Have you ever swooned at bento art? Bentos are Japanese lunchboxes or take out meals. They can be simple or they can be a child's dream depicting landscapes (oekakiben) or favourite Japanese cartoon characters (kyaraben). I mean this is seriously gorgeous, competitive stuff. But did you know that even simple bento can be achieved with just a couple of tools?
For the longest time I've tried to resist the lure of the bento. Not because I didn't like them. In fact I adored them. I became enamoured of them from reading Japanese cooking magazines when I lived there. It's just that it can be somewhat of a competitive sport and a lot of people really get into them. And I didn't have time for a bento obsession.
I make Mr NQN's lunch every day. It first started out because he worked at a place that wasn't near a lot of shops so it was easier. He also likes really expensive (hipster!) coffee so instead of spending $20 a day for food, he buys his $8 coffee and then it's not so bad. I usually give him a sandwich and some fruit and some celery or carrots. I didn't want to get into bento because bento can sometimes make you feel like your lunch offering isn't fancy enough (or maybe that's just me).
And then one day I found myself shopping for some Asian groceries. Wandering down the aisles I saw a couple of Japanese items. One was an egg mold to shape eggs into cute animal faces and one was an onigiri mold. Onigiri are triangles of seasoned rice with a bit of filling inside. They're designed to be a snack in Japan and you can find them at convenience stores. A couple of them also make a great lunch too. They haven't really taken off like sushi rolls have here and I think it may be because there isn't a lot of filling and it's a lot of rice and we tend to like filling. But if you make them yourself you can add filling. See what I did there? Yep I am a filling monster ;) But seriously, I never ate a lot onigiri when I lived in Japan because I found that there was never enough filling, usually just an umeboshi plum or a thin layer of crumbled mackerel.
But these Dear Reader are pretty fabulous as you can put your favourite filling inside them. Just treat an onigiri like you would a sandwich. Instead of bread there is rice on the outside and using the mold was ridiculously easy! I wish I could send all of you a couple of molds so you can see them for yourself. Even better is that if you are cooking rice just make extra and use the leftovers from dinner for the filling! For example you have some delicious Asian beef or teriyaki chicken, set a bit aside and make an onigiri with it. It works with brown rice and red rice although I don't think it works with Thai jasmine or basmati rice. Japanese Koshihikari is the best rice to use as it has stickiness.
And here's a quick little video showing you how to make these!
And as for the egg, I don't know who came up with the idea for making animal shapes out of eggs but they are a genius (probably a bento maestro). All you do is boil some eggs, peel them and then pop them into the mold and stick them in a bowl of ice water for 5 minutes (or the fridge but ice water is faster and helps if you only have two molds). And if your kids don't get excited over bento food then I'm not sure what would excite them because they're so adorable. What sealed the deal was that the egg mold and the onigiri molds were inexpensive ($2.80 and $4.68 respectively). Mr NQN declined the use of the Hello Kitty bento but instead chose his metal lunchbox instead. I'm not sure if he will show his colleagues the eggs though ;)
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever ventured into the world of bento? Do you bring your lunch to work or do you buy it? Do you compare and swap lunches at work like you did at school?
Makes 8-10 onigiri
- 1 quantity sushi rice (see below)
- 1 quantity chicken or tuna filling (see below)
- 2 sheets nori
- 1/2 avocado
- You will also need an onigiri mold* - these are inexpensive and can be found at Japanese stores or ebay
Two piece onigiri mold. A base and a lid.
Fill with a layer of rice
Then whatever filling you like
Then another layer of rice
Then press down with the "lid"
Step 1 - Take about two teaspoons of rice and using a teaspoon flatten down. Add a layer of the chicken or tuna mix and then flatten down. Then add some more rice - you want it to reach the level where the mold can press down. The tighter the better to keep its shape although the mold is remarkably forgiving.
Remove the "lid"
Turn upside down and press down on the flexible tab to release
Step 2 - Turn upside down and gently remove from the mold by pressing down the tabs. Take a nori sheet - there is one long end and one shorter end. Cut long strips that can fit around the triangles. Wrap around the onigiri - they should fit perfectly. You can also cover the whole triangle with nori which is good for brown rice to help keep it together.
Step 3 - Scoop out the avocado from the shell and slice thinly. Fan over the onigiri trimming it to a triangle shape. Wrap in cling film if you are serving it the next day.
Animal Eggs or Yudetama-Gokko
- Small to Medium sized eggs (avoid extra large eggs). I found that the 600g eggs were best
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce and a fine paintbrush
- You will also need an egg mold*
Step 1 - Boil the eggs for 5 minutes. Cool a little and peel the shell from the egg carefully. Place into the mold and snap shut. Don't worry if some of the egg white comes out. Place the molds into a bowl of ice water for 5-10 minutes. Remove from the mold. You can draw in the features using soy sauce.
Chicken, corn and mayonnaise filling
- 1 large breast from a barbecued chicken (you can also use poached chicken but I had bbq chicken and I wanted to make this simple), chopped finely. Can also use a 425g tin of tuna, drained
- 1/2 cup corn kernels
- 1/4 cup sliced green onion
- 1/2 cup Kewpie mayonnaise.
Step 1 - Combine all ingredients together.
How To Make Sushi rice
- 1.5 cups rice (brown or sushi rice)
- 50ml/1.7 fl ozs. rice vinegar
- 40g/1.41ozs. sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
Step 1 - Cook rice according to directions. Whisk the rice vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. When rice is cooked mix in the sushi rice seasoning.
*I found my onigiri and egg molds at Zen Citi at East Village, Zetland.