Bento-making 101

Ultimate Bento: Healthy, Delicious and Affordable 85 Mix-and-Match Bento Box Recipes

By Marc Matsumoto and Maki Ogawa (North Clarendon, Vt: Tuttle Publishing, 2020, 168 pp., $19.99, hard cover)

As a mother who currently has to make lunch five days a week for a child, I saw the cover of this book and was immediately ready to gain some bento wisdom. Authors Marc Matsumoto and Maki Ogawa, a husband and wife team, offer 85 bento recipes designed to be mixed and matched, while also providing concrete instructions, advice and tips on how to best prepare, store and pack a bento.

The recipes have a mix between those that lean more conventionally Japanese and those that are more American or fusion. These include classic Japanese bento staples such as karaage chicken and ginger pork, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to make little creatures such as sausage octopuses and apple rabbits, a classic favorite for kids.

For the more ambitious or those deft with a toothpick, the small egg sea turtle or kushiage skewers will give your lunch a new look.

The specific instructions and visuals on how to pack a bento box serve as one of the most helpful sections in the book. Matsumoto and Ogawa cover all the most important rules and guidelines around bento packing, such as why bento need to be packed at room temperature (it’s actually pretty important), and what you can use to divide and layer your food since they’ll all be packed together pretty tightly in one box.

This book is full of color photos of fully packed bento, containers, and of course, the food. It truly inspires one to make a lunch that allows us to eat with our eyes, and makes the thought of packing and eating a sad sandwich truly unthinkable. With options such as Loco Moco Hamburg Steak, Taco Rice, and sukiyaki beef egg rice sandwich, Matsumoto and Ogawa show through their book how making and eating lunch can be creative, tasty, and even fun.

Do some of these recipes seem a little aspirational for the beginner or average home cook or parent? Yes, maybe. But while my own bento might not come out looking exactly like those pictured, I now know that a few fun-shaped cutters, the right container and some strategically placed lettuce or spinach leaves used as dividers will elevate the visual appeal of my lunches significantly. But not to worry, the recipes are varied enough that you’ll be able to start off with some of the easier ones and work your way to some of the more advanced recipes, and none of this should deter you from getting some creative and tasty ideas for bento.

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