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Photography: Anett Velsberg-Tiedemann
In the West, many people have heard the term bento without really knowing what it is – something to do with sushi, maybe? In fact, bento simply refers to a packed meal. Many workers take a single-portion, homemade meal packed in a bento box to the office every day. Bento is also a popular take-out food in Japan, sold everywhere from convenience stores and train stations to high-end delis. Many traditional restaurants serve bento only during lunchtime, often in a wood or lacquered bento box.
Bento culture has a long and diverse history in Japan. Records show that people were eating portable, dried rice as early as the fifth century. When the tea ceremony culture developed around the 12th century, elaborate lacquer wares to hold food – similar to today’s bento boxes – started to appear. By the 1600s, the upper class were eating food brought in lacquer boxes while enjoying cherry blossom viewing parties.
Ever since then, bento has been a part of Japanese culture. People ate makunouchi bento, an upscale mixed bento, at the intermissions of plays in the Edo period (1603–1867). Lower-ranked samurai, who made less money, brought their own bento lunches to work to save money, just like Japanese “salarymen” today.
Below you’ll find a selection of recipes from the recipe book, Simply Bento, that will help you to make quick, tasty and healthy bento meals at home.
Prep time 5 minutes Cook time 18 minutes
Quinoa originated in South America but has become a wildly popular grain around the world because of its health benefits. Quinoa’s mild flavor means it goes well with most other foods, and here it’s mixed with a red wine vinaigrette as well as green beans, pistachios, and dried cranberries, making for a satisfying lunchtime salad.
Wash the quinoa in a large bowl, changing the water three times. Add the quinoa and broth to a medium saucepan, and heat until boiling. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, blanch the green beans for two minutes and cut into 1.5in pieces. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper to make the vinaigrette. Combine the cooked quinoa, green beans, pistachios and cranberries, along with the vinaigrette. Serve with chicken breast or another protein source of your choice.
Prep time 7 minutes Cook time 3 minutes
Blanch the asparagus for one minute and drain. Trim the woody part from the bottom of each spear, then cut each spear in half. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the asparagus and cook, stirring, for one minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Garnish with the lemon zest.
Prep time 7 minutes Cook time 3 minutes
Yakisoba is stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables seasoned with yakisoba sauce, which is similar to Worcestershire sauce. It is usually topped with aonori (dried green seaweed flakes) and benishoga (pickled red ginger). Yakisoba noodles are sold at Japanese or Asian markets in the refrigerated section, sometimes with packets of powdered “sauce”. You can use that or bottled yakisoba sauce, also available at Japanese markets.
Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the ground pork and cook for one minute, stirring a couple of times. Add the carrot, bean sprouts, and green onions, and stir for a few seconds. Add the noodles and water, cover and steam for one minute. Loosen the noodles, season them with a little salt and pepper, and stir in the yakisoba sauce. Stir-fry for 30 seconds, or until any remaining liquid is gone. Remove from the heat. Top with the aonori and benishoga.
Prep time 7 minutes Cook time 8 minutes
Cauliflower fried rice is just like fried rice, except the rice is replaced with crumbled cauliflower florets. This is a great dish if you’re limiting your carbohydrate intake.
Chop the cauliflower into very small pieces. Heat the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pork and cook until browned. Add the cauliflower and stir-fry for a couple minutes, until tender. Add the mixed vegetables and cook for one minute, then add the beaten eggs. Keep stir-frying until the eggs are cooked. Season with the salt, pepper, and soy sauce. Finally add the green onions and stir for a few seconds. Top with the benishoga.
Extracted from Simply Bento: Delicious Box Lunch Ideas For Healthy Portions To Go by Yuko and Noriko (Race Point Publishing)
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