How to Make A Lunch Bento

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Last year I returned to Japan and visited the Junior High School where I taught English for two years. During my visit I interviewed students and staff to learn more about Japanese school lunch culture. The thing that most intrigued me was the fact that Japanese children are actively encouraged to learn about food; where it comes from and what it does to our bodies and to the environment.

During my visit the students were working on different food themed projects including highlighting the unhealthy ingredients in processed foods and trying to reduce food wastage in the school canteen.

Japan has one of the best school lunch cultures in the world and countries like Ireland – which are struggling with rising obesity – can learn so much from them.

In Ireland, one in four Irish children are overweight or obese. The World Health Organisation recently predicted Ireland was on course to be the fattest country in Europe by 2030. According to the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, two in five Irish teenagers are eating junk food at school. One of my goals is to use the principles of the Japanese school lunch culture to improve the current system here in Ireland.

How to Make a Bento

My 5 year old boy started school this month so I’ve been focusing even more on creating healthy and fun bento boxes for his lunches. Unlike the Japanese school where I worked as a teacher, my son’s school doesn’t give students a hot lunch so parents need to prepare a packed lunch for their children.

Here are my top tips for creating your own bento box

  • Prepare and plan in advance
  • Use leftovers where possible (it reduces food waste and saves you time)
  • Use a cookie cutter to make vegetables and fruit into fun shapes such as flowers or stars
  • Use colourful and animated bun cases to separate different foods
  • Where possible try to use different colours e.g. if you’re adding a green vegetable (e.g. steamed broccoli) then add a different colour fruit (e.g. sliced strawberries)
  • Avoid using food or dishes that won’t keep well in a lunchbox for a few hours. Foods that stay fresh include rice balls, sushi, steamed rice, salads, pasta, egg, hummus/ dips, steamed vegetables, raw vegetables sticks, sliced fruit, mini sandwiches

The recipes I’m sharing with you are also great for picnics or day trips.

Back to School Bento

When making my son’s lunch I follow the Japanese bento principles which have something from each of the food groups, including carbohydrates such as rice, noodles or bread; meat or fish; and vegetables and fruit.

Fruits and vegetables

  • Mandarin (みかん mikan)
  • Cucumber and carrots cut into shapes using a cookie cutter (キュウリ  kyuri/ ニンジン ninjin)

Onigiri with tuna mayo filling

Makes 6–8 onigiri

Ingredients

  • 160g tin of tuna in brine, drained (マグロの錫maguro no suzu)
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise (マヨネーズ mayonezu)
  • Cooked Japanese white rice (kome) (2 rice cooker-measured cups of uncooked rice, 320g)
  • 1 sheet of nori (ノリnori) (make 8 strips by folding it in half, then a quarter, then one-eighth and then tear it with your hands, or alternatively cut into 8 pieces using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife)
  • A few tablespoons of sesame seeds (ゴマ goma)

Method

  1. Mix the tuna and mayonnaise together in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Leave the piping hot cooked rice aside for a minute or so to avoid burning your hands.
  3. Dip your hands into the bowl of water.
  4. Take a handful of rice and, using both hands, shape it into an oval shape. Then, using your thumb, make a hollow in the middle of the rice ball, deep enough to fit one tablespoon of the tuna mayo.
  5. Place the tuna mayo in the hollow. Gently fold the walls of the rice ball over the filling until it is completely covered.
  6. Using both hands shape the rice ball into a triangular or oval shape, pressing firmly on the rice so it’s secure and won’t fall apart.
  7. Take one of the strips of nori and wrap around the bottom of the rice ball. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top.
  8. Continue to make the rice balls until all the rice is used.

Tip: To keep onigiri fresh wrap them individually in cling film or tinfoil.

Ebi fried panko prawns

Serves 2–4 (makes 12 panko prawns)

Ingredients

  • 12 large uncooked prawns plain flour to coat (エビebi)
  • 1–2 eggs (卵) tamago(depending on prawn size), beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper
  • Panko to coat (パン粉panko)
  • Vegetable oil for deep-frying (植物油shokubutsuabura)

Method

  1. To de-shell the prawns, pull off the head and legs with your fingers, and peel away the shell. Do not remove the tails as they look nicer with the tails attached.
  2. To de-vein the prawns, check to see if there’s a black line running down the back of the prawn. If so, remove using a toothpick. This can be eaten, but the prawn tastes and looks better without it.
  3. Wash the prawns under a cold running tap and pat dry with kitchen paper.
  4. To straighten the prawns (and to avoid them curling when frying) make a few incisions in the belly starting in the middle and working towards the tail.
  5. Place the flour, beaten egg and panko on three separate plates.
  6. Coat the prawns in flour, then egg and finally in panko. Use your hands to lightly press the panko onto the prawns.
  7. In a large, heavy-based saucepan, heat the oil to 170ºC. Check the oil temperature by placing some panko in the oil. If the panko floats to the top of the oil and sizzles, turning a golden brown colour slowly, then it’s at the right temperature. If the panko turns a golden brown colour immediately, the oil is too hot.
  8. Gently place the panko-coated prawns in the oil and deep-fry for a few minutes or until golden brown. To avoid the oil temperature dropping don’t overcrowd the pan.
  9. Arrange the cooked prawns on kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil.
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Japanese food writer and author of “Japanese Food Made Easy”.

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