Friday, 11 June 2010

Bento Part 2; soba noodle salad and terikayi chicken

So, I'm trying to get my head round this bento box thing. There are, as you have pointed out in your millions (okay, in your tens) an awful lot of specialist bento websites, run mostly by shy but dedicated Japanophiles.

Looking at them, and thinking about them in general, it's hard to know whether a bento box is more an issue of style rather than cookery. 

I hesitate to say this, for fear of being ritually disembowelled the next time I go to Atari-Ya, but is this just a lunchbox? Isn't having a bento box just a sophisticated way of taking your lunch into work - traditionally a slightly hippy thing to do, practised by non-smoking, pacifist super-polite types, who are usually also the Union representative and cycle everywhere?

I suspect it is, because a bento makes that stereotype redundant. Because Japanese stuff is cooooooool. Unscrewing this bright pink, tactile cylinder from Aladdin (available here) complete with removable compartment, and second screw-on, screw-off tier, is a million miles away from unpacking a couple of cheese-and-pickles on brown from a Lock N Lock.

For example, how much cooler was Molly Ringwald than Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club when when she unloaded her sleek little bento box for lunch, while he unwrapped eight peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a carton of milk and a huge banana?

The bento is stylish. No question. But what do you put in it? It's been a while since I worked in an office but what I remember mostly about it was that a) you don't want to make your lunch first thing in the morning when you could be asleep, having paranoid dreams about being late for exams and b) you don't want to make your lunch the night before when you could be knocking back a lot of cheap white wine in front of Mary, Queen of Shops. Or asleep, having paranoid dreams about being late for exams.

But there doesn't seem much that will do a bento justice that doesn't require a bit of effort. For example, the arrangement above is a buckwheat soba noodle salad in one compartment with a pile of teriyaki chicken next to it. But it took me a while to make and it required a fair amount of ingredients, which I would not be arsed to shop for, if I had a lunchbreak.

So I've really badly failed my brief to make something easy or something that can be made in large batches. I guess you could make this in a large batch but do you want to eat the same thing two days in a row? Maybe you do if it's nice enough.

Just for laughs, this is how to make the soba noodle salad. All ingredients are available from Waitrose.

1/3 packet buckwheat soba noodles
1 handful coriander, chopped
1/2 chilli, chopped
1/2 spring onion, chopped
1/2 carrot, julienned
a sprinkling of sesame seeds
2 broccoli florets, quartered
1 tbsp sesame oil

juice of 1/2 a lime
splash of mirin (do I need to explain that this is rice vinegar?)
a sprinkling of sugar

1 Boil the soba noodles for 8 minutes and then rinse to remove the brown scummy stuff. Put in a mixing bowl and pour over the sesame oil immediately because what buckwheat soba noodles really love to do is stick to each other and then turn to cardboard.
2 Boil the broccoli for 4 minutes and run under cold water
3 Put everything in the mixing bowl and shift round a bit
4 Combine the lime juice, mirin and sugar and sprinkle over. I tried to find a small bottle that could hold the dressing separately but couldn't get one small enough. One of those little soy fish that comes with a Pret Sushi box would be perfect.

The teriyaki chicken went like this

1 Chop up some chicken brest or thighs into approximately 1in square pieces. Put in a bowl and shake over some bottled teriyaki sauce. Leave for a few minutes. (Normally I wouldn't recommend using some crapola bottled sauce, full of E numbers and shite, but I'm not about to make teriyaki sauce - although I'm sure one of you knows how.)

2 Fry the chicken pieces very hot and fast in groundnut oil.

It was all very tasty but would I cook it all at 9pm for my lunch the next day? Not a chance.

Back to the drawing board.


  1. have you thought about Tiffin? This is essentially the Indian version of Bento... the Indian wives make lunch for their men and then a tiffin delivery man on a bicycle comes by the neighbourhood and picks up her tiffin box (excuse me!) and delivers it to her man... they pick up hundreds every day and deliver them back to your door. The wife makes a pot of curry which lasts all week and fills the tiffin with rice and the stew on top... genius but nowhere near as glamorous and I can't imagine Molly Ringworm ever eating out of one... round our way we often say we're popping out for tiffin instead of lunch... has a cheeky ring to it!

  2. Hello Esther. I'd never heard of a bento before, but after a bit of googling I got the picture. I suspect it would be one of those items that I'd buy, use for a few weeks (probably congratulating myself for making such an effort to eat both stylishly and healthily,) then find that I can't be bothered to concoct such elaborate lunches every day. Hey presto, back to the cheese n pickle before you can say tupperware! I'd just like to say I love your blog, I only found it a few days ago. It's useful to have someone to test out a recipe and iron out the faults for us. Thanks. x

  3. Bento translated is 'boxed meal' I think. The charm of them is the fact they are so elaborate, so as cute as they are, it sounds like it's not really for your sister.

    Sorry about banging on about viet cuisine but what about the viet banh mi (aka pork roll)? Used to buy one every day so I don't think it's something you'd get sick of. You'd probably have to spend one day in preparing it all but once it's done, it's easy to assemble for the rest of the week. The only sticking point is the bread roll as nothing comes close to a viet bakery. But if you can get some decent baguettes then you'll be fine.

    Basic banh mi has: mayonnaise, pate, pickled daikon & carrot, pork, cucumber, coriander and smidge of soy sauce.

    You can make your own head cheese, pulled pork or use left over roast pork. Or try making your own pork loaf (known as gio lua). If you get sick of pork then try chicken or tofu.
    The pickled daikon and carrot is easy and can be kept in a jar in the fridge for 4 weeks.

    Cooler than a ham sandwich and tastier that's for sure!

  4. Just to add - if you wanted to sample some banh mi, then try the Mon Me stand at Sunday Upmarkets. There are 2 aussie-viet girls that run the stand and their version is pretty good.

  5. I remember being most suprised when I found out teriyaki sauce is basically soy sauce with a bit of sugar, ginger and garlic. So super simple to make.

    I've been lurking for a while - after LLG sent us via the pureed cauliflower post. Your blog is brilliant!