You might know of a bento as a lacquered box filled with lots of small dishes at a Japanese restaurant, or a kid's packed lunch filled with food shaped as cute animals. However, traditionally, a bento is a homemade Japanese meal, packed in a box to be taken to school or work.
Along with rice, bento boxes often also contain a selection of cold side dishes all arranged beautifully. In this feature, Sara from Shiso Delicious shares three of her favourite fillers with us…
HEALTHY, COLOURFUL BENTO
My take on bentos is in keeping with the traditional Japanese gluten and dairy-free approach, but I like to mix it up a little with a range of wholesome carbs – brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, rice noodles – and plenty of raw, colourful vegetables, plus a vegetarian protein like eggs or tofu. It’s easy to get that great umami flavour, typical of many Japanese dishes, with simple condiments such as soya sauce, sesame oil and nori seaweed. Combine these with beautiful, fresh ingredients, and your bento is guaranteed to taste as good as it looks.
WHAT CAN I PACK IN MY BENTO?
The best kinds of food to use in your bento boxes are those in bite-sized pieces that will stay fresh out of the fridge for a few hours, and that can be prepared ahead. I know that preparation can seem daunting, but while you’re making your dinner anyway, cooking up an extra batch of rice or quinoa, cutting a couple more cucumber portions or putting a few eggs on to boil won’t add much extra time, and then you’ll be ready to bento!
Check out my three great bento box ideas to get you going:
1. OVERNIGHT OATS BREAKFAST BOX
Simply prepare everything the night before, leave to soak in the fridge overnight and grab it on your way out the door in the morning.
- Spoon a good portion of dry oats into your bento box.
- Add 1 tablespoon of chia seeds or flaxseeds, and a few spoons of frozen berries.
- Pour over milk of your choice, give it all a good stir, then top with more fresh fruit, some nuts and honey (you can leave this part until the next morning, if you prefer).
- Pop the lid on, then leave to soak overnight in the fridge.
2. FRESH SUMMERY NOODLE BOX
Rice vermicelli noodles are great if you don’t have time to cook grains, and they don’t stick together when cold, making them a perfect option for bentos. You can prepare this box either the night before or in the morning.
- Soak a portion of vermicelli noodles in hot water according to packet instructions (I use vermicelli that needs just 5 minutes), then drain and rinse with cold water.
- Toss the cold noodles with 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, the juice of half a lime or lemon, plus a pinch of sea salt to taste.
- Thinly slice some cucumber and spring onion, finely chop some mint, and mix all these into your box with the noodles. If you like it hot, you can add some chilli powder, too.
- Next, add your protein. For this box, I used smoked tofu drizzled with soya sauce and toasted sesame oil, but you can use any type of protein – tofu, avocado, toasted nuts – whatever you like.
- Finish with some lettuce leaves – I like to top mine with slices of kiwi to add a fun and fresh twist.
3. SUSHI RICE BOX
This simple sushi rice keeps in the fridge for a few days and is delicious topped with any vegetables. Prepare your box night before and store in the fridge overnight (although it’s worth keeping in mind that this kind of rice tastes best at room temperature).
- Cook a portion of short grain brown rice or sushi rice according to packet instructions. Pudding rice works well too, if rinsed well in cold water before cooking.
- Once cooked, cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes, then spoon through ⅓ tablespoon light-coloured vinegar and ½ a teaspoon of sugar (choose the least refined option possible – I use coconut palm sugar), plus sea salt to taste.
- Mix carefully, taking care not to mush the grains.
- Transfer the rice to your box, then top with grated carrot, sliced avocado, cooked beetroot, cherry tomatoes, rocket leaves and a boiled egg.
- For extra flavour, mix in some toasted sesame seeds and tear some nori seaweed over the top.
Tip: If you don’t already have a bento box, there are lots of different types and sizes available to buy online. You can use any lidded container, but being leak proof, reasonably stylish and the right portion size all are high up on my bento check list.
What are your favourite bento box fillers? Let us know in the comments box below! For more portable meal inspiration, check out our pick of lighter lunchbox fillers.