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I’m one of those weird people who gets all funny about ketchup. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I have certain rules about it – which I’ve never really examined in too much depth, to be honest. For example, it is never to be squirted onto food – makes it soggy. Better to go on the side, by itself, so it can be dipped into. Also, it is never to be mixed in with things to create some hideous Frankenfood of soggy ketchup and ‘other stuff’. That’s just wrong.

So, with that in mind, it’s very strange that one of my most favourite and comforting foods should be omurice: the dish that breaks my cardinal food rules and somehow manages to rise above its offence:

Omurice bento

Omurice is basically rice and veggies cooked with some ketchup, then coated in an omelette and served with another drizzle of ketchup on top. It’s comfort food for children, which makes it all the more weird how strangely nostaglic the dish is for me, a 28-year-old woman who has never lived in Japan… But nevertheless, there’s something very universal about its combination of starchy carbs, eggy protein, and lashings of tomato sauce.

This recipe makes four portions:

Ingredients

  • Butter
  • 2 chicken thighs, boned
  • 1 onion
  • 50g carrot
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp parsley
  • 4 cups cooked Japanese rice
  • 3 tbsp ketchup
  • 1 tsp sake
  • Dash Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 eggs
  • Ketchup to serve

Method

  • Finely chop the onion, carrot, mushroom and parsley.
  • Debone the chicken and remove the skin. Cut the thigh into small pieces, around 1cm in size, then season with salt and pepper.
  • Heat 1 tbsp butter in a frying pan and sauté the onion until slightly softened. Add the chicken and fry until the outside has gone white. Add the carrot, pepper and mushrooms and cook until soft. This could take as long as ten minutes. You need to ensure the carrot is tender, as it will not be cooked again. Add the parsley and remove from the heat, reserving the mixture and wiping out the frying pan.
  • Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a frying pan and add the hot rice, stirring well. Add the fried mix along with the ketchup, sake and Worcestershire sauce. Season if needed, and keep warm. Do not over cook as this will dry out the rice.
  • In another, shallow frying pan, heat 1 tsp butter. Beat two of the eggs, season with salt, then pour into the frying pan, spreading to cover the base. Put a quarter of the rice in the middle of the pan while the egg is still slightly raw. This helps to stick the rice mixture to the omelette.
  • When the eggs are slightly set, wrap the edges over the top of the rice and turn out onto a warm plate. Don’t worry if you pierce the egg as you do so, as the edges are tucked under. Using a paper towel, shape it as in our photo, then squirt tomato sauce on the top. Continue with the rest of the eggs and mixture until you’ve made four omelettes.

You can also keep this for the following day, and serve it in a bento ala the picture!

Although there aren’t many recipes for holiday bento treats from Japan (unless you count fried chicken and cake!), you can adapt western style ideas to Japanese cooking methods, like with these festive gyozas. They’re filled with caramelised onion, turkey and sage and onion stuffing, and are just right for getting in the festive spirit.

Christmas bento and furoshki

To make this bento, you’ll also need to make star shaped onigiri, topped with star shaped ham and cheese, pigs in blankets (chipolata sausages wrapped in streaky bacon and baked in the oven) and stuffing balls, and get rocket leaves (erm… to look like holly…) tomatoes, and cranberry sauce for a dip. A dipping container and food picks (penguin and star shapes were used here for the Christmas bento theme) are useful too. You can also fill a foil-lined side dish container, as here, with glazed biscuits, minced pies, and your favourite fruit and nut mix.

 

Recipe for festive gyozas

 

Ingredients

Small box sage and onion stuffing

2 medium onions

40g butter

1 tsp sugar

Pinch salt

Olive oil

150g raw turkey breast

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp soy sauce

26 gyoza skins

Oil

 

Method

Mix up your sage and onion stuffing – you need to keep 70g of it for the gyozas and the rest can be made into stuffing balls.

Finely chop your onions, then cook on a very low heat with the butter and sugar until they go a golden brown. This could take an hour or more, but you don’t have to stand over it and stir it the whole time, thankfully!

Shred the turkey breast with a knife so you end up with meat that’s finely cut but has a bit more texture than mince (and is leaner).

Once you’ve done that, mix the caramelised onion, the raw turkey breast, 70g of stuffing and the salt and soy sauce together.

Fill your gyozas by placing a small amount in the middle of a dumpling skin, wetting the edges and folding it in half, pleating the edges. It’s easier to do this with a gyoza press. 

Once you’ve done that, heat some oil in a pan and add six gyozas. Pour water into the pan until it reaches a third of the way up the sides of the gyozas, then cover and cook until the water has evaporated. Once that’s done, remove the lid and fry until the bases are crispy.

 

Note

You can freeze these gyozas and cook them from raw.

 Christmas bento

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

This recipe is a pretty good ‘un, in my opinion (I know, I know, who asked me?). Not only does it taste good, but it’s got veggies in it and it’s a way of naturally colouring your food without using chemicals. Now, there’s no way anyone could suggest I’m not up for dying food whenever I get the opportunity, but somehow it seems wrong to dye savoury food. Don’t know why! When you introduce sugar, all the bets are off…

Also, once you’ve softened your veggies, you bung the whole lot into rice cooker and let it cook. Easy! Obviously, you don’t have to eat this in a bento – it makes a great addition to a hot meal, too.

I really like this bento box – I have a thing for single tiered boxes. I also love Animal Crossing. I don’t know if the box is still available, but I bought it from J-List. (If you click that link, you’ll be taken to the J-List site, so if you buy anything, it earns me pennies to buy new bento stuff! Thank you!)

Teriyaki burger and carrot and onion rice

Recipe for carrot and onion rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups raw rice
  • 1 carrot
  • ½ onion
  • Butter
  • Splash soy sauce
  • Seasoning

Method

  • Process the onion and carrot until they are finely chopped, then sauté in butter until softened – but not browned. This will take around five minutes. Season and add the soy sauce.
  • Add to a rice cooker with washed rice and an equal amount of water, and cook as normal.

Teriyaki burgers might sound kind of outlandish to most western ears, but the sweet-savoury flavour of teriyaki sauce works really well with the beef burgers. I really like eating this as a main course with broccoli, but you can also eat it cold in your bento box as here. I’d make extra for dinner and then pack mini burgers for lunch the next day! I’ve also packed cold broccoli and cauliflower in here – not only are they nice cold (just try it – but don’t overcook them; nothing worse than cold, soggy veg!) but they look really nice as garnishes.

Hamburger and pepper egg

Recipe for Teriyaki Burgers

Ingredients

  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • Butter
  • 200g minced pork
  • 300g minced beef
  • 25g breadcrumbs
  • 75 ml milk
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tbsp mirin
  • 4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 4 tsp sugar

Method

  • Sauté the onion in butter for five minutes until softened. Add to the pork and beef (remembering to cool it first unless you’re cooking right away) and mix.
  • Add the milk to the breadcrumbs and allow it to absorb the liquid. Then, add this along with the egg and seasonings to the onion and meat mixture, and mix well.
  • Form the mixture into bento sized hamburgers. You should be able to get 23 small hamburgers from this – you can vary the size depending on how many you want to fit in the bento.
  • Chill in the fridge for an hour to set, then remove and fry gently in oil until they are cooked through.
  • Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the mirin, then add the soy sauce and sugar. Simmer until thickened, then pour over the burgers.
  • Allow the sauce to coat the burgers, and cool. The sauce should glaze the meat as it gets cold.
  • This will make enough burgers for two people for dinner and two lunches the next day.

This is such a simple recipe I haven’t even put quantities in. You can adjust them according to what you like, how many you’re making and so on. This recipe was originally created for the bento box, as you can cook the egg cup directly in a silicone cup cake case, but you could also make this in a frying or saute pan and finish it off in the oven. I cook this at home so often for dinner, only for a main meal, I would add in cooked, sliced potatoes.

Egg cup

Recipe for bento / lunch egg cup

Fry onions, peppers, courgette and peas (or any veggies of your choice) together with olive oil and salt over a gentle heat until softened.
Add mixture to beaten eggs when still hot, then pour into a silicone cup, which has been greased with olive oil. Sprinkle with dried thyme and bake on a baking sheet for 10 mins at 180c. Check the cup has cooked by squeezing it – if it’s firm, it’s cooked. Allow to cool at room temperature, which will help the egg to set.

NOTE:

You can also use this recipe to use up cooked leftover veggies – saute them until they get a little colour and continue as before.

As a general guide, I would estimate one to two eggs to every person eating. The egg isn’t so much part of the meal, but a way of binding the ingredients together.

Bento cups are one of those cute bento accessories that I have a lot of but never seem to use up. Maybe because I just love buying them so much…

Assorted dividers

As you can see, bento cups come in loads of different shapes and sizes. Sadly, all those cute patterns you see inside get hidden once you pack your bento box, so, although it’s hard, try not to select your cups on the basis of the bottom! Much better is to look at the top centimetre of the edge, as this is usually all you’ll see of your bento.

Oval dividers

When it comes to types of bento cups, there are five main kinds. There’s your standard paper bento cup which has a wax/plastic lining to stop food leaking. You need to throw these away after you’ve used them though, which is a shame. There’s your silicone bento cup which is actually heat proof and reuseable, which are massive bonuses – however, the drawback is that they don’t have patterns on them and are always solid colours. They will bend to the shape you want them to – within reason – so they’re very handy for slotting into your bento. There’s hard, rigid plastic cups which usually come in a particular shape, like a tulip flower or an elephant head or something like that. They can be difficult to fit, and there’s the same drawback with silicone cups of not having patterns on them. Unlike silicone, they’re not heat proof, but you can reuse them. There’s also foil bento cups, which you can use to heat food in. They’re disposable and I’ve found also pretty flimsy. To be honest, I’d always rather go for a silicone cup than a foil bento cup, because they’re sturdier and reusable. Then there’s your makeshift bento cups – the type you might fall back on if you can’t get hold of any bento supplies. Cupcake and muffin cases make good substitutes, and you can get some really cute ones. However, unlike bento cups, if they’re going to have any kind of coating to prevent leaks, it’ll be on the outside of the cup, instead of the inside as with real bento cups. You should save cupcake and muffin cases for food which isn’t soggy at all.

 My creation

Here you can see some bento cups in action. The left hand side shows two rigid bento cups being put to good use on some soggy side dishes. Silicone would also do great here, but you can have mishaps with it sometimes as it’s so pliable. On the top right hand side, you can see a corner-shaped bento cup. See what I mean about the top edge? If you can, before you start packing, try to pick bento cups that match your bento box – whether it’s a complimentary colour or a contrasting one. It’ll definitely make a difference to the finished bento. On the bottom right, you can see a silicone cup which has been used to cook an omelette-type mix of eggs and veggies. Very handy things, silicone cups!

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

Recipe for 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…

Recipe for 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.

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.

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!

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.