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!)