Cooking Cute: a bento site
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What is bento?

Bento is a Japanese single-portion meal that is eaten on the go (like take-out). Traditionally, a bento contains a small portion of fish or meat served with rice or noodles that's accompanied by cooked/pickled/raw vegetables.  Bento served in restaurants or for dinner are often presented in large lacquered boxes or trays, and convenience stores (in Japan anyway) often sell bento in disposable containers. Japanese moms pack bento lunches for their husbands and children – it is almost a contest in some circles to see who can pack the cutest lunch for their children.  Check out the section for more info.

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Did your mom pack you bento lunches? How did you become interested in bento? Are you even Japanese?

No, I’m not Japanese (although I am Asian – does that count? haha), and my mom never made me bento lunches. Heck, none of my friends ever had bento lunches either (although I am pretty sure that we all would have been intensely jealous of anyone who had them).

I like to cook all kinds of food, mostly Asian and Italian, but I didn’t start cooking Japanese food until sometime in January 2006.  I loved the first onigiri recipe I tried and was fascinated by the concept of portability.  It was only a hop, skip, and a jump from there to bento.  I love packing bento lunches because it combines two of my loves – cooking and art! 

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How long does it take you to pack a bento? Do you make it in the morning or the night before?

I like to make my bento lunches in the morning, but I’ve also made dishes for the next day’s bento the night before (leftovers are a great time saver!).  It usually takes me at least half an hour to make my and my husband’s bento (his take less time as they’re not as cutesy), sometimes less if I have pre-cut veggies on hand or if I am using a lot of pre-cooked/pre-packaged foods.  It often takes me a lot longer if the bento is very elaborate or if I planned poorly.  Packing bento definitely requires more time than a sandwich and chips, but I don’t like sandwiches that much, and I love how a yummy bento brightens my (and my hubby's) day at work.

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Do you refrigerate or heat your bento lunches before eating them?  Does the food spoil if you don’t refrigerate it?

No.  I generally make my bento in the morning and do not refrigerate once I get to work.  I just eat my bento at room temperature sometime between noon and 4pm.  If I am using leftovers, I heat them up before packing them.

If I make a meal that I prefer to eat hot, I will use a microwave-safe bento (not as cute as the non-microwave-safe ones!).  I haven't had any issues with food spoilage, etc.

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Are those little bento lunches filling?  The boxes are so tiny!

Indeed they are.  Most people are surprised by how small a bento box is in real life.  My pictures can make them look huge, but they are really quite compact. However, you can fit a lot of filling food in them (about 3-3/4 cups in a typical bento box).  My big, strapping American hubs (*giggle*) sometimes requires more food than small bento boxes can hold, but I found some larger bento boxes meant for bigger appetites for him.  I also like to pack us both ‘snack bento’ to eat later in the day (e.g., fruit, onigiri, pastries or cookies, etc.).

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Where do you buy your bento boxes and accessories?

I buy my bento-ware from a variety of places, mostly online.  Check out the section to see my collection (also includes links to where I bought items and prices).  I’ve also listed some great online sources for bento goodies in the section.

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Where do you buy the food that you put in your bento lunches? What do you typically have on hand in your refrigerator and pantry?

When I have time to make the drive, I go to H Mart or the Super H Mart, which is a Korean grocery store chain (also called Hanahreum).  They have all sorts of Asian food, as well as a limited selection of bento and sushi supplies (in their kitchenware section).  The Super H is a veritable smorgasboard of Asian food and goodies.  I spent two hours wandering around with my mouth agape the first time I went.  I’ve also found that the produce is fresher and cheaper there than in American markets (e.g., kiwis were 6 for $1 at H Mart and 2 for $1 at Harris Teeter one week).

Otherwise, I just go to my regular grocery stores (Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Safeway, etc.).  Most grocery stores carry a basic selection of Asian food, and my Safeway recently started carrying , even ones with dividers that can be used for bento!  Although Lock&Lock containers are not the cutest on the market, they don’t leak and are microwave-safe.

See for ingredients I like to keep stocked in my pantry.  In addition to those, I purchase fresh veggies and fruit, eggs, and various forms of protein (tofu, chicken, pork, etc.).

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What brand of dumplings/noodles/panda cakes/[insert prepared food] do you buy and where can I find them?

I buy pre-cooked and pre-packaged foods from regular and Asian groceries.  They are great for filling out a bento and only need a few minutes of cooking/reheating before being popped into a bento box.  I use everything from canned goods to frozen dumplings and tofu puffs to ‘noodles-in-a-box’ preparations that are sold just about everywhere. Check the appetizer section of your frozen food aisle – I’ve seen in every grocery store an assortment of dumplings, eggrolls, wontons, and other finger foods that are perfect for cute lunches.

To check out the brands that I've used (and whether I've liked them), see my , which I try to keep updated.  

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What kind of rice do you use? Do you use a rice cooker? Can I use boil-in-a-bag rice or microwave rice? Do you cook your rice in big batches or do you make it fresh that day?

I use Tamaki Gold short-grain rice.  It was recommended to me as ‘the best’ by the owner of a tiny little Japanese store where I did my first run for Japanese cooking supplies.  I love it and haven’t had a reason to switch to any other brand.  Calrose and Nishiki rice also are widely used and recommended.

I do use a rice cooker – my beloved rocks!  Sometimes I will set it on timer the night before, or I will just pop the rice in when I wake up in the morning, and it is ready by the time I need it.  A rice cooker isn’t necessary though – I cooked rice on the stove for many years for my family before we got a rice cooker.

I would caution against using boil-in-a-bag or microwave rice if you are planning on using the rice for onigiri, sushi, or any dish that depends on the stickiness of the rice.  Just cook sushi rice or short-grain rice on the stove for best results if you don’t have access to a rice cooker. See the tutorial for details on how to make regular and sushi rice on the stove or using a rice cooker.

I usually don't make huge batches of rice and prefer to make it as I need it – but this is mostly due to the convenience of having a rice cooker.  If I had to make my rice on the stovetop, I would definitely cook my rice in big batches and reheat portions in the microwave as I needed it.  Just let the rice cool off to room temperature before refrigerating, which helps prevent condensation and keeps the rice from heating up your fridge and spoiling the rest of your food.

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Do you mold your onigiri by hand? How do you keep the rice from getting hard on the outside? Do you have any nori-handling tips?

I sometimes mold my onigiri by hand, but I usually use a mold to save time.  I have a small triangular mold that I use for mixed-rice onigiri and onigiri rolled in different toppings.  I use a larger triangular mold for onigiri stuffed with different fillings.  Check out the tutorial.

I haven't had any issues with the rice getting hard, perhaps because I make the onigiri in the morning and do not refrigerate them (cold rice tends to harden in the fridge).  If you make your onigiri and refrigerate before eating, I would suggest that you pop them in the microwave for a wee bit just to soften the rice (which is what I do for spam musubi and it works great).

Nori likes to stick to anything that is moist.  Thus, keep your hands dry and whatever you’re sticking the nori to moist. Rice is sticky enough on its own, but if the surface is a bit dry, moisten it with a bit of water before applying to the nori

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How do you arrange your food in a bento box?

I like to make things look pretty, so I use color and texture as guides (plus, the more colorful a bento is, the more likely it is nutritious, unless you’re filling your bento box with MnMs and the like).  If my box doesn’t have dividers, I will create spaces to fit the food using sushi grass dividers, cupcake liners, or dividers made from food (e.g., sliced-cucumber ‘walls’, lettuce leaf ‘cups’).  A colorful bento also looks better in photos!  ;)

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I want to start making bento lunches. Can you point me to some good references?

Definitely!  Be sure to check out the section for inspirational bento blogs, cooking blogs, cookbooks, etc.  The section features many of the foods that I use in my bento, and the lists different types of prepared and pre-cooked foods that can be whipped up in minutes to add to your lunch.  And, of course, there is always . . .

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Why did you go gluten-free?

I started cooking gluten-free in July 2006 in order to confirm my hubs' recent diagnosis of celiac disease. He's suffered a myriad of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to peripheral neuropathy over the past five years and has lived in the dark as to their cause. It turns out that an allergy to gluten (found in wheat, oats, and barley) is the most likely culprit. For more information and resources about celiac disease, see the section.

Do you mind if I link to your site (or friend your LiveJournal)?  I friended you on LiveJournal, why haven't you friended me back?!

Feel free to link to this site – just let me know so that I can return the favor.  Bento blogs, cooking blogs, and other resources are featured in the section.

If you like, use one of the banners below (please copy to your webspace) and link back to .  My LiveJournal entries are embedded into the main page.

LJers: Feel free to friend me if you would like to see bento updates in your friends list.  However, my LJ friends list is limited to bento blogs and journals with bento entries.  If your LJ is dedicated to bento, or if you make bento posts upon occasion, let me know and I'll add you. :) If you're not a bento blogger, fear not – all of my posts are public, so you will get all bento updates if you .

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