Food & Drink

Food & Drink
Kawaii desu yo!
Image: crystal watanabe

The Art of the Homemade Bento Box

Beyond brown bag sandwiches

Food & Drink / What are you having for lunch today? Are you going out to buy a meat jun plate? Steak plate? Zip pac? That probably costs you around $8-10 a day. With gasoline now costing about as much per gallon as a Jamba Juice smoothie, it’s time to start looking around for ways to cut costs, and lunch is a great place to start.

While brown-bagging-it can be boring and unexciting, it doesn’t have to be. In Hawaii, we’ve all grown up with the concept of the bento: Lunch packed in a box ready to take with you. The problem with that is the bento you buy can oftentimes be just as expensive as a plate lunch, and, with its contents being mostly meat with tons of rice, it’s not exactly helping your waistline either. Sure, it’s got that one slice of takuan, but that’s about all the vegetables you’ll find in a typical ready-made bento.

Packing your own bento lunch means you have full control over what you eat come lunch hour, and, by packing yourself a lot of small portions of food, it slowly becomes easier to eat much less and still be satisfied.

That being said, there’s no denying that you can get to the point where you’re breaking your back each morning to make yourself a great lunch. Here are a few tips to help save you some valuable time in the morning:

• Use those leftovers! Set aside a portion of dinner for your bento the next day. Save some rice too! (Or if you have a warmer, cook a little extra for dinner that will keep until morning.)

• Buy ready-made colorful sides such as cucumber pickles, takuan, eggplant pickles, pickled ginger, etc.

• Making breakfast eggs? Crack one or two more and make yourself a tasty piece of egg or some scrambled eggs as a side dish.

• If you don’t have leftover vegetables to use, microwave a few broccoli florets in a Pyrex container with water for a minute or two, and then cover to let it steam. Sprinkle with salt.

When you’re just starting out, packing your bento in a plastic container is a great way to go. However, once you get more serious you may want to look into buying a more permanent solution, such as a metal tiffin. Lunch Bots ([www.lunchbots.com]) and Eco Lunch Boxes ([www.ecolunchboxes.com]) both have great options that cost you around $20.

To get you started, here is a mochiko chicken bento with packing tips and recipes:

Mochiko Chicken Bento

Contents:

• Rice

• 4-5 pieces mochiko chicken

• Steamed broccoli

• Crab and scrambled egg

• Grape tomato

• Cucumber and eggplant pickles

• Roasted sesame seeds

Packing the box:

• Add your rice first, filling about 1/3 of the box; use chopsticks to compact it to the side.

• Arrange the mochiko chicken pieces alongside the rice.

• Tuck the broccoli in next to the mochiko chicken, cutting larger florets in half to make them fit as needed.

• Add a cupcake cup to the box and fill with scrambled egg, removing any if it starts to overflow.

• Add the pickles, using either a piece of lettuce, foil, plastic wrap or another cupcake cup to separate it from your food.

• Tuck the grape tomato into the middle.

• Add parsley for garnish if desired.

• Sprinkle sesame seeds on top of the rice.

Recipes:

Mochiko Chicken (full recipe for dinner)

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into pieces

4 tbsp mochiko sweet rice flour

4 tbsp cornstarch

4 tbsp sugar

5 tbsp shoyu

2 eggs

1/4 cup chopped green onions

1/2 tsp salt

2 cloves garlic (grated)

• Combine all ingredients in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag and store in the refrigerator overnight to marinate.

• Heat about 1 oz of oil in a large, heavy pot.

• Fry chicken in oil until golden brown, turning pieces over often to prevent the sugar from burning.

Crab and Pea Scrambled Egg

1 egg

1 stick imitation crab

frozen green peas

shoyu

salt

• Scramble the egg.

• Dice the crab and crumble it into pieces. Add to egg along with peas. Sprinkle lightly with salt and add a light splash of shoyu.

• Lightly oil a heated skillet and add the egg mixture.

• Cook while stirring with chopsticks to crumble the egg pieces.

While you won’t be earning a healthy eating award for putting fried chicken in your bento, the portion of meat is much smaller than in a typical plate lunch and is accompanied by fresh veggies and a protein packed side. The pickled veggies add a nice, tasty punch to the lunch and nicely rounds out the various tastes. Using leftovers from dinner and counting time to cook the eggs, this should only take you about 15 minutes to pack and costs about $2 to make.

Crystal “Pikko” Watanabe is a wife and mother of two and lives in Honolulu. Co-author of the bento cookbook Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches, Watanabe is also the author of the bento blog Adventures in Bentomaking ([www.aibento.net]).