It’s a bento cookbook. But I know for a fact that not everyone in Europe will know exactly what bento is. Most people would have heard the word and will remember that it has something or other to do with Japanese food. Bento isn’t an ingredient, it does not have to be Japanese, and it isn’t necessarily even exotic. Bento is a lunch box and The Just Bento Cookbook explaines how to fill it!
Japan is famed for its refined culture. That artistry extends to food and we all know about intricately displayed fish for sashimi, and tightly-rolled and bejewelled sushi, but let’s consider the Japanese equivalent of a curly sandwich. Yes, you are quite right. It doesn’t exist.
Railway stations in Japan offer their customers bento boxes. There are small shops that offer these foods; and mothers and wives send their loved ones from the house with food that will still be tasty after a few hours. Bento is pre-packed lunch, but not often of the cheese-and-pickle and white-sliced variety.
The Just Bento Cookbook – Everyday Lunches to Go will fire the imagination of those responsible for making the food for meal breaks. Kids will be excited by the contents of their plastic boxes and are far less likely to swap for a packet of jelly beans. The suggestions here offer vibrant flavours and different textures as well as dietary balance.
If we lived in Japan we would have a wide selection of bento boxes to choose from. Two layers and interlocking, single layer with movable dividers, large bento box with individual lidded containers within. The rest of the world, apart from India with its unique tiffin boxes, has a plastic box with a snap-on lid. You will be delighted to know that the regular sandwich box or even an ex-almost-butter box will do. No need to go on a shopping spree to Osaka.
For the moment banish from your mind the thought of sarnies. Consider rice, either fluffy or compressed. How’s about some cool and flavourful noodles, some fresh veggies with a light dressing and some cooked meat with a soy sauce lacquer. Sounds enticing doesn’t it?
An inspiring and rich bento meal listed here is that for Ginger Pork Bento. It’s a hearty meal that would work just as well for supper and served on a plate as it does for noon from a box. The tangy meat is paired with braised new potatoes and there are stir-fried peppers and bean sprouts, cauliflower in mayo, and rice to make this a complete meal. An adult bento if ever there was one.
The most child-friendly compilation here is perhaps the Pan-fried Chicken Nugget Bento. It includes a potato salad and a selection of raw vegetables with a citrus-herb sauce. A healthy meal but fun to eat. An alternative might be the Pork and Shrimp Balls with Onigiri. These are balls of compressed rice and much more practical for little lunchers than negotiating separate grains of rice with chop sticks. No need for cutlery at all.
My favourite recipe from The Just Bento Cookbook is for the Sukiyaki-style Beef Donburi Bento. This is another substantial boxful of meat over rice with a garnish of vegetables. The meat has a sweet yet savoury flavour that is most agreeable even when cold. This version uses snow peas (mange-tout) and daikon, but one could substitute other vegetables which might be more readily available.
The Just Bento Cookbook – Everyday Lunches to Go is a colourful and attractive volume that will be a boon to anyone who eats a packed lunch every day. These recipes are simple but will offer something a bit more enticing than the usual sandwich and bag of crisps. There is a bento here for every taste. A book full of practical ideas.
The Just Bento Cookbook – Everyday Lunches to Go
Author: Makiko Itoh
Published by: Kodansha Europe
Asian cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018