Johbisai or Joubisai: Building up a bento making 'stash'

Anyone who does any kind of art or craft work is familiar with the concept of a stash. A knitter for example has a stash of different kinds of yarn. This really helps to get the creative juices flowing. In bento making terms, the equivalent of a stash is joubisai (or johbisai) (常備菜). Literally this means ‘always available food’. They are stored foods that can be kept for a while, which can be pulled out and used on short notice, and enrich and streamline the bento making process. It’s a combination of what we know of as kitchen staples plus pre-prepared little tidbits, specifically meant for making bento (or any other meal, but here we’ll talk about bento-specific johbisai). Japanese people who regularly make bento almost always have their own stash of johbisai secreted in their refrigerators, fridges and cupboards.

For example, I usually have several kinds of Japanese pickles and tsukudani (various foods cooked for a long time in a soy sauce based sauce) in the fridge, things like store bought furikake (though I usually prefer to make my own) and nori seaweed n the pantry, and various frozen tidbits in the freezer - mini meatballs, a mushroom mix, braised pork cubes, little stacks of pre-prepared vegetables.

Building up a bento stash is not too difficult, and you don’t have to have dedicated cooking sessions to make them. Whenever I make meatloaf or meatballs for dinner, I always make something with the ground meat mixture that be used in future bentos - mini meatballs, tiny hamburgers, even mini meatloafs. I will usually pre-cook them, let them cool while I’m making the rest of dinner, freeze them on a metal tray then dump them all into a plastic freezer bag. (I’m a big fan of plastic bags because they take up minimal space.) If I blanch spinach, I’ll take out some, make small bundles of them and freeze in a similar way.

Whenever you are cooking, think of ways in which you can set aside a little or make a bit extra that can be used for bento making. Just having your own stash can really ease your mind and enrich your bento boxes.

See the list at the end of this article for bento-friendly johbisai recipes.

How to keep johbisai

Refrigerated johbisai items should be well wrapped to keep odors out (or in). Unless they are preserved foods like pickles, you should never keep them for longer than a week at maximum; meat items should be used up within 3-4 days or be frozen.

When freezing, think of the nature of whatever it is you want to freeze and store accordingly. For example, anything that should be moist should be wrapped up in plastic while it still a little warm, to retain that moisture. Rice is the best example of this type of food, as are something like steamed dumplings or anything made with flour. Other items should be cooled completely to room temperature before freezing, in order to prevent a buildup of moisture and ice crystals on the surface, which may cause it to defrost in a soggy state..

Putting items in small portion-sized quantities on a metal tray helps them to freeze very fast, which is what you want to do. It also helps to keep each portion separate once you pack them into well-sealed plastic bags or containers.

Try to use up any frozen cooked food within a month for optimum quality.

Build your stash up slowly

Don’t get too hung up on growing your bento stash though. As long as you have at least a couple of things stored away that you can pull out when needed, that’s fine. I’d really like people to get away from the idea that you need to get together a lot of ‘stuff’ before embarking on their bento making adventures! Just take it easy and jump in!

A few of my favorite storebought stock items

In the freezer:

  • Frozen peas
  • Frozen edamame, both in the shell and shelled
  • Frozen mixed vegetables of all kinds, such as peas and carrots
  • Frozen uncooked shrimp, peeled or whole
  • Frozen berries
  • Seeds like sesame and sunflower. I find they can turn rancid fast at room temperature, so if I buy a big bag of sesame seeds, I put it in a plastic container with a lid and freeze it. I can just scoop out what I need.

In the refrigerator:

  • Japanese or Western pickles and cornichons (once opened)
  • Miso, kochujang, and other miso-like pastes (once opened)
  • Umeboshi (pickled plums) (once opened)
  • Eggs. Always have some eggs.
  • Fresh ginger

In the pantry:

  • Vegetables that can be kept out of refrigeration: onions, garlic, potatoes
  • Various canned goods, especially tuna, sardines, salmon, anchovies, all kinds of beans, certain vegetables (corn, tomatoes)
  • I stock various dried Japanese foods like seaweed (nori, wakame, konbu, hijiki, tororo konbu), dried tofu (kouya dofu) and dried daikon radish (kiriboshi daikon), but these are strictly optional. Very convenient though!
  • Furikake (optional)
  • Soup stock cubes or granules, dashi stock granules
  • Soy sauce
  • Mirin and sake (optional unless you make a lot of Japanese food)
  • Vinegars - I have rice, red wine and balsamic right now
  • Salt, pepper
  • Various spices such as dried red chili pepper flakes and powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika (hot and sweet), turmeric, curry powder, garam masala mix, cumin, coriander, cardamon, sansho pepper, and on and on…
  • Dried herbs: Thyme, rosemary, Herbes de Provence mixture
  • Flour
  • Cornstarch or potato starch
  • Oils - olive, sesame, neutral flavored cooking oil such as canola or sunflower or peanut
  • Agar-agar powder
  • Sugar or sugar substitutes and other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave syrup
  • Ketchup
  • Tomato paste
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • “Bulldog” sauce (Japanese steak or tonkatsu sauce) (optional)
  • Hoisin sauce (optional)
  • Sriracha sauce or chili sauce of your choice (e.g. harisa)
  • Rice (brown and white) and other grains like quinoa, millet, amaranth, barley
  • Dried beans - red kidney, chickpeas, white beans, azuki beans
  • Dried pasta
  • Nut butters
  • Raw nuts - almonds, pine nuts, cashew nuts (use up before they turn rancid)
  • Dry crackers and long-keeping bread like rye crackers and those little round breads you can get at Ikea

See also

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Cold before freezing

Hi! Maybe a silly question, but why is it important to let food items cool completely before freezing? Is it because if they aren’t cold before you put them in the freezer they potentially raise the temperature inside or is it because of something related to the quality of the food item itself?

// Manne

It has to do with the freezer

Manne, everything I’ve read about this seems to say that it has mostly to do with the temperature of hot food affecting what’s already in the freezer. But I’ve found that, depending on the type of food (and if it’s in small portions) it’s ok to put it in the freezer while it’s still warm. You can help it cool down faster by putting it on a metal tray until it’s frozen. Hope that helps!

Okay, this is a little late,

Okay, this is a little late, but I think, it might be the same reason as for the fridge: If the food is still hot, it will cause more condensation inside the fridge/freezer while it’s cooling down —> you have to defrost your fridge/freezer more often :) Anyway, that’s what my mother said, when I wanted to put a hot pudding in the fridge, because I’m always so unpatient. zyna


I am just now getting to this site which has been saved. If i were to make the rice balls can I then freeze them in wrapper with the goodies inside? Do u suggest a dipping sauce? for a teenage boy how many balls do u suggest and finally i have in its original wrapper never opened Prepared Radish which was bought a gazillion years ago, can i use it? never opened


Sorry I think I forgot to reply! Yes you can freeze onigiri with the insides. If you like crisper nori, don’t wrap them in nori before freezing, and just wrap them when they are defrosted.

An onigiri should be well flavored enough to not need any dipping sauce.

For a teenage boy…as many as he wants! :) (unless he has a weight problem. But your typical teenage boy can burn off anything he eats I think.)

I’m not sure what the Prepared Radish is so i’m not sure…if it’s takuan (long, yellow thing…dried and pickled daikon radish) they do keep rather indefinitely, but proceed with caution…

Sushi rice?

Hello :) Excellent site! Can you tell me if it’s OK to freeze sushi rice after its been shaped and allowed to cool down? Keep up the good work!

Yes you can, but it may not

Yes you can, but it may not taste as good - something about adding the sushi seasonings to the rice seems to change its texture somehow. If you do freeze it though, you’ll want to actually heat it up again (by defrosting in the microwave, or even steaming it) then letting it cool back to room temperature.

See also how to freeze rice.

jumping in!

It’s great that you emphasize getting started instead of waiting for the right box or a big cache of foods! That’s what my husband and I did and we’re truckin along quite nicely now! Our first few trips to the Asian Market were a lil intimidating but we know so much more about what things are and what things we like! I’m even able to distinguish from the packing what is most likely Japanese, Chinese and Korean! It’s been alot of fun and, this will sound totally cheesy, has really brought us together! :D

Our biggest “jump” has been trying natto - it didn’t go so well but we’ve since learned that there are some tricks to making it more…. “palatable”! (and if you have any suggestions we’d certainly welcome them!!)

Thanks for being our “go to” resource for great bento info! :D

Myself and my nephew just

Myself and my nephew just tried natto this past weekend - and we were expecting some slimy stinky cheese dish, but it really wasn’t like that at all. I thought it smelled like burnt coffee beans? I am craving it right now even though I am not a huge fan of the taste yet. What did you do to make it more palatable, just curious?


Natto can is enhanced a lot, and the distinct ‘smelly’ character lessened, by adding for instance mustard (which is why most natto packs come with a tiny sachet of mustard); finely chopped green onions; wasabi; even chopped shallots. Also, if you cook natto the sliminess largely disappears. Not sure why your natto smelled like burned coffee beans though…I’ve never had natto that had that characteristic! (Natto is definitely a food which is an acquired taste - when you first have it it can taste awful; the next time it’s tolerable; then pretty good; then soon you start to crave the flavor regularly!)

I’m a mom who packs lunch.

I’m a mom who packs lunch. What’s important to a mom? Nutrition and speed: I want to feed my family nutritious food, but spending a lot of time on every meal isn’t feasible. I strive to achieve balance between the two — losing this battle would either have me waking up hours before everyone else to cook lunch, or reaching for a Lunchable processed lunch (the face of the enemy, pictured above).

Spending an hour preparing a weekday lunch is only going to happen in my house if it’s a special occasion like a birthday or holiday — I spend my morning getting myself and a preschooler ready to go out. Although ornate lunches shaped like cartoon characters and whimsical shapes are artistic and intriguing, I know my limits. I would burn out if I tried to do that every day. For me it’s got to be sustainable over the long run, which is why I make speed bentos.

How did I get to this point? I lived in Japan as an expat for nine years and am fluent in Japanese, but didn’t pay much attention to the whole lunch-packing (”bento”) culture there until my husband was misdiagnosed with a food intolerance that ruled out restaurant meals. Back in San Francisco, I decided to send him to work with delicious lunches that would make him feel like he was eating better than his colleagues who were going out to eat. A trip to the local Japanese-language bookstore turned up bento cookbooks that I started studying, especially the creative packing tips and techniques that could be adapted to our normal diet. My husband has since been “undiagnosed” with the food intolerance, but then I found myself carting around a diaper bag stuffed full of little Tupperware containers for my toddler son (”Bug”), or leaving the playground early to go get lunch. Time to pull out those bento boxes again so we can spend more fun time out and about!

So now I’m learning to think on my feet when I look at the refrigerator in the morning. Where I used to see either uninspiring food or time-consuming meals, I can now see quick lunches taking shape. I have fast lunch items in the freezer and fridge, and speedy prep techniques at my fingertips. Let me tell you about some of the speed techniques I’ve picked up from reading Japanese packed lunch cookbooks.

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