Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bento Box Lunches - Part 1, the box and rice balls

I vividly remember lunch in elementary school and summer camps in the 1970's. Almost all the kids had healthy but "boring" lunches or unhealthy but "fun" lunches. There were many complaints and trades. Now I know better, but I used to send my kids to school with a granola bar, an apple and a cube of cheese. I was sure I was doing the right thing, but whenever I opened the door to their rooms, I was shocked to find Mountain Dew cans and empty candy bar wrappers. Japanese mothers know how to make their children eat even the good stuff!

First, you need attractive packaging. I know of at least one Eugene Asian food store that carries bento boxes in bright colors and/or animal shapes; so does To see one shaped like a panda, view ; Archie McPhee in Seattle sells 1950s American style lunch boxes in a pirate themes (; you can also purchase a pirate stamp to use on toast. Maybe you have your own old lunch box in the attic or can buy one used and paint it (use enamel and only paint the outside).

Inside the box, arrange small amounts of several differently colored items. If you use an American box, you will also need a smaller, resealable Tupperware-type container inside. Popular items are sliders, meatballs on rice, donburi, vegetable sushi, flavored rice shaped like animals, omelet rolls, coleslaw, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, orange segments, tiny containers of pudding, green vegetables seasoned so many kids will eat them, cooked apples, sweet potatoes, pineapple rings, pineapple coleslaw with yogurt, red bell pepper strips, potato salad, little sausages and cucumber slices.

Flavored rice balls with treats hidden inside are very popular in bento box lunches. For centuries, the Japanese used exclusively sweet brown rice, which is naturally sweet and sticky, but now they use primarily white rice and corn syrup. Sweet brown rice is available in some health food stores. You can substitute short grain brown rice. White sushi rice with a little honey will also work. I am giving directions for brown sweet or short grain rice cooked in an electric rice cooker. If you use white rice, use a little less water. If you boil it, use more water. You are looking for a slightly gluey texture, where the grains easily stick together and pack well in your hands. This takes approximately 2 3/4 cups water to 1 cup brown sweet rice and a pinch of salt.

Popular treats to hide are chunks of ham or pineapple (or both); shredded carrot/raisin slaw; pickled plums; shredded beef stir fried with green onions; smoked salmon; and dried apricots. Depending on what filling you use, flavor your rice with a little cinnamon and honey; garlic, ginger and soy sauce; 5 spice powder; or curry powder. Wet your hands. Pick up a handful of cooled rice, pack it firmly into a ball, push an indentation in it with a thumb, insert the treat, close up the hole and then roll the ball in sesame seeds if you like.

Outer roll treatments are often decorative. Cut a sheet of nori (sushi wrapper) in strips and press the strips into an x on top of the rice ball. Or cut nori in a circle, cut an x in the center, press the nori onto the rice ball, pull up the edges of the x and sprinkle sesame seeds or dulse (a red seaweed) there. You can also make a very thin egg pancake to use as a wrapper. Beat one egg thoroughly, add a dash of salt and pour into a very hot, lightly oiled (peanut or sesame are best) non-stick skillet. Tilt the skillet so the egg is very evenly and thinly distributed, cook until just set, lift and flip over carefully and cook for just a few seconds on the other side. When the pancake is cooled, you can use it to wrap the rice ball in, tying it with a ribbon or a wilted green onion top.

Once you get the basic technique down, you can make little rice ball geisha dolls (with nori and egg kimonos, seaweed or egg hair, currant eyes, etc.), bear and cat heads and other fun shapes with your children! Save your pink pickled ginger from take out sushi for decorative noses, ears and lips! Amazon sells rice molds and also little stainless steel molds for cutting out egg, carrots, ham and other items to use as decorations.

Next week: simple, rolled vegetarian sushi!

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