WHAT’S COOKING?Japanese bento… packed lunch recipe ideas

Whether we’re slowly making our way back to the office or staying home for the foreseeable, packed lunch ideas can always come handy. World-renowned Japanese cook and author Harumi Kurihara has plenty in her latest book, Harumi’s Japanese Kitchen, as well as an introduction to the art of ‘bento’, the famous Japanese lunch box. We hope you enjoy this extract from her book – we’re taking notes not just for the work week, but for picnics and road trips as well!

What is a bento?

The Japanese bento, or lunch box, is traditionally tightly packed with colourful foods and rice. It has fascinated many people overseas, who find it fun and exciting to see what’s inside a bento box and the name ‘bento’ has now become widely acknowledged throughout the world.

I started making bento for my children when they entered kindergarten and continued for 14 years until they graduated from high school. Looking back, I realise that I learned a lot through bento making. ‘What’s the best way to pack it?’, ‘How can I make one that they would love?’ I was constantly thinking these thoughts and I tried different methods on a daily basis to make a bento box that had a good balance of flavour and colour, as well as looked appetising.

As mornings are always busy, I have developed time-saving and efficient preparation techniques, such as making side dishes in advance and storing them in the refrigerator or preparing a bento box while making dinner the night before. I’ve realised that after all these years of putting a lot of effort into making bento, it has made me better at cooking.

There are no rules for making bento. If you find a recipe you like in this book, start by putting it into your bento. You will soon find your favourite bento recipes.

The recipes

How to make Japanese rice

I like Japanese-style cooked rice, which is why I have experimented with so many different ways to cook perfect rice. Japanese people usually use a rice cooker to cook their rice; however, you can easily cook rice in a saucepan.

There are various ways of preparing rice, but I will introduce you to my own method. I hope you will find your own favourite style by trying several different methods, adjusting the amount of water used, and so on.

Japanese rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of Japanese short-grain rice
  • Water

1. Put 2 cupfuls of Japanese short grain rice in a bowl. Fill with cold water and stir the rice gently with your hand. Drain to discard the cloudy water.

2. Rub the grains gently against each other with the heel of your hand. Rinse under cold running water and drain. Continue rubbing and rinsing until the water becomes clear.

3. Drain the rice in a sieve and let it stand for 15 minutes.

4. Put the rice in a saucepan and add the same volume of water to the pan. For a softer texture, add a little more water; for more bite, use a little less water.

5. Cover the pan and turn the heat to high. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 –12 minutes over a low heat.

6. Turn off the heat and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and stir the rice.

Japanese potato salad

There are many variations of potato salad, but this recipe is the simplest and is enjoyed in homes across Japan. The ingredients are easily available in most countries, so you can make it anytime, anywhere. The key is to slice the cucumbers slightly thicker for a crunchy texture, not to soak the sliced onions in water for too long and to fold in the mayonnaise gently.

Japanese potato salad

Ingredients

  • 4–5 potatoes (450g)
  • 1 small cucumber
  • ½ small onion
  • 2 slices ham
  • 5–6 tbsp mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper, to taste

1. Peel and cut each potato into 4–6 pieces. Soak in water and drain. Line a microwave-safe bowl with some kitchen paper and add the potatoes. Cover loosely with cling film and microwave for 5–6 minutes until tender.

2. Remove the cling film and kitchen paper from the bowl. Mash the potatoes while they are hot and allow to cool.

*To boil the potatoes, first thoroughly wash the unpeeled whole potatoes, put them in a saucepan of cold water, cover and place over a high heat. When the water comes to the boil, turn the heat down to low and cook for 20–25 minutes until tender. Peel the skins off, then transfer the potatoes to a bowl and mash while they are still hot.

3. Slice the cucumber. Toss with a little salt in a bowl and let it stand for 5 minutes. When it starts to soften, use kitchen paper to squeeze out the excess moisture.

4. Thinly slice the onion and soak in water for 5 minutes before squeezing out the excess moisture with kitchen paper.

5. Cut the slices of ham in half and then cut into thin strips.

6. Add the cucumber, onion and ham to the mashed potatoes and mix together. Fold in the mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Salmon and prawn balls

Every time I travel to other countries, I am always amazed by how much people love salmon and prawns. This is a recipe I came up with when I was abroad. The mixture can also be shaped and cooked on skewers like yakitori or made into patties for burgers.

Salmon and prawn balls

Makes 10

  • 3 salmon fillets (300g)
  • 10 raw shelled prawns (200g)
  • ½ onion
  • 1 tbsp sake
  • vegetable oil, for frying
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • For the lemon ponzu sauce:
  • 5cm square of kombu kelp
  • 100ml mirin
  • 100ml soy sauce
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • For the salty-sweet sauce:
  • 50ml soy sauce
  • 50ml mirin
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • To serve:
  • 2 sudachi or limes, halved
  • sansho (Japanese pepper) powder

1. Remove the skin from the salmon. Chop it coarsely first and then mince it.

2. Wash the prawns and devein them. Chop them coarsely first and then mince them; I like to mince the tails finely and leave the bodies with some texture.

3. Cut the onion into 8mm squares.

4. Put the salmon and prawns into a bowl, add the sake, onion and salt and pepper to taste and mix.

5. Shape the mixture into 5 cm rounds. Heat a little oil in a frying pan and pan-fry the balls until they are cooked through.

6. Make the lemon ponzu sauce: Rinse the kombu lightly with water and wipe dry. Put the mirin in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add the soy sauce, lemon juice and kombu. Keep in the refrigerator.

7. Make the salty-sweet sauce: Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for about 5 minutes until it thickens a little.

8. Serve the salmon and prawn balls with sudachi, sansho powder and both sauces.