Green bean, sweet potato and soy and balsamic vinegar chicken bento

I love the penguin pick in this bento. I bought it from J-List in a pack of sea-creature food picks, but I think the penguin is my favourite.

Inside this bento is a mixture of different recipes I was trying out for the first time. I think the sweet potato was a recipe from Wagamama, and included a honey and lime juice dressing. I’m not big on sweet potato, to be honest, and this one didn’t really sway me to the cause. This bento picture was actually taken over two years ago, and as you can see, I’d still not really perfected the art of packing onigiri… Ah well.

The orange bento box is from Daiso, and even though it’s one of the cheapest ones around, it’s still my favourite because it’s such a nifty oval shape. The front tier contains soy-balsamic chicken and spicy green beans, both adapted from Harumi’s Japanese Cooking – both of her English cookery books are great, although I prefer the second one!

Green bean, sweet potato and balsamic chicken bento

Spicy green beans


INGREDIENTS

  • 150g green beans
  • 75g minced pork
  • 1 tbsp garlic oil (or use olive oil and some garlic puree)
  • Pinch dried chilli powder
  • 1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sugar

METHOD

  • If making for the bento, trim your green beans (or French, or fine…whatever you call them!) into halves or even thirds, so they can be picked up easily by chopsticks.
  • Boil for about four minutes, then drain and refresh quickly in very cold water. This is to retain their colour. Drain again, and shake off excess water.
  • Heat the garlic oil in the pan and add the pork, stirring to break up. Now add the chilli pepper and stir well to coat, then add the soy sauce and sugar.
  • Mix well, ensuring the sugar has dissolved, and then serve the beans with the mince on top.

Note

You can increase or decrease the chilli powder according to your tastes, just ensure it’s all mixed in well or someone will be getting a surprise in their bento box…

Soy and balsamic vinegar chicken

INGREDIENTS

  • Six chicken thighs
  • 4 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp oil

METHOD

  • Mix the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and sugar in a pan, then simmer. Allow to cook for several minutes, reducing the sauce until it’s thick and glossy.
  • Now wash and dry your chicken thighs, and place them in a hot pan with the oil, and allow to brown on one side. Turn them over and pour over the sauce, then cover and cook for five minutes, taking care not to let the sauce burn over too high a heat.
  • Remove the chicken and test it’s cooked by slicing a piece in half. Return to the heat if it needs longer.
  • For a bento, allow to cool before slicing and dressing with some extra sauce.

Note

You will need about one or two chicken thighs, depending on size, per person for a bento lunch.

These recipes originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

Gyoza and hot soy sauce cucumber bento

I love making Japanese pickles – unlike western pickles, these aren’t preserved vegetables, but are soaked in a preservative liquid for a couple of hours, or overnight. This recipe produces a spicy delicious pickle that goes really well with rice and gyozas.

Gyozas and cucumber

Recipe for hot soy sauce cucumber

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp mirin
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp English mustard

METHOD

  • Halve the cucumber and scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber into half moon chunks, salt and leave to stand for 20 minutes in a covered bowl.
  • Take a plastic bag and add the remaining ingredients, mixing well so that the mustard is dissolved. Add the cucumber and mix well, then refrigerate until needed – leaving for at least 10 minutes. Drain well before adding to a bento – best used the same day or the day after.

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

Product Placement: Onigiri Sponge!

I know a lot of bento makers buy their bento stuff from J-List – and a lot of us also run affiliate programs with the company, whereby if you click on a link from our sites and purchase items, we can gain store credit or cash in return. I’ve also set up an affiliate program here just like at Bento Business – if you want to support the site, you can do so right along at the same time as feeding your bento obsession by clicking here. (You can also reach the site without taking part in the affiliate program by clicking here.) Whilst browsing today, I came across this super cool kinda-bento related item I just had to share, because it’s so damn cute!

This, my friends, is an onigiri kitchen sponge! Let’s pretend it’s totally practical and wouldn’t be at all weird and creepy when you actually start using it and its face gets all dirty and brown… Sometimes, the truth just hurts too much.

J-List claims you can use this for bathtime fun as well… Okay, it’s cute, but I don’t know how much fun can really be had with a novelty sponge (or am I missing something?) You can also get a banana version… Has anyone got one of these things? They’re fricken awesome!

Thus ends the word from our sponsors… normal service will now resume!

Inari Sushi bento

This pretty little bento is one of my favourites – it’s elegant and healthy… completely unlike me! Inside is sesame vinegar aubergine and spicy soy sauce cucumber, as well as soy sauce and balsamic vinegar chicken.

Inari sushi bento

Recipe for inari sushi


INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups hot, cooked Japanese rice
  • 3 tbsp liquid sushi seasoning
  • 1 tbsp black sesame seeds
  • 6 inari skins

METHOD

  • Pour the sushi seasoning over the rice, then turn and fan until cooled and no longer steaming. Leave to get completely cold before stirring in your black sesame seeds.
  • Open your packet of inari skins, and slit open along the longer side, carefully pulling the edges apart to make a pocket. Fill with the rice and place in the bento rice side up.

Notes

You might want to trim the inari skins down so that they fit in your bento, as some can be taller than your bento is deep. Generally, cutting them in half will make them the right size. Or, you can simply lay a full size piece on its side.

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

Nikujaga bento

Nikujaga is Japanese comfort food – the sort of thing cooked by mothers for their children in winter. It’s not usually served in bentos, but you can always reheat it the next day for lunch – or eat it cold! It has a sweet, salty taste which is absolutely delicious.

Nikujaga bento

To make this bento, you need carrots, tomatoes, soy sauce eggs, edamame beans, a piece of rolled omelette, cooked Japanese rice, furikake and nikujaga, made with the recipe below. You also need an onigiri shaper, a vegetable cutter, two bento cups and a two-tier bento. About an hour before you make the bento, prepare the quail eggs by hard boiling, peeling and soaking them in some soy sauce.

Place a small amount of drained nikujaga in a bento dish on the bottom layer of your bento box, and fill the remaining space with an onigiri rolled in furikake. On the top layer, place your rolled omelette in a small bento cup, and place pieces of carrot along the side which have been cut into little shapes with your cutter. Then, alternate the soy sauce eggs with tomatoes, and fill the remaining space with boiled edamame beans, sprinkled with a little salt.

Recipe for nikujaga

INGREDIENTS

  • 250g thinly sliced beef brisket, cut into small pieces
  • 700g potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
  • 2 small white onions, peeled and cut into small wedges
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 600ml dashi
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 5 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 1 tbsp sake
  • Chives
  • Seven-spice

METHOD

  • Heat the oil and cook the potatoes for two minutes. Add the meat and onions, stir well and cook for another two minutes.
  • Add the dashi, sugar, soy sauce, mirin and sake and simmer the mixture with a drop-lid on top until the potatoes are cooked though – this should take about 15 minutes.
  • For a bento, allow to cool before straining off most of the liquid and placing in your bento. Cooling the mixture in the liquid allows the flavours to deepen. When eating, you can have it cold or reheat it. Nikujaga is far from traditional bento food, but you just might find you like it cold the next day!

Note

If you don’t have a drop lid, you can make one by using a lid which is slightly smaller than the inside of your saucepan. Or, use a piece of greaseproof paper with a small hole cut in the middle for a vent.

Fruit, rice and nikujaga bento

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

Bento photography – Part One

Like a lot of other bloggers, I do occasionally get asked how I take good food photos. In fact, more than being asked about what a bento box is and why I bother bentoing at all, more people ask me what kind of camera I use and how I take such great shots. I’m very flattered that my photography is good enough to prompt this question – and the answer is sort of good and bad at the same time. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t need any special skill (that’s the good part), but you do need a good camera (that’s the bad part). I know there are some amazing photos taken on Flickr with even very basic point and shoot cameras, but to do a really amazing job, you need a digital SLR camera. Basically, an SLR allows you to see through the viewfinder exactly what you will be taking the photo of, so there are no surprises. It sounds simple enough, but usually digital SLRs are packed with a load of other features you’re going to find useful in taking good food pictures.

The camera I use is a Nikon D50, which is now discontinued. It’s actually my dad’s camera, so I’m currently in the process of whining at various people to try and get myself one so I don’t have to keep borrowing his (sorry dad!). The D50 has now been replaced with the D40 and D60, the former of which is cheaper and doesn’t have as many features and the latter of which is more expensive – so I have been told. But other food bloggers have their own favourite cameras, so it’s really down to finding one you can afford, explaining to whoever you’re buying it from what you want it for, and doing research.

If you can’t find yourself a fancy-schmanzy camera, but you do already have a digital camera, you can do a search on Flickr (I really recommend this website for photo sharing, it’s a total blast! You can find me here.) to find out what kinds of photos are being taken with a camera like yours.

 Locate your camera

As you can see, you can the camera type by clicking to the right hand side of the screen. Flickr registers your camera automatically, so you don’t have to add this information by hand. If you click on it, you’re taken to another screen which shows you more about the camera, its popularity, and it will show you some fantastic recent photos taken using that camera.

 Find out what other images are being taken

Even if you don’t have a fancy camera, you’ll still find some amazing work being uploaded that should give you hope – yes, it is possible to take good photos with anything! It’s just easier to take good photos with no skill when the camera is super-expensive… or so it seems to me. Anyway, I recommend that if you see a superuberawesome photo you want to replicate – get in touch with the person who took the photo and see if they can give you any help. You never know!

Another good tip is to use a variety of backgrounds to compliment your bento boxes. You can get cool backgrounds from so many different sources. I’ve used pillowcases, tea towels, bedsheets, bento bags, furoshki, placemats, fabric scraps and scrapbooking paper before. Bamboo sushi roll mats are good, and so are wooden tables (or floors!).

 Saffy and bento

Don’t shy away from bold, bright colours and patterns. As most bentos are naturally colourful, contrasting colours can work a treat. As you can see from the image above, I gather a variety of different backgrounds together when I’m taking photos, to see which one looks best.

 Kitty Bento

As you can see, different backgrounds can change the look of the image, so it’s definitely worth investing in some to bring your images to life. White board is of course the classic, but I’ve used the back side of plastic mats before to replicate this without having to go all the way out to a stationery or hobby shop to get big pieces of card.

Soon, I’ll write another bento photography post about lighting and Photoshop!

Yakitori bento

Yakitori chicken is perfect bento food – short skewers of chicken and baby leeks drizzled with a sweet savoury sauce. You can cook your chicken on an ordinary bamboo skewer, then when cool, rethread onto another, fancier skewer – try using a hors d’oeuvre pick for a really fancy look.

Yakitori bento

To make this bento, you also need to make a devilled egg. Simply hard boil an egg, then slice in half and remove the yolks. Mix the yolks with ¼ tsp of your favourite Indian curry powder, 2 tsp mayonnaise and some chopped parsley. Then, return the filling to the gap where the yolk was, and top with more parsley.

You also need to cut out some shapes from thinly sliced carrot. As well as this, you’ll need lettuce, curly parsley, cherry tomatoes, cooked Japanese rice and furikake.

Fill the bottom layer of your bento with the rice, then add a line of furikake. Line your top layer with lettuce, and nestle your rethreaded yakitori chicken to one side. On the other side, place your devilled egg, then fill any gaps with the carrot shapes, parsley and tomatoes.

 Recipe for yakitori chicken

  INGREDIENTS

  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, or 4 chicken breasts
  • Bunch spring onions or packet young leeks, washed
  • For the sauce
  • 300 ml light soy sauce
  • 150 ml mirin
  • 100 ml sake
  • 100 g sugar
  • Japanese seven spice powder (or paprika)
  • Bamboo skewers, soaked

METHOD

  • Firstly, make the sauce by simmering the ingredients in a saucepan. This could take as long as 20 minutes, but make sure it doesn’t overcook and burn. You want the sauce to be thick enough to cling to the chicken when it grills.
  • Cut the chicken into small cubes and cut the spring onion or leek into similarly sized lengths.
  • Skewer the chicken and leek alternately onto your soaked bamboo skewers.
  • Put your chicken skewers under the grill and allow the chicken to go white on both sides. Now brush on your thick yakitori sauce and continue to grill until the chicken is brown and glossy, basting as you go along.
  • Once the chicken is a rich, glossy brown, it should be cooked in the middle and ready to serve. Sprinkle with Japanese seven spice powder.

Notes

Don’t squash the chicken up against other pieces of chicken – you want a little space to ensure all the meat is cooked through. The leek in between each piece of chicken will help to separate out the meat and ensure the finished dish looks colourful.

This recipe originally appeared in 501 Bento Box Lunches, published by Graffito Books.

Butterfly bento


Butterfly bento, originally uploaded by Bento Business.

I bought this cool nest of storage boxes in Paperchase a while ago and had to try them out. I also picked up a load of butterfly food cutters, and as my parsley on the windowsill is flowering like mad I thought I’d make a garden bento. I think I used too much bright orange cheese in this one though!

Here we have cheese, ham and nori spiral rolls, tomberry skewers, hamburger and cheese patties, rice and ham and cheese cut-outs.

Although this mushroom storage box is not really a bento, I think it shows off really well that you can use anything to house a bento lunch. I really like round containers, too. And single tier bentos are much easier to design and pack. Yeah, I’m lazy…

Evolution of bento

I’ve been making bentos now for over two years, and along the way I’ve picked up some tricks. I’ve also contributed to a recipe book, had an interview with the Financial Times, and I’ve done an excruciatingly embarrassing interview with ABC News that was so bad they never even showed it. There’s even an article out there on a German magazine website about my bento making. How the hell did that happen?

I’ve come a long way.

For all those bento makers out there, I thought I’d show you just how far I’ve come, by posting my first ever bento, and my most recent.

Teriyaki beef and pickles

If you think this is embarrassing, you should also know that I used this picture in NEO for the Chopsticks recipe section. Ah, my poor readers – so sorry. Now, I’ve figured out how to take better shots by actually doing my recipes during the day… You cannot beat daylight for good photos.

So, want to see what two and a half years of bento making can do?

Cat bento 3

Tah dah! Yes, I’m very proud of how far I’ve come. I’ve learned how to compose pictures better, arrange bentos better, balance them better, and even make chara-ben. My photography has improved, and of course, my bento collection is massive. So, if you ever feel like your bentos don’t come up to scratch, just keep at it! If I can do it, anyone can.

To be honest, it’s all in the photography. Your bento can be the most amazing bento ever, but if you take your shot at night, it’s almost guaranteed to look bad. Natural lighting, people, natural lighting!

Also, it helps to look around at what other people are doing, and take inspiration from their fantastic photos. Give credit where it’s due and celebrate people’s ideas – the mini hamburgers with the knife and fork pattern came from an idea I saw on Sheree’s photostream. Her bentos are so cute! And, if you think something looks cool, make a bento out of it! This bento is based on Joanna Zhou’s cool Kitty doll from Momiji – I love their stuff and I’ve wanted to do a bento of this character for ages! I think it turned out pretty well…

Popular Photos

I’ve been on Flickr for a couple of years now, and you can check out my photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bentobusiness. One of the things I like about having a Pro account is finding out which are the most popular photos, because they’re certainly not ones I would have thought would be the most popular, especially considering I don’t really rate them as photos.

At number three, we have Frugal Potato Soup:


I kinda get this one, I guess people are always trying to save money and it’s not a bad photo all round, and it also has a pretty handy recipe listed… but why it’s more popular than other recipes I don’t know. I feel like labelling all my other recipes with ‘frugal’ just to see what happens!

At number two, we have Christmas bento:


The appeal of the Christmas bento is obvious – everyone likes bright, colourful Christmassy things. I’m still disappointed that this didn’t come out completely the way I wanted it, especially the crappy ham and cheese stars, but there you go. I bought the wooden tree decorations in the shot especially for this photo, but they’re brilliant and I totally love them. Good purchase, me!

And, at number one, my most viewed photo EVAR, it’s: Chinese spring rolls


Ugh, how embarrassing. But, the most popular in my photostream. I must admit, this has the absolute best, kick ass recipe for spring rolls you will ever eat. My mum can’t even eat spring rolls from the takeaway any more, because in comparison, all spring rolls suck. Yes, this recipe is that good that I’m totally unafraid to boast shamelessly about it. And, the credit isn’t totally mine, because they were adapted from a recipe I got on an Asian food course at a local college, so it’s not even boasting. At the time of writing, the photo’s had nearly 6500 views, and let’s face it, no one’s checking it out for the photography… I totally hope people are actually making this recipe, because, as I may have mentioned, it fricking rocks.