What Is Bento?

Bento is a Japanese single-portion meal that is eaten on the go (like take-out). Traditionally, a bento contains a small portion of fish or meat served with rice or noodles that’s accompanied by cooked/pickled/raw vegetables.  Bento served in restaurants or for dinner are often presented in large lacquered boxes or trays, and convenience stores (in Japan anyway) often sell bento in disposable containers.

How Long Does It Take To Pack A Bento?

It usually takes me at least half an hour to make a bento.  Sometimes less if you have pre-cut veggies on hand or if I am using a lot of pre-cooked/pre-packaged foods.  Packing bento definitely requires more time than a sandwich and chips.

Do I Need To Refrigerate Or Heat Bento Lunches Before Eating Them? Does The Food Spoil If I Don’t Refrigerate It?

No. You can make bento in the morning and do not refrigerate once you get to work.  You can just eat bento at room temperature sometime between noon and 4pm.  If you are using leftovers, you can heat them up before packing them. If you make a meal to eat hot, you can use a microwave-safe bento (not as cute as the non-microwave-safe ones!).

Are Those Little Bento Lunches Filling? The Boxes Are So Tiny!

Indeed they are.  Most people are surprised by how small a bento box is in real life.  You can fit a lot of filling food in them (about 3-3/4 cups in a typical bento box).  You can find some larger bento boxes for bigger appetites.

Where Can I Find Bento Boxes And Accessories?

You can buy bento-ware from a variety of places, mostly online. 

Where Should I Buy The Food To Put In Bento Lunches?

You can go to Asian grocery stores, such as H Mart or Super H Mart. They have all sorts of Asian food, as well as a limited selection of bento and sushi supplies (in their kitchenware section).  Otherwise, you just go to any regular grocery stores (Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Safeway, etc.).  Most grocery stores carry a basic selection of Asian food.  In addition to those, I purchase fresh veggies and fruit, eggs, and various forms of protein (tofu, chicken, pork, etc.).

What Brand Of Dumplings/Noodles/Panda Cakes/[Insert Prepared Food] Should I Buy And Where Can I Find Them?

You can get pre-cooked and pre-packaged foods from regular and Asian groceries.  They are great for filling out a bento and only need a few minutes of cooking/reheating before being popped into a bento box.  You can use everything from canned goods to frozen dumplings and tofu puffs to ‘noodles-in-a-box’ preparations that are sold just about everywhere.

What Kind Of Rice Should I Use? Do I Need A Rice Cooker? Can I Use Boil-In-A-Bag Rice Or Microwave Rice?

Tamaki Gold short-grain rice is good. Calrose and Nishiki rice also are widely used and recommended.  You can cook rice on a stove or use a rice cooker. Be cautious about using boil-in-a-bag or microwave rice if you are planning on using the rice for onigiri, sushi, or any dish that depends on the stickiness of the rice.  Just cook sushi rice or short-grain rice on the stove for best results if you don’t have access to a rice cooker.

Should I Mold The Onigiri By Hand? How Do I Keep The Rice From Getting Hard On The Outside?

You can mold the onigiri by hand, but can also use a mold to save time.  You can use a small triangular mold for mixed-rice onigiri and onigiri rolled in different toppings, and use a larger triangular mold for onigiri stuffed with different fillings. You should not have any issues with the rice getting hard, if you make the onigiri in the morning and do not refrigerate them (cold rice tends to harden in the fridge).  If you make your onigiri and refrigerate before eating, you should pop them in the microwave for a wee bit just to soften the rice.  

Nori likes to stick to anything that is moist.  Thus, keep your hands dry and keep whatever you’re sticking the nori to moist. Rice is sticky enough on its own, but if the surface is a bit dry, moisten it with a bit of water before applying to the nori.


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