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Bento booster / Add a pop of color with simple sides

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series introduces everyday techniques to make bento lunches.

Here, cooking expert Yuko Musashi offers tips on making colorful side dishes for bento boxes. What’s more, they are easy to cook in advance.

It is not easy to cook several side dishes in the morning for a bento lunch. Families with children are always especially busy — serving breakfast, taking care of the kids and making bento.

“The key to maintaining your bento-making routine is to minimize the morning prep,” said Musashi. “I suggest making some side dishes when you cook dinner and storing them.”

Musashi suggests preparing three or four side dishes in colors such as red and green. Once these precooked side dishes are done, the bento is almost ready — in the morning you can add a freshly cooked main dish.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Musashi recommends four differently colored side dishes — carrot representing red, broccoli for green, lotus root for white and pumpkin for yellow. Each dish can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container.

Other ingredients are also useful for adding a bit of color. Daikon Japanese radish or enoki mushrooms are good for white, tomato or red bell pepper for red, sweet potato or yellow bell pepper for yellow, and spinach or runner beans for green. Try to use seasonal ingredients.

Using various cooking methods, such as simmering, marinating or kinpira (a way of stir-frying sliced vegetables) also adds variety. You can alter a bento just by using a side dish that has a different flavor from the main dish, such as a sour taste or a slightly sweet taste.

When filling the box, the rice should be put in first, then the main dish and lastly the side dishes. Add rice while its hot, then let it cool down for a while. Next, add the cooled main dish. Fill the remaining space with the side dishes. Using paper or silicon cups enhances the presentation.

The four colorful side dishes shown here as examples can be stored for about three days in the fridge. “Make sure the precooked side dishes are used up while they taste good. Each dish makes about three servings,” Musashi said.

Ingredients and directions

Broccoli steamed with olive oil

1 broccoli (250-300 grams) / 1½ tbsp olive oil / ⅓ tsp salt

1. Cut broccoli into small florets. Place in pan with ¼cup water, cover with a lid, steam on medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add olive oil and ⅓ teaspoon salt, cover and steam for 2 minutes.

Lotus root marinated in sushi vinegar

150 grams lotus root / 3 tbsp sushi vinegar / 2 tbsp olive oil

1. Mix the sushi vinegar and olive oil.

2. Peel lotus root, slice into quarter rounds 5-6 millimeters wide. Mix a little more vinegar (not included in the 3 tablespoons) with water and soak the lotus for 1-2 minutes. Drain lotus root, boil for 1 minute in water with a little vinegar added, drain again in a strainer. Before cooling completely, marinate with sushi vinegar mixed with olive oil.

Pumpkin simmered with honey, lemon and soy sauce

300 grams pumpkin / 3-4 slices lemon / 2½ tbsp honey / ½ tsp soy sauce

1. Scoop out pumpkin seeds and pulp with spoon, cut into bite-size chunks.

2. Put pumpkin, 1 cup water, honey, quarter rounds of lemon and ½ tablespoon soy sauce in a pot, then boil. Place sheet of aluminum foil on top as a lid and simmer for 5-6 minutes until most of the liquid has gone.

Carrot dressed with sesame sauce

Carrot (150 grams) / 2 tbsp ground white sesame seeds / 1 tbsp sugar / 1 tbsp soy sauce

1. Blend sesame with sugar and soy sauce.

2. Chop carrot into bite-size pieces, place in heat-resistant bowl, lightly cover bowl with plastic wrap and heat in microwave (600W) for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Drain liquid, then dress carrot with sesame sauce.

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