked through. (The lotus root may remain crunchy.)
Dissolve the miso in a little bit of the cooking liquid, and add to the pot. Stir well and simmer a few minutes more. Taste and see if it needs more soy sauce or salt etc.
Serve garnished with something green, such as blanched snow peas or just some chopped green onion.
If you have them, you could use pre-boiled bamboo shoot, burdock root (gobo), and so on instead of or in addition to the vegetables used here.
If you keep it in the refrigerator, it will last for a few days. To be absolutely safe you should heat it up briefly before cooling down again and packing into your bento.
You could freeze it, but if you substitute potatoes for the taro roots, take them out since frozen potatoes have an unpleasant mealy texture.
Vegan nikujaga  (stewed ‘meat’ and potatoes)
I admit that this is barely a recipe at all, unless you don’t know how to make scrambled eggs. It is essentially a 1 egg tamagoyaki  for people in a hurry. Sure, a folded tamagoyaki only takes a few minutes to make, but sometimes even those few minutes can’t be spared.
So, here’s a scrambled egg that is perfect for bentos. I’ve added a little chopped green onion (left over from dinner the night before) for variety, but you could omit that if you’re in a really big hurry. To keep the scrambled egg neat and tidy, it’s packed in a silicone cupcake liner.
This makes one portion, and is about 80 - 120 calories depending on how much oil is in the pan. (You could use a cooking spray or a non-stick pan for minimal additional calories.)
Start heating up a small non-stick frying pan over high heat. Mix all the ingredients together well. Add a little oil to the pan, or spray with cooking spray.
Pour in the eggs, and stir around rapidly to make scrambled eggs. You can either stop when they are still a bit moist, or keep cooking until the egg forms little globules, in which case it becomes more like soboro or iri tamago  than scrambled eggs. In this case, I stopped at the scrambled egg stage - not too runny but still moist enough to hold together. (The residual heat of the egg will continue to cook it a bit more after you take it out of the pan, so there’s no need to worry about safety provided you’re using fresh eggs.)
Put the scrambled egg in a silicone cupcake liner or bento divider, and press lightly on top of the egg and around it to make it neat. (Optional, but it does help to make your bento box look more attractive in the end). Let cool completely before packing into your bento box.
You can add all kinds of things instead of, or in addition to, the chopped green onion. Try things like:
I don’t have a lot of red meat recipes here, especially not beef. The biggest reason for this is that beef is the most expensive cut of meat usually, and I’m all about making bentos that are economical. But I do use beef sometimes, and one of my favorite ways is to treat it as I do in this recipe - quickly stir-fried, salty-sweet and tender strips of beef flavored with sesame oil.
I use a cut called ‘minute steak’ around here; it’s basically a thinly cut piece of lean beef. Such cuts of beef are called different things in different countries, so just buy a flat piece of beef that could be used as a thin steak or cut up in a stir fry. (In the U.S., thinly sliced steak meat for Philly cheesesteaks works well. Trader Joe’s has fairly inexpensive packs of thinly sliced beef offcuts that would work great for this.)
If your piece of beef is more than 1/3 inch / 1 cm or so thick, put it between two sheets of kitchen parchment paper or in a plastic bag and pound it thin with a meat mallet, rolling pin or the side of a heavy knife. This tenderizes an inexpensive cut of meat, and also makes it cook a lot faster.
For 2 to 3 portions
Slice the beef (after pounding if necessary) across the grain into thin strips. (The grain is the direction in which the meat muscles run - you want to cut the meat perpendicular to that.) Put into a bowl, and add all the other ingredients except for the 1 tsp. of sesame oil. Massage the meat with your hands to rub in the marinade.
You can cook this right away, or leave it for a little while or even overnight.
Heat up a frying pan and add the remaining 1 tsp. of sesame oil. Add the beef to the hot pan and stir-fry for a couple of minutes until done. It should be just a bit syrupy, and an appetizing dark brown.
You can marinate this the night before and cook it in the morning (this is ideal), or cook it the night before.
You can change up the oil to give this a different flavor. For instance, try olive oil, salt, rosemary and a tiny bit of garlic for Mediterranean flavored beef. Massaging in the a little oil serves to make lean cuts more tender and juicy.
Since many of you asked about the sho-yu tamago (soy sauce eggs) that my mother used to pack for me in my school outings bentos , here’s the recipe for them. Well, I hesitate to even call it a recipe - it’s so easy.
All you do is:
Since the soy sauce is salty enough, there’s no need for extra salt or other seasonings, which makes them very portable - therefore great for picnic or school outing bentos.
These are even easier than the lazy tea eggs , but they don’t really keep, so you do have to make them when you need them.
They are very pretty when cut in half or in slices, and make a nice gap filler in a regular bento box.
There are already several mini-burger or tsukune dumpling type of recipes here, but here’s another one. What can I say - mini-burgers are just perfect for bentos: they taste good when they are cold, can be made in quantity, and usually freeze very well.
This time it’s a shrimp and tofu version, adapted quite a bit from a recipe in a recent issue of Kyou no ryouri: Beginners (Today’s Cooking: Beginners) magazine. It’s best when made with fresh shrimp, but uncooked frozen shrimp is fine. You probably don’t want to be messing around with shrimp paste in the morning, so it can made it the night before (have some for dinner too - it’s great hot) or freeze a batch. The sweet-hot red pepper jam I’ve used as a sauce goes very well with it, but if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making the jam, use a sweet or hot bottled chili sauce.
To make about 20-24 mini-burgers, depending on how big you make them
Note: This is much easier to make if you have a food processor, though you can do it by hand.
Sprinkle the shrimp with sake and set aside. (This takes away any ‘fishiness’ from the shrimp, as well as adding flavor. See the role of alcohol  article.)
Cut the tofu into chunks. Put the tofu in a pot of boiling water to cover, and boil for 2-3 minutes. Drain, and let rest in a colander until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out excess moisture by gathering up the tofu in paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. (You can also use the microwave mathod of draining tofu described here .) Squish the tofu to crumble it up.
Chop up the green onions and mushrooms. Chop up the shrimp with a knife or in a food processor - you don’t want a paste, but a slightly chunky texture. Combine all of the ingredients except the oil in a bowl and mix together well (or pulse it all together in a food processor).
Heat up a large frying pan or two pans with a little oil. Form the mixture into small burgers or meatballs with wet hands, and put into the pan. Fry on both sides until golden brown.
If you are going to freeze the burgers, stop at this point, let them cool to room temperature and pack away in freezer containers or bags. They should be consumed within a month.
To add the sauce: Reheat the mini-burgers if necessary, in a dry pan. Add about 1 teaspoon of jam per burger to a hot pan, and coat them rapidly. Let cool before packing into your bento box.
Astute readers may have spotted that that this is not that different from the tuna tofu miso mini burgers , but shrimp gives them a whole new texture and flavor.
Here are some more already on Just Bento and Just Hungry:
These light and crispy shrimp are fairly low in calories, even though they are fried. You only need about 1 cm / 1/2 an inch of oil to fry these in a regular frying pan, so don’t be afraid to try them even if you don’t do much deep-frying. They are very easy to make with frozen shrimp, and just a bit more work with fresh shrimp.
Adapted from a recipe in Today’s Cooking: Beginners magazine. Each shrimp is about 30-40 calories depending on how well you drain off the oil.
Prepare your shrimp. If you’re using frozen shrimp defrost them beforehand. (Leave them in the refrigerator overnight, or microwave them on DEFROST for 2-3 minutes. Don’t let them get cooked while you’re defrosting them.You can proceed with the marinating even if the shrimp are a bit frosty. ) I like to leave the tails on for appearance and flavor - they get crispy and crunchy enough that you can eat them too.
Combine the soy sauce, mirin, sake and grated ginger in a bowl. Put the shrimp in there, and let marinade for 5-10 minutes. I prefer not to let them marinate for too long, since it sort of kills the shrimp flavor, but you may prefer a longer marinade.
Drain away the liquid. Toss the shrimp in enough cornstarch or potato starch to coat them completely.
Heat up about 1/2 an inch (1 cm) of vegetable oil (I use peanut oil or canola oil or rapeseed oil) in a frying pan. Put the shrimp in in one layer, not overcrowding the pan. Fry for a couple of minutes, then turn over and fry for an additional 2-3 minutes, until they are a reddish golden-brown. Drain the oil well on a rack or on paper towels.
Sprinkle with sansho pepper or freshly ground black pepper before serving.
These are delicious hot or cold. If you’re using them in a bento, let them cool down completely before packing, and they should stay crispy until lunchtime. You may want to add a dipping sauce, but I find it unnecessary since the shrimp are already seasoned well.
Sure, if you balance it out with non-fried food, as I did in this bento, which has just 4 shrimp (120 calories):
Fried food in small amounts is more filling and satisfying, as opposed to only eating food that’s boiled, steamed, or raw or whatever. Of course if you are feeding a teenager or an athlete, you can really fill them up with fried food.
Long time readers of Just Bento and Just Hungry may notice that the marinade and method is very similar to the one for Chicken Karaage . The -age (pronounced ah-GEH) means ‘deep fried’. So what’s the difference between karaage (唐揚げ） and tatsutaage （竜田揚げ）? Not much really, except that ‘karaage’ is used for several kinds of deep fried dishes that are coated in a flour, while ‘tatsutaage’ means something that is marinated, coated with flour of some kind and fried. Either kind of frying method is excellent for bentos. (Incidentally I’ve seen it stated on the interweb that karaage means ‘sesame fried chicken’. That is false information. Sesame fried chicken is called ‘gomaage’ - sesame-fry.)
Continuing on the chicken-fit-for-bento theme, here is another very simple grilled or pan-fried chicken recipe. This time, instead of chicken breast , chicken thighs are used. I know that many dieters avoid dark meat, and it is admittedly higher in fat content than white. But I think it’s so much more flavorful, especially when it comes from ordinary supermarket chicken.
When I was in college, I did the bookkeeping for a midtown Manhattan Japanese restaurant for a few months. The pay was mediocre and the work itself was quite boring, but I did at least get free lunch. Even though theoretically I could choose anything from the menu (barring the really expensive sushi or sashimi) on most days I chose the chikin shioyaki teishoku (Grilled salt chicken set). It was just a large salted chicken thigh with side vegetables (broccoli and something else, which I can’t remember), a bowl of miso soup and a bowl of white rice, but that chicken was so delicious! I couldn’t figure out why it was so crispy on the outside yet juicy on the inside. Some time later, I found out their ‘secret’ in a roundabout way. The key is to salt the chicken meat, then let it rest for a while. This causes the chicken to exude excess moisture, and firms up the meat. It does mean you need to plan ahead a bit to allow for the resting time, but it’s well worth it. You might wonder if a chicken dish can be so good with just salt and a little pepper, but it really is!
Trim any excess fat off boneless chicken thighs, but keep the skin on. Salt thorougly on both sides (be fairly light-handed or it will be too salty), then let rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for at least an hour. You can leave it like this overnight.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat up a grill pan or a non-stick frying pan. No oil should be needed for the frying pan, but you may want to lightly brush some oil on a grill pan. (This method also works great for the barbeque grill.)
After the resting time there will be a little or a lot of moisture around the chicken (free-range chicken will have just a little, while cheap supermarket chicken may be sitting in a pool of water!) Blot off all the moisture completely, plus any excess salt on the surface. Add some freshly ground pepper at this stage.
Put the chicken skin down on the grill pan or frying pan, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cook over medium heat until the skin is golden brown. Turn over, and cook a few minutes more until the meat is cooked through. Let it rest for a few minutes before slicing.
Alternatively you can bake the thighs at 200°C / 400°F for 20 minutes with the skin down, then 20-25 minutes with the skin up. Tossing a few rosemary sprigs on the baking sheet enhances the flavor even more.
Serve with a wedge of lemon. This chicken is great hot or cold, and makes a great bento chicken or sandwich filler. Try it for a picnic as an alternative to fried chicken.
(Sorting note: I’ve put this in the Not Japanese  recipe category, even though it is a Japanese recipe, because it doesn’t use any inherently Japanese ingredients - just chicken, salt, and a bit of lemon to finish!)
If you like the idea of sushi for bentos, don’t forget to check out the detailed sushi rice or shari lesson . As long as you stay away from using raw, untreated fish, sushi is great for bentos since the vinegar, sugar and salt in the rice helps to preserve its freshness longer than plain rice.
Here’s the bento I made with the salmon chirashizushi as the main part.
The box in the back has some stewed carrot, new potato and onions, blanched spinach with sesame sauce , and boiled romanesco with wasabi sauce . Everything was made in advance, so all that needed to be done was to pack it in the box.
Plain sushi rice can be frozen and defrosted just like plain rice , so you can make it in batches if you love that sour-sweet-salty taste.
Preconceptions can limit you more than you can imagine. I’d always thought that polenta needed to be piping hot to be really good, but it’s actually pretty good cold. Anything good cold, of course, can go into a bento box.
Firm polenta cakes, briefly fried until golden on the outside, are really nice as a carb in a bento. If you have some tomato sauce also it makes a very nice accompaniment. Below is my basic polenta recipe (I use some garlic in there to boost the flavor), but please use your own polenta recipe.
This is my recipe for basic polenta. Soft polenta can be served for dinner, and firm polenta cakes for lunch or bento the next day. It’s surprisingly good cold, and even better if you can heat it up briefly.
Prep time: 5 min :: Cook time: 30-40 min (for the base polenta) :: Total time: 35-40 minutes min (plus 5-10 min to fry the polenta cakes)
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
(Below is just for search engines.)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: April 09, 2013
Type: carbohydrate, vegetarian, not Japanese
The “time required” that this is categorized under (5-10 minutes) is the time you need to make the polenta cakes from premade polenta. The actual cooking time of the polenta is around 30-40 minutes, depending on the fineness of the cornmeal/polenta meal you use. ‘Instant’ polenta meal cooks up very fast so if you’re in a big hurry you may try that.
To vary the flavor of the fried polenta cakes, try stirring in some cubed cheese, chopped green onion, chopped and rehydrated dried tomato, and so on before it firms up. For omnivores, some chopped ham or crumbled and cooked sausage make nice additions too.
Almost three years ago, I found a recipe on a terrific vegetarian food blog called The Hungry Tiger, for something called lentil snacks, and blogged about it on Just Hungry . I didn’t copy down the original recipe there, since it’s my policy never to do that with someone else’s recipe that’s online (or indeed offline). Unfortunately it seems that The Hungry Tiger is temporarily or permanently offline (you get to a password-protected site now. Edit: Some readers have found a page that has the original recipe! See Notes below.). The recipe I use now for lentil snacks is probably quite different from the original, bu I have no way of checking.
Anyway, here is my current favorite version of lentil snacks, presented here on Just Bento because they are so well suited for non-Japanese bento lunches. This version is a bit hot-spicy inside, and coated in a mixture of sesame seeds and another type of seed called kalongi, nigella or black onion. They freeze well, or can hold in the refrigerator for a few days, and are a great vegan protein item that even a die-hard omnivore can love.
Makes about 30 golf ball sized balls, each about 45 calories
Rinse the lentils, and put in a pan with enough water to come up to about 2cm / 1 inch above the lentils. Add 1 tsp. of salt. Bring up to a boil, then lower to a simmer; cook until the lentils are tender and mushy, about 15-20 minutes. Drain off any excess water.
In the meantime, put the chopped onions, garlic, spices and olive oil in a frying pan. Let it just barely simmer over a low heat until the mixture is a golden brown, and the onions are softened. Add the brown rice near the end.
Mix everything together and let cool until you can handle it. At this point, the mixture should resemble a thick, almost dry paste that you can gather up with your fingers and form into balls. If it’s too wet, cook the mixture over a very low heat until some moisture evaporates. If it’s too dry and falls apart, add a little water until it forms a paste.
Heat up an oven to 180°C / 360°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicon baking liner.
Make ready a plate with mixed sesame seeds and nigella seeds (a ratio of about 2 to 1 is good). Form the lentil mixture into small balls. Dip lightly into a bowl of water, then roll in the seed mixture. (You can omit the seeds if you prefer too.)
Put the balls on the lined baking sheet, and bake for about 20 minutes or until the surface is a bit crispy.
The original recipe called for the addition of bulgur wheat for texture, but I’ve used brown rice instead. This makes these lentil snacks gluten-free.
As noted in the original post , only red or hulled lentils will do here. Green lentils will be too hard and will not have the correct texture. Hulled lentils do have less fiber than unhulled, but are still a great source of protein. Some fiber is added back with the brown rice.
[Edit:] The original Hungry Tiger recipe is on the revived web site .
This is a very easy to make tamagoyaki (Japanese style omelette) that is chock full of spinach. Even spinach doubters may like this, since the egg, onion and garlic neutralize the iron-rich quality which some people have problems with. It is basically a whole load of spinach that is held together with egg. It does not use the rolling/folding technique used for plain tamagoyaki  or the one-egg version , so you may find it a lot easier to make.
Prep time: 5 min :: Cook time: 10 min :: Total time: 15 min
Yield: 3-4 portions
Calories per serving: 130-190
(Below is just for search engines.)
By Makiko Itoh
Published: April 04, 2013
Type: eggs, japanese, vegetarian, protein, bento
When you flip the omelette over, it will most likely turn up looking like this - in a couple of pieces:
But not to worry - you can cut it up into neat little pieces as in the first picture, and no one will know the difference (unless you show it to thousands of blog readers ^_^). Hide the raggety bits underneath the neat pieces, or just pop them in your mouth - it will still taste great.
(For more bento reality, check out the Facebook page  where I’ve been revealing some pre-JustBento butt-ugly bentos! It’s all good though taste and nutrition are more important than looks, right?)
It’s finally spring, which means some of my favorite vegetables are showing up at the markets. One way I like to enjoy them is to make maze gohan (混ぜご飯), which just means ‘mixed rice’, featuring the ingredient in question. Maze gohan (pronouned mazeh-go-han) differs from takikomi gohan (炊き込みご飯), such as this mushroom rice , where the ingredients are cooked with the rice. Maze gohan is more suited for delicate ingredients. It’s also a frugal way of stretching the use of some rather more expensive vegetables, such as really fresh peas. Because the rice is subtly flavored, you don’t need a lot of other things in your bento box.
Here are two very simple recipes for spring maze gohan.
Makes about 5-6 cups of cooked rice
Wash the rice as you normally would (see how to wash and cook rice ). Add the sake, salt and pinch of dashi granules to the water, and cook the rice as you normally would.
When the rice is done, boil the green peas until just tender in salted water. Drain, and mix in to the rice gently so that you don’t crush the peas.
This is good warm or cooled, so it is of course great for bentos.
You can use the same method for fava beans or broad beans. Cook them in salted water until tender, then take the skins off. This is a very traditional maze gohan called soramame gohan (Incidentally, soramame (空豆), the word for fava beans/broad beans, means ‘sky beans’).
Out of season, you can use frozen peas, though the fragrance won’t be quite the same.
You can also use edamame instead, fresh or frozen.
Asparagus is not a traditionally known vegetable in Japan, though in recent decades it’s become very popular. I use the stalk parts of the asparagus stalks after using the tips in something else, so it ends up being quite economical.
Makes about 5-6 cups of cooked rice
The method is the same as for the green pea rice.
Wash the rice as you normally would (see how to wash and cook rice ). Add the sake, salt and pinch of dashi granules to the water, and cook the rice as you normally would.
When the rice is done, boil the cut up asparagus stalks until just tender in salted water. Drain, and mix in to the rice gently.
This is good warm or cooled, so it is of course great for bentos. This one is especially good with a bit of toasted sesame seed sprinkled on top.
Extra: Here’s some pea porn!
Whenever I’m shelling peas or fava beans, I always wonder if’s worth all the trouble. All those pods going to the compost, vs. the tiny mound of peas or beans. And the frozen kind are so handy! Of course, once I taste those fresh peas, it all makes sense.
We are now entering pasta salad season, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere. Easy to assemble and delicious at room temperature, at first glance you might think that pasta salads are perfect in bentos. There are a few things to watch out for though, in order to make sure that your salad is as safe as it is delicious at lunchtime. I also have a super-easy Chickpea and Pasta Salad recipe that is very bento-friendly; t’s vegetarian (easily converted to being vegan), to fit in with the theme for this month .
A lot of people probably make a pasta salad for dinner, and bring the leftovers for lunch the next day, since it’s so easy to make a little extra. If you do this, the following safety tips are particularly important.
This is a very easy, bento-friendly vegetarian pasta salad. It’s bento-friendly since it has no mayonnaise or onions in it. It becomes a vegan salad just by omitting the goat cheese.
This makes about 4 cups of salad, enough for 2 bentos (or 1 very generous bento.) However, you could make a quantity of the marinated chickpeas and store it in the refrigerator for a few days.
The marinated chickpeas:
Drain and (if you’re using canned) rinse the chickpeas. Pat dry with paper towels. Combine all the ingredients and toss well. Let marinate, covered, in the refrigerator overnight or up to 4-5 days.
For the salad:
Cook the pasta in salted water (the method using just a little water  works well here). Add the snow peas at the last minute or two to cook them too.
While the pasta is cooking, cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Cut or crumble the goat cheese.
Drain the pasta well, and take out the snow peas. Slice the snow peas into slivers.
Toss the still hot pasta with the marinated chickpeas, including the marinade (take out the raw garlic). Add the tomatoes and toss more. Since the pasta is warm, it will slightly ‘cook’ the tomatoes, making a sort of sauce. Add the cheese and the snow peas, and taste to see if you need to add any seasoning (a little extra grind of pepper may be needed). Let cool completely. (Putting it into a metal tray or bowl will help to cool it down faster.)
Make sure the lettuce leaves are completely dry (pat dry if needed with kitchen or paper towels) and line your bento box. Add the pasta salad and the optional radishes.
I used the type of radish called French Breakfast in the U.S. here - they have a sort of watercolor quality about them, which make them much prettier I think than regular round radishes (though I love those too). I cut them into little tulips, by making little diagonal cuts into the middle of each, in the way devilled eggs are often cut. After cutting, I salted them lightly (which enhances the flavor while cutting the sharpness a bit), and packed them into the corner of the bento. I didn’t mix them into the pasta salad because the radishes do exude some moisture.
If you don’t want to bother with cutting the tulip shapes, just slice the radishes - or even leave them whole.
(Incidentally, it’s tough photographing pasta salads so that they don’t look like a mess! This one looks a bit messy, but it is tasty I promise.)
Frittata, a thick Italian omelette, is an egg dish that’s great hot or cold. It’s perfect picnic fare, which means it’s also great for bento. The usual frittata recipe calls for baking it in the oven, but it’s hard to find the time to heat up the oven and then bake something on a weekday morning. This method of cooking it on the stovetop appeared in the April issue of kyou no ryouri (Today’s Cooking) magazine. The total cooking time is only about 10-15 minutes.
The original recipe just used broccoli, but I used a mix of steamed broccoli and the ever-useful red pepper and onion confit  . You could make it with any cooked vegetable mix, so it’s a great way of using up leftovers. You could add chopped up leftover meat to this too if you like. Cheap, frugal and tasty!
Makes 2 to 4 portions.
Equipment needed: a small non-stick frying pan, a larger nonstick frying pan
Take any combination of pre-cooked chopped up vegetables, or use a frozen vegetable mix.. Heat up the larger frying pan and put in the vegetables with no added oil, and stir around rapidly to evaporate as much moisture as you can, scraping off any bits that get stuck. Season if necessary with a little salt and pepper. Set aside. (You can do this part ahead of time.)
Heat up the smaller frying pan with about 1/2 Tbs. of olive oil. Beat the eggs with the cheese, salt and pepper. Pour the egg into the hot pan, and let cook about 30 seconds, then put in the vegetables, spreading out evenly.
Lower the heat to medium-low and put on a lid, and let cook for about 5 minutes. Turn over, replace lid and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
Take off the heat and cut into wedges.
You can make this the night before. It will keep well-wrapped in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
There are many kinds of fish cakes in Japan, and most of them are available readymade. One of my favorites is hanpen (はんぺん). Hanpen usually comes in single packs. Here’s one I bought at a Japanese grocery store.
The hanpen itself looks like this.
Hanpen is made of ground up white fish (surimi), grated yamaimo (a type of yam, the same one that’s used to give a light texture to okonomiyaki , egg white and sals. The best way I can describe it is that it’s sort like a fish marshmallow, but savory of course. Each hanpen is about 100-120 calories, depending on the size.
You can find hanpen in the refrigerated or frozen food section of a Japanese grocery store (you probably can’t find it at a general Asian/Chinese store; you might find it at a Korean store.) I keep mine in the freezer until ready to use. They defrost very fast, so I can just microwave them for a few seconds so they are soft enough to cut, or just transfer to the refrigerator the night before.
Hanpen can be used for many things. They are great in soups and stews (they are a standard item in oden , a classic stewed dish of various fish cakes, tofu cakes, and vegetables). You can cut them up small and use in miso soup. You could even use as a garnish in Western style soups.
For bento purposes, they are very nice sautéed or fried, especially with a stuffing.
These are sometimes called hanpen on kitsune age (Fox-fried hanpen). ‘Fox’ (kitsune) because they become a golden brown in color, and anything with that color with often called ‘kitsune’ something, and ‘age’ (pronounced ah-GEH) because they’re usually deep-fried. I’ve panfried them instead for a bit less fat and ease of cooking.
This makes enough for 2 or 3 bentos. Each triangle is about 40-50 calories.
Cut the hanpen into quarters, then cut each quarter into half diagonally, to end up with 8 little triangles. Cut a slit into the long edge of the triangle to form a pocket. Stuff the meat mixture into the pocket.
Heat up some oil, butter or a mixture in a frying pan. Start cooking the triangles with the meat side down, until the meat is browned. Lower the heat and cook for 2-3 minutes more, to cook the meat through. Turn the heat up again, and fry the hanpen on each side until golden brown and puffy.
Let cool before putting into a bento box. (The hanpen will shrink down a bit while cooling.)
Stuff the hanpen with cheese, coat with egg and flour and panko, and deep fry. This is good hot or cold, but not exactly low in calories.
Hanpen may not become an everyday bento favorite unless you live right near a Japanese grocery store, but I hope you do try these as a change of pace. It’s real homely Japanese cooking.
Theoretically it should be possible to make your own hanpen, with ground up white fish like cod, yamaimo or nagaimo and egg white. In practice, so far I’ve failed miserably. If I ever figure it out I’ll be sure to post it.
This is a variation on the Balsamic Vinegar and Sesame Chicken  recipe. I came up with this when I ran out of balsamic vinegar and had to make do with plain red wine vinegar - which of course is much cheaper. It’s even simpler to make since you do not have to deal with the sesame. I’ve even left the skin on this time for extra flavor, but you can remove it if you prefer too.
Cut the chicken into bitesize pieces. Season with salt and pepper, then coat lightly with cornstarch.
Heat up a frying pan with the oil. Put the chicken skin side down in the pan, and cook until they are golden brown. Turn over and cook on the other side.
When the chicken is done, drain off any excess poil, and sprinkle on the sugar and the spice. Pour in the vinegar and stir the chicken pieces around as the liquid rapidly evaporates. It will form a slightly sticky sauce in a couple of minutes. As soon as the liquid is almost gone, take off the heat. (You can add a few drops of soy sauce at this point for even more flavor, though then you’ll want to cut down on the salt you season the chicken with before.) Eat hot or cold.
Cut into 12 pieces, each piece is around 50 calories. I usually use around 2 to 4 pieces in a bento box (though the Hungry Guy will eat it all in one go given the chance).
Poached chicken is a really handy thing to have around, for making chicken salad, sandwiches, and a whole lot more. When I have the time and the will, I poach whole chickens  and stock them in the freezer. These days though, I don’t have the time or the energy for such tasks, so I cheat a bit and poach boneless chicken breasts.
While chicken breasts are so handy, it’s very easy to overcook them. This method is just about the easiest and most foolproof way of cooking the white meat so that it’s moist and tender, yet cooked through properly.
Use a pan that is deep enough to hold the breasts plus water to barely cover them. I use a small frying pan.
Put the water, salt, a splash of sake or sherry (optional), and a piece of fresh ginger that you’ve sliced up roughly, skin and all, into the pan. Put the chicken breasts in, and turn on the heat. Heat up until the water is boiling, then turn over the breasts.
Turn off the heat and pull the pan completely off the heat (important if you’re using an electric range), cover with a tight-fitting lid, and let it rest there, off the heat, for 10-15 minutes depending on how big the chicken breasts are. (If you are doing this in the morning, this is the time to go take a shower!) Poke the center of the breasts - they should be bouncy and slightly yielding, not rock-hard. If they feel too soft, poke a hole in and peek inside - if it’s a bit too pink, put the lid back on and leave for another 5-10 minutes. If the liquid has cooled down too much, take the chicken out, heat up the liquid on its own, add the chicken back to the liquid and put the lid back on for another 5-10 minutes.
You can store the poached chicken breasts in their liquid, well covered in the refrigerator, for about 2-3 days. You can also freeze them, either whole or sliced or shredded up. Add the chicken to salads, to stir-frys at the last minute, and more.
This is a very refreshing summer salad. The yogurt dressing keeps it low-fat. Peaches in a savory salad? Trust me - it works!
If you make this salad for bento, be sure to pack it with an icepack, especially in hot weather (see Summer bento safety ).
To make 2 rather large portions:
Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible - using a food cutter or mandoline makes this a lot easier. Sprinkle with salt, and massage the cucumber with your hands to make them limp and exude moisture. Wrap the cucumber slices in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze tightly to expel as much moisture as possible.
Cut the peach up into chunks - you can peel it if you want, but I usually don’t bother.
Combine the yogurt with the spices and mint. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Taste and add a little salt if needed.
From the archives. I got an email over the weekend from someone asking for vegetarian recipes. Well, there are a lot of vegetarian  and vegan  recipes here actually. Here is one I posted last year, a tasty ovo-vegetarian tofu-and-egg dish inspired by healthy Korean cooking, named after a classic italian dish. And of course, great in bentos!
A lot of people shy away from tofu because they think it’s too bland, or just for vegetarians or vegans. This recipe should change your mind on both count. It is still ovo-vegetarian, but omnivores will enjoy it too. It’s derived from an appetizer served at a local healthy-Korean restaurant. The head chef/mom there smilingly refused to divulge the recipe, so my mother and I just figured out our own version. It’s great hot or cold and is perfect for bentos. Make it for dinner and set aside some for your bento lunch the next day. You can use any combination of shredded vegetables you like - it’s a great way to use up leftover veggies.
For this recipe to work properly, it’s important to use the right kind of tofu (firm or extra-firm, not silken or soft) and to drain it properly before proceeding. Otherwise the results will be rather soggy and heavy.
Makes about 20 pieces.
1 large block of firm tofu (momen dofu in Japan)
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 shiitake mushroom
3 Tbsp. cornstarch (cornflour) or potato starch (katakuriko)
Cut the block of tofu in half lengthwise, then slice to make 20 pieces. My mother’s preferred way to drain tofu is to line up the pieces on a large, flat bamboo sieve and to let it drain for at least an hour. If you don’t have such a sieve, use one of the draining methods explained here . (Tip: If you’re in a hurry, the microwave method works the fastest.)
In the meantime, prep the vegetables. Cut the pepper in half and discard the seeds, and shred finely. Shred the carrot and onion finely too. Cut the stem off the shiitake and slice thinly. Mix the vegetables together.
Combine the soy sauce, mirin and stock. Put the tofu on a large plate and sprinkle this mixture over them. Leave for a few minutes, turning once.
Drain off any excess moisture from the tofu pieces and dip in cornstarch or potato starch.
Beat the egg with a bit of salt and pepper. Add the shredded vegetables.
Heat up 1 tablespoon of sesame oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Dip the tofu pieces in the egg, then put into the hot pan. Make sure each piece has some of the vegetables on it. Fry on both sides until golden-yellow and crispy. Drain on paper towels.
Eat hot or cold. Optionally serve it with additional soy sauce (or pack a little soy sauce bottle in the bento).
This doesn’t freeze too well, but you can keep it in the refrigerator for a day or so.
Instead of the drained tofu, you can use poached frozen tofu cutlets  instead.
Carnivores can use boneless chicken breast, cut into pieces (a classic piccata is made with chicken after all). No need to drain the chicken of course, and you can omit the stock from the quick-marinade and just use soy sauce and mirin.
I’m catching up on posting bentos gradually! I was all set to feature this one as a Featured Complete Bento, with a calorie breakdown and so on, but realized I really couldn’t since many of the ingredients are hard to obtain outside of Japan. (Newcomers to the site, take note: most of my full-featured bentos are mostly put together with everyday ingredients that you can get in most Western supermarkets, plus a few key Japanese ingredients on occasion.) So here it is as an also-ran bento. Note that while it is vegetable based except for the small piece of fish, classic dashi stock  using bonito flakes (katsubushi) is used extensively. To make this a vegan bento you can leave out the fish and substitute a vegan dashi stock  using only konbu seaweed with optional shiitake mushrooms if you prefer (go easy on the shiitake, otherwise it will overwhelm the delicate flavors of things like takenoko (bamboo shoot).
Starting with the rice and going clockwise, this bento has:
There are lot of diffferent textures in this bento: crunchiness from the bamboo shoot and burdock, the slightly chewy (and bitter) fiddlehead fern, and so on. This adds a lot of interest to the bento, and makes you feel fuller too.
Again, this the kind of bento that is fairly simple to assemble in Japan, but pretty hard elsewhere - even with a well stocked Japanese market, but I hope it gives you some ideas for combining colors, textures, colors and flavors. (And I promise I’ll post a much more universally doable bento next time!)
Just for eye candy, here is a purchased spring bento that I had in Kyoto back in April, also featuring takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice). Isn’t it beautiful? Note that this has even more color, texture and taste variety in it. (Yep you can still get delicious and gorgeous food like this in Japan, just like always!)
I do like mini-burgers for bentos - they’re easy to make, easy to eat, and cute. This time it’s a tuna and tofu burger flavored with miso. Canned tuna is a versatile and handy staple to have around. I always seem to have at least a couple around - you may too. And it’s cheap, so if you live in the U.S. and are feeling a bit poor today after filing your taxes, these will help a bit in stretching your food budget. It’s better if you make the burgers with oil canned tuna, but water canned will do. They’re quick to mix up in a plastic bag, and cook up in a few minutes.
Makes 6-8 mini burgers
Drain the tuna very well. Drain the tofu well (see how to drain tofu properly ).
Dump everything in a plastic bag. Mix very well by squishing the bag around. This part is rather fun.
In the meantime, heat up a nonstick frying pan with a little olive oil.
When everything is evenly mixed, take out spoonfuls of the mixture from the bag, form into little burgers, and fry on each side for a couple of minutes until browned.
[Edit:] It seems some people have had trouble getting the burgers to hold together. The keys are to drain the tuna very well, especially if you are using the water-packed variety, and to really mix and knead everything together thoroughly until the texture is quite fine and paste-like. If that still doesn’t work, add some egg (just egg white if you are watching the calories will do fine).
This paste is also good for making interesting tasting grilled tuna sandwiches. Just mound on top of a slice of bread and grill in a toaster oven, optionally with a little cheese on top.
Tsukune is a term that means “kneaded and shaped into a round shape”. It usually means a dish made with finely ground and flavored chicken or fish. Chicken tsukune are very well suited to bentos, since they are soft and stay nice and moist. They are also gluten-free (no breadcrumbs!), if you take care to use a gluten-free cornstarch or potato starch and soy sauce.
Today I’ll show you how to make two type of chicken tsukune from the same basic recipe. First, the very traditional stewed tsukune dumplings, cooked in a broth with carrots (tsukune-ni).
And here are some pan-fried tsukune, or tsukune baagaa (tsukune burgers) - actually mini-burgers to fit neatly into a bento box.
Where I live, I can’t normally get ground chicken, which is a standard item in Japanese supermarkets. But that’s ok, since I’d rather grind my own chicken anyway. I use skinned and boneless chicken thighs, which have enough fat to keep the tsukune moist. If you have a food processor, this is a breeze to make; if not, you will have to buy ground chicken or get a butcher to grind it up for you.
This amount will make about 24 small dumplings, 10 mini-burgers, or a combination. (I usually make 6 mini-burgers and make the rest into dumplings.)
Put the chicken thighs in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to ground coarsely. Add the rest of the ingredients, and process until a smooth paste is formed. You may need to scrape down the bowl a couple of times.
For the broth:
Put everything in a small pan and bring to a boil. Using two teaspoons, form the tsukune mixture into small balls (they’ll be sort of rugby ball (American football) shaped, like quenelles) and drop them into the broth. Wetting or oiling the spoons will make the tsukune mixture less sticky. As you can see, the dough is a bright orange-pink color from the carrot and dark meat.
Just let it boil away until the carrots are cooked through, about 15 minutes, stirring carefully a few times. To pack in a bento box, strain off the broth, then drizzle just a bit of it on top.
Stewed tsukune keeps, well covered, in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. They also freeze nicely, with a bit of the broth. Just defrost them in the microwave.
Tsukune burgers are very light and soft, almost fluffy — a nice change from burgers made from beef.
Make small burger shapes using two tablespoons, and panfry them with a little bit of oil in a nonstick frying pan until golden brown on both sides. They are great as-is, but I added a tablespoon or so of oyster sauce to glaze/sauce them. You could also combine equal amounts of mirin, sake and soy sauce with a pinch of sugar for a more traditional teriyaki-type glaze.
Tsukune burgers also freeze well. I freeze them unglazed. To defrost, put into an unoiled nonstick frying pan over low-medium heat, put on a tight fitting lid and steam-cook them until warmed through. This only takes a few minutes. Add the glaze or sauce of your choice at this point.
One of the handiest freezer stock foods is frozen peeled shrimp. They aren’t as tasty as unpeeled, unfrozen shrimp, but they sure are handy to use. I almost always have a bag or two around.
Here are two recipes with a little kick to them that can be made in just a few minutes from frozen; both are perfect for bento.
This is a real cheater’s version of shrimp with chili sauce. It’s cooked in about 5-6 minutes.
For one bento:
Put the frozen shrimp in one layer in a small frying pan. Sprinkle with salt and sake. Heat up the pan with a lid on, and let steam-cook for about 2 minutes. Turn over and cook another minute or so until cooked through. Add ketchup and chili paste, and mix. Let cool before packing into bento box. Optionally sprinkle with a little chopped green onion.
Frozen shrimp are combined with wacked up green onion, and pan-fried or deep fried. Here I’ve pan-fried them. The furikake adds flavor and a nice crunch. To ensure the fritters don’t turn greasy when cooled, be sure to drain off the oil very well.
For one bento (make 3-4 little fritters):
Roughly chop up the frozen shrimp into small pieces (you could also use tiny frozen shrimp here). Combine with the green onion, salt, paprika and furikake. Add the flour and cornstarch and add just a little water so that everything is coated.
Heat up some oil in a frying pan. Drop the fritter mixture into the hot oil with a tablespoon. Shallow fry or deep fry the fritters until crispy on both sides. Drain very well. Cool before putting into your bento box.
Make-ahead note: You can make these fritters in advance and refrigerate (up to a day) or freeze (up to a couple of weeks) them. Heat and crisp them up in a toaster oven before putting into your bento.
Freebie alert: I’m giving away a copy of the cookbook mentioned here, The Enlightened Kitchen, over on Just Hungry. Deadline is Sunday, June the 7th! 
Vegetarian Bento May is over, but I still have some bento-friendly vegan recipes to post! This one was inspired by two sources: Sarah’s Curried Lentil Risotto , and a recipe for a lentil and mushroom salad in The Enlightened Kitchen , a great shojin ryori cookbook that I’ve just reviewed over on Just Hungry . The latter recipe uses both green and red lentils to come up with a bi-color effect that is very pretty, and that’s what I wanted to emulate.
The first time I tried making this, I used hard, flinty green Puy lentils, and ran into a problem: they take about twice as long to cook as the red lentils, which are hulled. By the time the Puy lentils were cooked, the red lentils had disintegrated. On my second attempt, I just adjusted the cooking times, putting the Puy lentils in the boiling water first, then adding the red lentils later. That came out quite well. The Puy lentils remain al dente and firm, while the red lentils are quite soft and starchy.
The lentil salad recipe in the Enlightened Kitchen book called for curry powder, which is a standard spice in Japanese kitchens, but I used a mixture of Indian spices instead, which I think makes for more vibrant and exciting flavors. The last of my pickled radishes  fit very well too.
This salad keeps fairly well for a couple of days in the refrigerator. I could eat this happily for quite a few meals.
This makes about 4 full bento-sized servings; each serving is around 250 calories, give or take 10-20 calories.
The main ingredients:
The spiced oil:
Make the spiced oil: Heat up the oil in a frying pan, and add all the spices. Stir around until it smells toasty and wonderful. Take the spiced oil out of the pan and set aside.
Bring a pot of water to the boil. Add the Puy lentils first, and set a timer for 5 minutes. At the 5 minute mark, add the red lentils and set the timer for another 3 to 5 minutes. Cook just until the Puy lentils are al dente (firm to the tooth); by that time the red lentils should be soft. Drain, put into a bowl and mix in the spiced oil.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, and scoop ou the seeds with the tip of a teaspoon. Slice the cucumber thinly, and sprinkle a bit of salt over the slices. Massage the salt and cucumber together with your hands. Put the cucumber slices in a kitchen towel or a couple of layers of paper towel, and squeeze out the excess moisture.
Slice or chop up the drained pickled radishes.
Mix together the dressing ingredients. Chop up the parsley leaves, leaving some for garnish (or use parsley flowers as garnish, as I did here.)
Mix the cucumber and radish into the cooled lentils. Add the dressing and mix with a spoon, taking care not to smush the lentils. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days.
Iri dofu or iri doufu (炒り豆腐) is a simple, homely dish, real Japanese style ‘mother’s cooking’. Probably every Japanese home cook has his or her own recipe, but the base is plain tofu that is crumbled and then stirred around or gently stir fried (the iri 炒り part means that) until it resembles dry scrambled egg. In fact, it’s rather like the tofu version of iri tamago , but with more flavor and texture.
Iri dofu recipes often contain meat (usually pork), dashi or both, but here I have kept it vegan (in keeping with our vegetarian theme for May ). I have added umami by including chopped dried shiitake mushrooms, miso and soy sauce. Garlic chives and ginger also add to the flavor, while the sansho pepper (also known as sichuan pepper) adds spice.
The best way to eat this is to simply pile it onto rice. Of course it’s perfect for a easy, healthy bento.
This makes about 3 cups. A 1/2 cup serving is around 150 calories.
At least an hour ahead or the night before, soak the shiitake mushrooms in water. Reserve the soaking liquid.
Chop the garlic chives or green onion, garlic (if you’re using it), and ginger. Cut the stems off the shiitake mushrooms and cut up the caps into small cubes.
Drain the tofu. Place on a plate, uncovered, and microwave on the HIGH or cook setting for about 3 minutes. This is an optional step that gets rid of a lot of the moisture, shortening the cooking time.
Heat up a large frying pan with the sesame oil. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté briefly.
Lower the heat to medium. Add the tofu, crumbling it with your hands. Sprinkle with the salt, which also helps to draw out the moisture from the tofu. Stir and crumble/cut up the tofu with your spatula as you stir it around. The tofu should start to resemble rather dry scrambled eggs.
While the tofu cooks, combine the miso, soy sauce and about 4 Tbs. or so of the mushroom soaking liquid, to make a smooth paste. Add to the pan and continue stirring, until the liquid is completely absorbed and the pan is dry. Finish off with a little ground sansho pepper or black pepper.
Let cool completely before using in a bento. (See it in a ‘donburi’ style bento .)
Make ahead note: I recommend making this the night before. You can store it for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but not longer, since tofu can spoil and/or pick up odors in the fridge. You can freeze it fairly successfully, though the tofu will get a bit spongy. Divide into individual portions for freezing, and use up within a month.
I was inspired to make these little nuggets of vegan goodness by a recipe for mochi chicken  that was posted in the forums by member SojoMojo. He says that mochi chicken is a common dish in Hawaii; he grew up eating them and now loves to use them in his bentos. (As I learn more about Hawaiian cuisine, I realize that it departs from Japanese cuisine in many interesting ways, even if many of its roots are in Japan.) The mochi flour, cornstarch and egg batter produces a coating that is hard and crispy on the outside, and soft and mochi-like on the inside. Chicken lovers should try his recipe for sure!
For this vegan variation, I’ve used kouya dofu, or free-dried tofu. See an indepth description of kouya dofu . You can find it in the dried goods section of a Japanese grocery store, and it should be pretty inexpensive. It keeps indefinitely in the pantry, making it a great item to stock. If you can’t get hold of kouya dofu, see the notes below about how to use regular tofu you’ve frozen yourself. I’ve also eliminated the egg from the coating, but the flavor-filled liquid in the pre-cooked tofu still produces a nice soft mochi-like interior.
As with all the vegan-protein recipes I post here, this tastes delicious to omnivores like myself too. As a matter of fact, when I packed a bento recently for the self-professed “bovo-vegetarian” in the house recently with these nuggets together with something meaty, he said he preferred these a lot more!
The whole process takes some time, but you can cook the tofu in advance and just coat and fry them up when you need them.
About 50 to 60 calories per nugget, depending on how well they are drained after frying.
For Step 1:
Soak the kouya dofu squares in water for a few minutes to soften. Lightly press them to expel the water. Cut the squares into quarters.
Combine the other ingredients in a pan and bring up to a simmer. Put the kouya dofu in (add some water or dashi if you need it to cover the squares), and simmer for about 10 minutes with a lid on. Turn the heat off and let cool. You can refrigerate this for 2-3 days. The simmered kouya dofu is delicious as-is, so you could use half of them just so (press out a bit of the liquid to prevent a flood in your bento box) and the rest for the nuggets.
For Step 2:
Combine the mochi flour and cornstarch. Take the kouya dofu squares out of the liquid, and press lightly to get rid of excess moisture. Coat them in the combined flour.
Heat up a frying pan with about 1/2 inch / 1 cm of frying oil. (You can add a few drops of sesame oil if you like to add a nutty flavor.) Fry the nuggets on both sides until golden brown and crispy. Drain off the oil well.
For bentos, let them cool down before putting into the box. They are also delicious piping hot.
If you are using regular tofu, you will need to freeze it as per the instructions on this page . Once the tofu has become spongy, press out the moisture as well as you can, then proceed as above and cook them in the liquid, etc. Regular frozen tofu doesn’t have the same meaty texture as kouya dofu, but it’s still pretty good.
Turnip cake or daikon radish cake (law bock gaw in Cantonese, called daikon mochi (大根餅）in Japanese) is a staple of dim sum. It’s also part of the Chinese New Year feast. It is dense, a bit sticky, and very filling.
Traditionally it’s made from shredded white turnip, or more commonly from shredded daikon radish, rice flour, various shredded or chopped vegetables, plus dried shrimp, Chinese ham or bacon and/or sausage and so on, and it’s fried in lard. Given that it’s pretty good to eat hot or at room temperature, I tried making a vegan version, which could be the main protein in a vegan bento, or a combination protein-carb. I am pretty happy with the results.
I’ll show you two ways to make this. The first is the traditional method of putting the batter into a heatproof dish or mold and to steam it for about an hour, let it cool, and then slice the cake and fry the pieces. The second method omits the steaming stage and is a lot faster. Both methods yield little cakes that are dense, filling and mochi-like on the inside with a sweetness that comes from the shredded daikon radish, and crispy-salty on the outside.
It’s not exactly a quick recipe, though the second method is a lot faster. But you can make a lot of them at once and freeze the extras. Weekend project perhaps?
This amount of batter will make a square cake that yields about 48 little cakes, each about 50-60 calories depending on how much oil you use to fry them in.
Equipment needed: bamboo steamer, heatproof square or circular mold, frying pan
Equipment suggested: a food processor
Soak the shiitake mushrooms in enough warm water to cover, until they are softened. (Or you can leave them overnight in the refrigerator in cold water.)
Combine the rice flours in a bowl.
Peel the daikon radish and shred them with the fine shredder attachment of a food processor, or by hand with a grater. You should end up with around 4 cups. Squeeze them out by hand and reserve the liquid.
Shred or julienne the carrot. Chop up the green onion and optional coriander finely.
Drain and squeeze out the shiitake mushrooms and reserve the soaking liquid. Te the stems off the shiitake mushrooms and slice thinly.
Heat up a wok or frying pan with the sesame oil, and briefly stir fry the vegetables, white beans and edamame (but not the the daikon) just until it’s all coated with the oil and smelling very nice. You can add some red chili pepper flakes or chopped fresh chili pepper if you want some spiciness. Add the soy sauce, stir around a bit and take off the heat.
Dissolve the miso in the mushroom soaking liquid.
Stir the daikon into the rice flours. Add the mushroom soaking liquid with the dissolved miso. Add the sautéed vegetables. Add just enough of the reserved daikon liquid until the batter like a very thick pancake batter (it shouldn’t be liquid-runny, but rather heavy).
Lightly oil your mold. Pour in the batter. Put the mold in the steamer. Here’s how the batter looks in the mold:
Steam (don’t forget to add more water if the steamer is running dry!) for 1 hour or it’s firm to the touch in the middle. Take the mold out of the steamer and let cool, then refrigerate, covered, overnight. Here’s how the cake looks un-molded:
Take out the cold cake, and cut with a sharp, wet knife inti squares. You can just cut off as much as you want to use at one time. Fry the squares in a little vegetable oil until golden brown on both sides.
Optionally brush the surface with a little soy sauce or hoisin sauce, or dip in some vinegar-soy sauce when eating.
Equipment needed: A frying pan (no steamer, mold, etc), lid
If you are thinking to yourself, Steamer? Mold? Steam 1 hour? Refrigerate overnight? No way! - there is a much easier and faster method. Just drop tablespoons of the batter onto a hot oiled frying pan, lower the heat to low, put a lid on, and steam-fry until the bottoms are a golden brown. Turn over and repeat on the other side. This only takes about 10-12 minutes, and tastes just as good, even if they aren’t the traditional square shape.
If you are making the cakes with this method, you might consider halving the recipe. Extra cakes freeze very well, either after frying or before. (I prefer to fry them so they can just be defrosted quickly in a toaster oven or a dry frying pan.)
The chicken recipes  here on Just Bento are always very popular. And why not? Chicken is relatively inexpensive, cooks fast, and is fairly low-fat if you trim it judiciously.
This very simple Asian-fusionesque flavored marinated chicken breast recipe can be made without the skewers, but it’s just that much more fun, and somehow seems to taste better, if you put it on a stick.
Makes 4 skewers, enough for 2 bentos. This takes only 5-6 minutes to cook, not including the marinating time, and can be prepped the night before. Each skewer is about 60 calories.
A few drops of fish sauce (optional; available at Thai or general Asian grocery stores)
oil for cooking, about 1 Tbs.
Cut the chicken breast into 4 strips lengthwise. Thread them onto skewers. The trick is to sort of fold the pieces accordion-style, and to skewer them through the folds.
Combine the marinade ingredients. Marinade the skewered chicken for at least 5 minutes, ideally about an hour. You can marinate it overnight.
You can grill the skewers, or just cook them in a frying pan. Here I’m cooking them with some sweet pepper strips. I put the peppers in the pan (with a little oil) first, since they take longer. Once they were nicely roasted I pushed them aside and put the chicken in the middle. The chicken only takes a 2 to 3 minutes per side to cook. Take out the pepper slices, and pour in the marinade to glaze the chicken.
You can take the chicken off the skewers, but I think it’s a lot more fun to eat them off the skewers. I did add quite a bit of chili pepper flakes here, but you can vary the amount to suit your heat preference.
One of the fun things about hanging around in Japan is that I can experiment more freely than I can at home with some very Japanese ingredients, since they are much cheaper here. Quinoa  is one of my grains (as an alternative to rice) for bentos, since it maintains its distinct, poppy texture even when cooled. As it happens, quinoa (written キヌア and pronounced as ki-nu-wa) is getting quite popular in Japan as it seems to be all over the world, and it’s sold at regular supermarkets. This is quite different from the situation a few years ago when I had to smuggle a bag in for my mother to try. I married quinoa with various things that were in my mother’s refrigerator that needed to be used up. We both loved the result, both hot and the next day when we had the leftovers. This should keep nicely in the fridge for at least 2-3 days. You could just pack this alone in a bento box, and you’ll get all the major nutrition groups - carbs, protein, a little fat and vegetables, plus fiber - in one go.
“Wafuu” means “traditional Japanese style” by the way. Quinoa is not at all Japanese, but the flavors in this are.
3 to 4 servings
Rinse the quinoa grains in a fine meshed sieve. (Note: this step may not be necessary these days, since most quinoa sold now seems to be pre-rinsed. However, it’s a good idea to rinse it anyway since quinoa does have a natural soapy coating, which will taste bitter if it’s not rinsed off.)
If you have a rice cooker, put the quinoa, water and the dashi stock granules (or use your own homemade dashi) into the bowl. Switch it on - use the ‘rapid cooking’ (i.e. no soaking time needed) setting, if your cooker has one. This is the easiest hands-free way to cook quinoa. If you don’t have a rice cooker, cook the quinoa by putting 2 cups of water and the dashi granules first to a heavy-bottomed pot, bringing it up to a boil, adding the grains and then lowering the heat to a bare simmer. Put on a tight fitting lid and let cook until all the water is absorbed. This takes about 15 minutes.
In the meantime, chop and prep your vegetables. Cut up the satsuma-age.
Heat up the oil in a frying pan or wok, and add the ginger and green onions. Sauté briefly until he oil smells very fragrant. Add the sakura ebi. Add the satsuma-age and sauté until it starts to brown. Add the cup up vegetables, and sauté until tender but crisp, about 3-4 minutes.
Add the quinoa and stir well. Add the soy sauce, and a few drops of sesame oil if you like it. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot or cold. A nice garnish for this is some shredded shiso leaves, or beni shouga (shredded pickled ginger, see okonomiyaki ).
It’s fresh sakura ebi season here in Japan by the way. Here’s a fresh sakura ebi sushi (next to a fresh shirasu (tiny fish) sushi) that I had the other day. (Not recommended for bentos though.)