What is a Bento?
Bento (弁当) is a Japanese word that refers to both a portable meal, as well as the container it’s carried in. With a history stretching back nearly 700 years, it was originally a utilitarian meal meant to be carried to work. The fancy lacquered boxes came later when bento would be eaten for special events such as hanami, or Noh performances. These days bento can be found almost anywhere in Japan, from train stations to convenience stores, and they’ve even started spreading around the world.
Packing a Bento
These days, there are so many styles of bento that there aren’t any hard and fast rules. That being said, here are three guidelines I like to follow to ensure my bentos are practical, balanced, and beautiful:
- Use a small container – While you can get a fancy bento box to pack your bento in, it’s not unnecessary. A small shallow plastic or glass food container will work just as well. The only important thing is that it shouldn’t be too large. This controls the portions you can include, but more importantly it allows you to pack your bento in tight so that the food doesn’t shift around while you’re on the go.
- Use edible partitions – I see a lot of people using disposable paper or plastic partitions or cups in their bentos, and they are almost always unnecessary. By using leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, or cabbage, you can keep your food from mingling, while cramming in more vegetables.
- Make it colorful – For me, a great bento includes most of the colors of the rainbow. This not only makes the lunchbox visually appealing, but it also ensures that you’re getting a good balance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
How to Make Ginger Chicken Bento
I try and limit the protein to about a quarter of the bento, and for this one, I’ve added some Ginger Chicken and Tamagoyaki.
- Ginger Chicken – With tender, juicy chicken glazed in a sweet and savory sauce that’s redolent of ginger, making this easy bento entree is as simple as pan-frying some chicken, and then glazing it with sake, soy sauce, sugar, and ginger.
- Tamagoyaki – Tamagoyaki is a Japanese omelette made by rolling thin sheets of seasoned egg and then slicing the resulting log, exposing the layers of egg. It’s a staple of Japanese breakfasts, and the leftovers are perfect for adding a splash of color and protein to a bento.
In a traditional Japanese bento, up to half of the bento is rice, but I like to cut that back to about a quarter of the bento. For this bento, I’m using partially milled rice, which is a perfect middle ground between unmilled brown rice and white rice, which has had the most nutritious parts milled away.
Vegetables and Fruits
- Frill Lettuce – Frill lettuce or curly lettuce works great in bento’s because they can not only partition your container, they also make for good padding.
- Broccoli – Broccoli is a fantastic addition to bentos because the fluffy florets are perfect for padding your bento so that the food inside doesn’t shift around in transit. I usually blanch mine in salt water and use most of it in a salad for dinner the night before, but I’ll set aside a few florets to include in a bento the next day.
- Carrots – Carrots add color and texture to this bento. You can use them raw, but I like to lightly blanch them, which makes their color even more vibrant. Cutting the carrot slices into flowers is optional, but it’s a fun way to bring some life to your bento. You can get flower-shaped cutters on Amazon.
- Strawberries – I almost always like to round out my bentos with either strawberries or cherry tomatoes. Either way, you get a burst of sweetness and a vibrant red color.
$3 Bento Challenge
Some of you may know me as the host of Bento Expo, and one thing I’ve learned while doing the show is that bringing a bento lunch from home is perhaps one of the best ways to save money while eating healthier. Unfortunately, Japanese food is often considered expensive or unapproachable, so I want to try and change this perception. To help, I’ve enlisted some of my favorite Japanese YouTubers, including Just One Cookbook, TabiEats, and Chopstick Chronicles, with a challenge to make a delicious balanced bento for under $3 per serving.
If you’d like to participate, share a photo or video of your $3 bento on Instagram or Facebook, and use the hashtag #3DollarBento.
|salt||less than a cent|
For ginger chicken
- 285 grams chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
For packing bento
- 1/2 batch
- 220 grams cooked rice
- 16 grams frill lettuce
- 60 grams broccoli (blanched)
- 2 strawberries
- 24 grams carrots (sliced, blanched, and cut into flowers)
- To make the sauce for the ginger chicken, combine the soy sauce, sake, sugar and grated ginger in a small bowl and stir together until the sugar has dissolved.
- Heat a frying pan over medium heat along with a splash of oil, and add the chicken in a single layer. Fry until it's browned on one side (about 2-3 minutes)
- Flip the chicken over and continue cooking until for another minute.
- Use a paper towel to soak up any excess oil in the pan.
- Add the sauce and caramelize it around the chicken until there's almost no liquid left. Let the chicken cool before packing it into a bento.
- To assemble the bento, add your rice to your bento box first. This provides a base to arrange all your other ingredients.
- Arrange the chicken next to the rice.
- Add some frill lettuce to separate the chicken from the vegetables, and if you have a deeper bento box, you may want to pad the bottom of the box with some lettuce too.
- Add the slices of tamagoyaki using the broccoli to fill the spaces around them.
- Fill the remaining space with the strawberry and slice it in half if necessary.
- Decorate the bento with the flower-shaped carrots.