Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bento Box class at the Open Kitchen

In Japan, many people take cute little lunch boxes to work with them. These sectioned, and often layered boxes are called 'Bento' boxes. I've always loved Japanese food, but didn't know about this lunchtime tradition. I'd seen bento boxes served as meals in Japanese restaurants where I've had dinners, but did not realise that there were several types of bento, with one type which is supposed to be portable. I guess I’m just a bit ignorant, since I have now discovered that “Bento” (written in Japanese script as 弁当), is the word for a meal served in a box. It sounds so much nicer than ‘packed lunch’, doesn’t it? Actually, it is derived from an old Chinese word for ‘convenient’!
There appears to be several types of bento. Some are homemade, and others bought. 

The homemade ones are:
Picnic bento boxes or  Kouraku bento, are for picnicking friends and family to share, perhaps when out to view the cherry blossoms. One day I hope to try this wonderful tradition, since I've dreamed of seeing cherry blossoms in Tokyo and Kyoto since I was a little girl. Fingers crossed!

The ones which are bought are:
A formal dinner version, served in a decorative lacquer box called Makunouchi bento. This is the type I'd seen before. Stylish, functional and full of colour, these meals look as impressive as they taste!
Convenience stores and stations sell Ekiben or Eki bento, designed for travelling and eating on the fly.  Hokaben are ready cooked hot boxes of food bought from a takeaway shop. 
Hayaben are breakfast bento, meaning bento are not restricted to lunch or dinner. 

Recently I was emailed a short film about the craze for Kyaraben – the art of "Character" Bento. Mothers lavish vast amounts of love and care to send their children to school with beautifully designed and presented Bento, often resembling the child's favourite cartoon/comic character. Strictly for those with time on their hands!

I was lucky enough that recently my friend Lai treated me to a Bento cookery class for the two of us at The Open Kitchen in Hoxton. ( The class was run by Atsuko ( 

Our class began with an explanation of the main principles of bento boxes along with a demostration of the cooking tasks we were to attempt later..... in a professional kitchen! 
Atsuko talks us through the main ingredients of Japanese food
Whilst there are no hard and fast rules about the contents of a good Bento box, it should contain some rice, pickled/cooked vegetables and either fish, meat, egg or a combination of all three. The general idea is that the content should be balanced in terms of the main food groups; carbohydrates, protein, fibre and fats. 

What I also learnt in my cooking class is that appearance is a big issue, and that there should be a variety of colours to make the meal attractive. There should be a combination of red, yellow, green, brown, white and black. This makes complete sense to me, since we do eat with our eyes first, and a packed lunch will seem uninviting if it looks dull. Eventually you'll end up popping out for fast food if you don't feel good about tucking in to your own homemade lunch!

Another interesting point is to try to vary the cooking methods, with some components boiled, grilled, steamed, fried, marinated and pickled. This would, in my view, help to keep the fat content low and provide different textures. One key point to remember is that you will need to keep the cooking time down, or you will find making a bento box each night for the next day at work will become a time consuming chore.... yet another factor tempting you back to fast food.

Atsuko taught us how to make Tamago yaki (egg roll) in a square frying pan. This was something I found quite difficult, but can be learnt with practice. It is difficult because you have to keep the pan very hot and work quickly to form the layers of cooked omelette by rolling and flipping with chopsticks.The pans are available in the UK and in Europe via Muji. 

The fish item was Saikyou yaki, or miso marinaded salmon. We coated slender fillets of salmon loin in saikyou miso (white smooth sweet miso paste), wrapped them up in cling film and left in the fridge for 30 minutes to marinate. After half an hour (although longer will give a more pronounced flavour if you wish), the miso paste's work is done, it is scraped off and the salmon is quickly fried over a high heat. It can be served as it is, or wrapped in salad leaves to give crunch and colour.

Salmon marinating in miso paste
We were given Atsuko's method of making Gohan (Japanese Sticky rice), but with only a 2 hour session, there wasn't enough time to cook rice too. Lucky that she brought her massive industrial rice cooker! We needed the rice to make rice balls with shaping tools, herb sprinkles and Nori (seaweed sheets).
Herb sprinkles, Furikake and moulds for making rice balls

Here is the cooked Gohan rice with a liberal amount of seasoning (Yukari) called 'Mishima' made from a purple herb known as beefsteak leaves in English. It gives a slightly sharp herby flavour to the rice which is subtle and pleasing. If I can manage to find it when I am out and about, I will use it at home.
Sticky rice (Gohan) mixed with Mishima
Finished rice balls with the cooked salmon

Our pickle was small radish pickled for just 30 minutes in cold Umesu (salted plum vinegar), mirin (sweetened sake) and sugar. We prepared the radish by scoring it on 4 sides, so as to soak up as much of the marinade/dressing as possible.

The vegetable dish was yaki bitashi (fried vegetables tossed in Japanese dressing). Here we used broccoli and sweet potato (both known for their high fibre and high nutrient content) which we quickly fried until lightly cooked and browned. These were then dressed in a combination of mirin, shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and Karashi (Japanese mustard).

For me the highlight of the food was the Teriyaki chicken. I've made my own before, and by using Shoyu, Sake and Mirin to make up the sauce from scratch. But I had always made it from skin on chicken breasts. The results were always pretty tasty, but the cooking time was lengthy and I was always scared of serving up undercooked chicken. Atsuko's recipe with de-boned chicken thighs with the skin on cooks rapidly and the use of the brown meat means a better flavour and less bland texture overall. I've made it at home since to great reviews from Him Indoors. Score!
Atsuko demonstrating how to make Teriyake chicken
Our own attempt at Chicken Teriyaki - success!

I had a great time with Lai cooking in the professional kitchen. We are old friends and having the chance to natter and cook was really good fun. We work together well, because neither of us has a big ego and we are very willing to help where needed. We are also good at calming each other down if we are about to panic when things go a little wrong.

My evening at the Open Kitchen was an enjoyable one. Atsuko was great, very helpful and knowledgeable. The Open Kitchen is a lovely venue, and it is inspiring to see local people, many from disadvantaged backgrounds learning the skills involved for the hospitality trade. Being able to buy a glass of wine to take up to the kitchen was a great treat, as cooking is always more fun if you can have a 'slurp' every now and then.

My only criticism (which I raised with the people who ran the class at the time) is that with as many people doing the course (16 in all) it is easy to lose sight of who is doing what. With 6 dishes to make in the hour and a half remaining after the demonstration, allowing people to decide which tasks they were doing themselves was not the best idea. Some fellow cooks decided to try to have a go at everything, leading to a few problems; running out of miso paste, and not everyone having a fair try at the techniques. Running out of the dishes and chopsticks was also disappointing. The tasks should have been allocated and the making up of the bento boxes should have been supervised. 

I am really proud of the bento boxes that Lai and I made up that night, and we enjoyed scoffing their contents with more wine and chatter. I will try to make bento as packed lunches for work, but fear that time to do so will not always be available. However the dishes will be recreated at home for suppers in the near future. They were achievable, simple and tasty. Perhaps when I am out shopping, I'll have a look for an authentically Japanese box to inspire me.... any excuse to go shopping for cooking gear!
The finished article
One point, raised by specialist Bento blogger Makito Ikoh is that you have to think about the conditions your Bento lunch will be subjected to. Ikoh has recently written a book offering advice and recipes for bento lunchboxes. Her blog/website is a superb resource on all things Bento (recipes, advice, knwe canow-how and a fantastic downloadable planner for a week’s packed lunches!):
The very practical issue she raises is what temperature will your bento be maintained at? Many of us have access to a fridge at work, so as long as we can keep our lunchbox cool on our journey into work, we can carry cooked and then cooled meat and fish dishes without fear of food poisoning. However if you do not, then your bento contents should be able to be eaten safely without refridgeration, since it is brought out with you from home out on the long commute and kept in an office (or other work environment) at room temperature (anything from 16 to 20 deg C).

If you are interested in Bento boxes, here are some ideas for you:

For those looking for a challenging Bento combination, why not try....
Seasonal vegetable tempura bento box by Tim Anderson as featured on MasterChef:

For more Western influenced Bento for fussy children, see: