Thursday, December 3rd, 2009...7:17 pm
Obento 101: Bento Basics
Those of you who follow me on twitter or flickr probably know by now that I’ve been mad about bento for a while. It all started sometime in the middle of September, when bunny and I were both So Bored of all the food in Central (where she works). I mean, as much as Hong Kong is the Land of Food, there’s only so many days in a row when one can eat wonton noodles or congee with century eggs.
It’s been 2.5 months now, and apart from when we weren’t in town, or when bunny had lunch meetings, she’s gotten a w-packed bento box for every single weekday lunch. The best part is that making one for myself as well means I don’t end up eating instant noodles or ordering pizza for myself either, which used to happen when I was too lazy to get out of the house for lunch (i.e way too often). Now, our bentos aren’t of the macrobiotic, whole-wheat, largely vegetarian variety either, but we’ve been eating nutritious, balanced meals. And since my bento boxes (which I bought from the awesome Bento & Co. to replace my prettier but less sensible lacquerware ones) each have two equal-sized compartments, it’s easy enough to divide: one compartment gets half carb and half protein, the other compartment gets fruits and veg.
After the first week or so, I also got into the swing of things and have now learnt to build up a small but dependable stash of freezer staples for each week. We also get to use up doggy-bagged leftovers from when we eat out, which we always used to just chuck in the fridge and forget about till they had to be thrown out. I think I’ve figured out a few tips for those of us bento-makers who don’t/can’t/won’t wake up early enough to assemble the bentos each morning, and hopefully those of you looking to make your foray into bento-making will benefit from what I’ve learnt. I can’t say I’m anywhere near a pro at this bento stuff, but well, I’m sure there’s always stuff we can learn from each other. Likewise, I’d love to hear what tips and tricks you guys have, if you bento too. :)
- Use Your Freezer
- What To Include
- What NOT To Include
Daily bentos would be darn near impossible if I didn’t use my freezer the way I do now. I’m not much of a morning person, which means there’s no way I would ever get up at 6am to prepare a fresh batch of rice, let alone cook all the other components of our obentos. My favourite tip that I learned from Just Bento (my favourite online resource for all things bento), was that rice freezes really well! You just have to make sure that you clingfilm your portions of rice while the rice is still hot and wrap the clingfilmed bricks in a heavy-duty ziploc freezer bag, ‘cos that way you’ll trap the moisture in, and once you nuke it (I microwave a 150g packet for about 4 minutes on high, or two packets for 6 minutes), it’ll be a little parcel of moist, steamy rice, which you can then fluff up and no one will be able to tell that you made it last weekend. I also like making some staples like simmered kabocha (japanese pumpkin) and meat soboro (which I’ll talk about in a later post), and these all freeze great as well. Apart from my giant fortnightly rice-cooking/packing operation, it generally takes me about 10-15 minutes each evening to assemble the next day’s bento, which makes it a much more accessible task.
There aren’t that many things that can’t find a happy home in your bento – leftovers from last night’s dinner, stewed/steamed/stir-fried veggies, eggs, fruit, and all types of meat. My basic bento is a rice bento: rice, some meat, vegetables (cooked or raw), maybe some egg or tofu as a secondary protein, and some fruit for dessert. Flavour combinations work the same way as any other meal, so if you’d be happy eating some stir fried beef with steamed broccoli and fried tofu on rice for dinner, there’s no reason why that wouldn’t work in your obento. I also like to surprise bunny with her some of her favourite snacks every now and then. For example, she loves mushrooms, but I hate them, but I’ll buy a batch of mushrooms to cook up for her in different ways once every week or fortnight to make sure she’s not missing out just ‘cos I don’t like them.
I pack my bentos the night before, since – as mentioned – I’m really not a morning person. This means that whatever I pack is going to be sitting in the fridge for at least 8-10 hours, and then on bunny’s desk for another 3-4 hours before she eats it. So as much as you can theoretically include anything you want in your bento, I have to keep in mind not to put in things that wouldn’t work if they had to be microwaved. For example, fish tends to overcook very easily, and if I have thin fillets of fish over densely packed rice, I know that by the time the rice is warmed through in the microwave, the fish is going to be overcooked. Apart from the odd pasta salad, I probably also wouldn’t try to pack in pasta dishes – claggy sauces, overcooked noodles.. ew! You also don’t want to include things that would spoil easily like raw fish on sushi, or eggs that are particularly runny, as they’re just open invitations for bacteria to come out and play. (For the eggs in the picture below, I only cut them open just before I was going to eat them, since they’re runny inside, and kept them properly refrigerated right up till lunch time.)
The main reason bunny and I started on this bento stuff was because we were bored of the lunch choices around her workplace. Keep in mind, as awesome as it may be to be tucking into home-cooked food for lunch while everyone else is chewing on cardboard sandwiches, you’d still get bored. Even if you were eating your favourite food every single day. So mix things up – some days I make pasta salads with leftover bits of ham or bacon (pictured at the top of the post), some days green salads. This week, I made yakisoba and fried up some e-fu noodles with minced pork and shredded chinese lettuce since bunny was getting bored of rice bentos. Over at Just Bento, Maki’s got a great Weekly Meal Planner which is great for meal planning (obviously), but also to help you keep track of what you’ve been eating/packing, so you know if you’re getting boring and need to mix things up a little. (See, I told you! That site is Fantastic.)
Alright, I’ll admit it: half the reason I got tempted to start on bentos was the evil world of e-commerce. Shopping for bento boxes was such fun! :) But there’s a reason why the ones I started out using wouldn’t cut it. First, the lid didn’t shut firmly, so if I had a stewed dish with lots of sauce, it might spill and leak out while bunny made her way to work. Second, there was only one compartment, which meant that I either everything had to be microwaved at lunchtime, or nothing at all. The boxes I now use each have 2 compartments, each with a 450ml capacity. So if I want to include raw veg, they can sit in one compartment while the rice and meat goes in a different one. That way, when bunny’s in the pantry at work, she doesn’t need to pick out her fruit from her rice to microwave. And, these sets came with an elastic band to keep the two compartments snapped firmly together, even when I pack them a little too full. Also, unless you’re sure that you’re never going to need to microwave your bentos, I’d recommend getting a microwave-safe box instead of a metal one, and ensure that it’s big enough to contain a meal that will satiate your biggest eater. (Keep in mind that most bento boxes are made with kids in mind, so they might be a little on the small side for adults.)
Another thing you might want to consider is getting tumblers for soup or hot drinks – if you, like bunny, love hot soups, you can get an insulated tumbler (which means you’ll have to heat the soup up in the morning before packing it), or get a couple of cheap Lock & Lock type water-tight containers which can then be microwaved to heat up along with the rest of your lunch. But if you’re just including a packet of juice, a neat idea I got from Jamie Oliver is to freeze the tetra-pack, which helps to keep the items in your lunch bag cold, and will also melt into a slushy by the time lunch comes around. In fact, if you have a 2-tiered bento, you could also do away with the top lid and use the elastic band to tie your juice pack to the top so as to keep its contents cool.
There’s no need to go out and spend an arm and a leg on your bento boxes, especially if you’re going into bento to try and save money (which is a great idea, by the way – my bentos cost a mere fraction of how much we used to spend eating out). Just keep in mind that you want something easy to clean (dishwasher safe if you’ve got one), microwave safe, and big enough for your meals. I’d also recommend looking for those that come with elastic bands, but you could always DIY that bit, or use a collection of tightly-lidded plastic containers, of course.
One last thing which I’m sure you’re all already aware of: the internet is rife with resources on all topics under the sun, including bento making. So whether it’s cute charaben or the more ordinary, everyday lunch bentos you’re looking to make, have a sniff around online. I’ve learnt loads from the sites I’ve found (most of all from Just Bento and Just Hungry), as well as a whole bunch of others which are a quick google search away.