Japanese Bento – An Inspired History!

In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month by delving into the history of bento, with a few famous combinations that are sure to inspire you!

Bento are wildly popular in Japan and have recently been enjoying a large following in the United States. Bento are packed lunch boxes—filled with a balanced, nutritious and colorful meal—that can be taken to school, work and outdoor leisure activities. Bento are thought to have originated in Kyoto sometime between the 6th and 8th century as simple packed meals that travelers would take with them on their journeys. Early forms of bento were composed of cooked rice that was dried, making it easy to transport and to reconstitute with water when ready to be eaten. Later, onigiri took the place of the dried rice and became a part of the bento and over time, more items and ingredients were added.

Bento soon became a convenient part of daily Japanese life following its inception. Mothers would send simple bento boxes to school with their children for their midday meal. Often these simple meals would include rice with soy sauce-soaked nori seaweed (noriben) or plain white rice with umeboshi, or salted plum, in the center (hinomaru bento). And workers would take bento from home to work for their lunches.

An example of shidashi bento

In the early 1600s at the beginning of the Edo Period, bento culture become more sophisticated and ubiquitous. In Kyoto, restaurateurs created shidashi bento which they delivered to diners during lunch, parties and funerals. These bento were created following the principles of washoku. According to these principles, bento were made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, including rice, a main dish of fish, meat or eggs, and numerous side dishes of vegetables, seaweeds and mushrooms, such that the nutritional balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fiber provided a complete meal. Often these dishes were seasoned with salt, mirin and sugar to preserve the foods, and herbs, ginger, wasabi, and bamboo leaves were added to the boxes to further help to prevent the food from spoiling. The composition of the boxes included the Five Tastes, namely salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, and the Five Colors, including red, white, green, yellow and black. Finally, bento were crafted with an artful eye for arranging the food in an appetizing and decorative three-dimensional presentation.

Simple bento were served in bamboo or cedar boxes. Lavish, highly decorated and specialized bento boxes also became popular during the Edo period and were used for more elaborate honzen ryori, or full course, meals. These bento were originally created for leisure activities, like cherry blossom viewing picnics and going to Noh and Kabuki performances at the theater. A special type of bento, called makunouchi bento, or “between acts bento”, was served during intermission at the theater. These bento were hugely popular, as they provided a complete meal of rice with many side dishes including fish, tofu, vegetables and pickles, and enhanced the theater-going experience. Makunouchi bento is still a popular type of bento in Japan, and many consider it the progenitor of modern bento. Modern bento based on the makunouchi style usually contain white rice, formed into barrel-shapes and sprinkled with black sesame seeds, dried seaweed or tsukudani, a type of small fish boiled in sweetened soy sauce. The rice is accompanied by a variety of side dishes, often based on the “Three Sacred Imperial Treasures” combination which includes broiled fish, a Japanese-style omelet and kamaboko, or fish sausage. These items are accompanied by pickled, simmered or seasoned vegetables, fried foods such as tempura, and other seasonal items.

Shokado bento (photo by 663highland)

Kaiseki ryori, or haute cuisine based on the formal Japanese tea ceremony, also influenced bento culture. Many high-end Japanese restaurants now serve a bento that includes the courses that would be served in a traditional kaiseki meal, including an appetizer, sushi, soup, simmered vegetables, grilled meats and fish, and rice. These meals are often served in beautiful dishes or bowls. At some kaiseki restaurants, one can enjoy shokado bento, a version of a kaiseki-style bento originally developed by Teiichi Yuki in 1937. Mr. Yuki is said to have visited the Shokado Tea House in Kyoto Prefecture, where he saw the calligraphy box of Shokado Shojo, who was a famous priest, artist and tea master during the early Edo period. Mr. Yuki was so inspired by Shokado Shojo’s art and the beauty of his tool box that he developed a similar black lacquered box partitioned into four squares to use for shokado bento. Shokado bento were easy to serve during large events, and became popular variations of tea ceremony meals. Since its origin, shokado bento has become more graceful and refined over the years.

Whether eaten for convenience or to honor the rich Japanese washoku heritage, when all is said and done, bento is fun to eat! Some may take time to make, but we’ve come up with an idea for Shokado Bento Zojirushi Style that will get your creative juices flowing and leave your heart and belly satisfied!

We hope you enjoy your bento and let us know about your favorite recipes below!

Japanese Bentos – Onigiri Fillings

Did you try making your own onigiri last month? Which one was your favorite recipe… the Rice Sprinkles Onigiri or Yaki-Onigiri or the all-time Classic Onigiri?

This month, we’re making more delicious onigiri for our bento boxes, ones stuffed with tasty fillings!

As you know, onigiri, or omusubi, are highly portable convenience foods that are popular bento items. The classic types of onigiri are made with plain, high-quality cooked white rice, coated in salt and shaped into balls, cylinders, triangles or molded into cute shapes like kittens and flowers. Sometimes they are wrapped in dried nori seaweed and other times they are sprinkled with sesame seeds, ground shiso leaf or furikake.

Because onigiri can be filled with ingredients that would help preserve the rice, typically sour or salty foods, they became popular convenience foods before modern refrigeration. Nowadays, all kinds of tasty ingredients are used to stuff onigiri!

Umeboshi

Common fillings are easy to find in Japan and can be found in Japanese or specialty Asian food markets abroad. Umeboshi, or salty pickled Japanese plum, has a strongly sour taste, travels well at room temperature and said to have antibacterial properties.

Shiozake, or salted salmon, is another quintessentially classic filling for onigiri, added flaked and salted to the rice.

Okaka, or bonito flakes moistened with soy sauce, is both salty and sweet, providing a lovely complement for the rice.

Tarako, or salty cod roe that’s cooked and cut into small pieces, makes a deliciously salty addition to the rice

Finally, kombu no tsukudani, or kombu seaweed that has been simmered in a soy sauce based liquid until tender and caramelized, is shredded into small strips then rolled into the center of the onigiri ball.

Mentaiko, or salted pollock roe, onigiri

Other popular flavorings include negitoro, or finely minced raw tuna mixed with minced green onions, shrimp tempura, pickled takana or Japanese mustard leaves, negi miso, or a mixture of miso paste and Japanese leeks, matsutake mushrooms, daikon radish leaves and even karaage fried chicken, Spam® and yakiniku, or grilled beef.

For our bentos this month, we’re going to make filled onigiri. Just like unstuffed onigiri, start with japonica or uruchimai variety rice. When cooked properly, this type of rice clings together without getting mushy. Once the rice has cooled to the point where it can be handled, moisten hands with water and rub a pinch of salt into hands. Scoop about ½ cup of rice into hands, pressing it into a disc-like shape that conforms to the curve of your palm. Place the filling on the rice and mold the rice around the filling into the desired shape, and wrap with nori, if desired. If you are a beginner, you can place a plastic wrap in a small bowl and place the rice and filling on top. Then gather the plastic wrap around the rice and make your desired shape.

We love Shiozake Onigiri, made with home-cooked salmon, and Spam® musubi, which is a variation of omusubi created in Hawaii!

We love onigiri for our bentos and hope that you’ll share your favorites with us, too. Don’t forget to post your photos in the comments!

Japanese Bentos – Onigiri

Classically Built Onigiri

Happy 2017, Zojirushi fans! We kick off the new year with a new series about bento, or the Japanese lunch box. Japanese bentos are not only nutritious but creative and beautiful! We’re going to spend some time learning about the special foods and dishes that are found in bento boxes. Stick with us, and you’ll be making your own complete bento in no time!

We begin with one of Japanese cuisine’s beloved comfort foods, onigiri.

Onigiri, also known as omusubi, is a portable, filling convenience food that is nutritious and fun! The purest form of onigiri is made from high-quality cooked white rice that is shaped into either a ball, triangle or cylinder while it’s still hot. During the shaping process, the cook will coat their damp hands with salt to coat the rice with the seasoning.

onigiribento

Onigiri bento

Onigiri is said to have come into existence after uruchimai, or everyday short-grain white rice, came to be widely used in the 11th to 12th centuries. It became popular as a convenience food before modern refrigeration, as the addition of salt or a sour ingredient helped to preserve the cooked rice and enable people to take food with them when they left home.

Onigiri is a popular bento item because it keeps well, is highly portable and can be formed into lovely shapes. It can be found in elaborately festive bentos as well as in homemade bentos, and unlike sushi or inari, which are made using rice seasoned with vinegar, onigiri can simply be made with white rice and just a touch of salt.

So how many types of onigiri are there?

So many! From the traditional triangular, spherical and cylindrical shapes to adorably cute, molded shapes of popular characters in manga and anime, onigiri takes many forms. Onigiri is often wrapped in thin sheets of dried nori seaweed.  It also can be sprinkled with sesame seeds or furikake such as ground shiso leaf. When grilled over an open flame on a wire rack, yaki-onigiri, or grilled onigiri, can be basted with a glaze like miso butter. Mixing up the type of rice used in onigiri is also a popular way to make it. Short-grain japonica white rice is traditionally used, but brown rice and rice mixed with barley, wild rice, green peas and other grains also make delicious variations. New forms of onigiri, called onigirazu, are like little rice sandwiches wrapped in seaweed.

kyaraben

Kyaraben, or character bento

Making onigiri is like many Japanese activities… deceptively simple. Start with freshly cooked rice that has cooled to the point where it can be handled, not gotten cold. Moisten hands with water and rub a pinch of salt into hands. Scoop about ½ cup of rice into hands, and mold the rice into the desired shape. If using a mold, then press the rice into the mold. And you now have the most basic onigiri!

Try making our Rice Sprinkles Onigiri, which uses a wonderful vegetable furikake, as well as our Yaki-Onigiri, which results in a crispy outside and soft and savory inside. You’ll love them both!

Stay tuned for our next Japanese Bentos post in which we will be discussing about the different types of fillings for onigiri!

Also, don’t forget to share your favorite onigiri recipe with us in the comments!