Japanese Bento – Cherry Blossoms Inspire Bento!

Spring is here, and with the blooming of cherry, or sakura, trees all over Japan, we’re excited to share in the season by exploring hanami bento!

(…and stay tuned at the end to find out how to win a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar!) THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.

Spring in Japan brings a flurry of freshness… Japanese apricot, or ume, and cherry trees start flowering, signaling the change in season. Festivals begin, celebrating the renewal of life from a cold winter. And the new academic and business year begins. Fresh, seasonal foods are also prepared, and can be seen beautifully displayed in hanami bento.

Hanami bento are named after the ohanami tradition of meeting up with friends, family and coworkers to view the blooming cherry blossoms and spend time outdoors in areas lush with the delicate pink blooms. The tradition of viewing the flowers is said to have begun sometime between the end of the Nara Period (710-794 AD) and the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). The Emperor Saga welcomed springtime and the beginning of rice planting season in Kyoto by hosting parties under the sakura trees. Over time, the tradition spread from the aristocracy to the general populace, with people enjoying outdoor picnics and merriment from morning into the night.

Ueno Park visitors enjoy the blossoming of the cherry trees

Today, enjoying the cherry blossom season is still a favorite custom in Japan, and many Japanese continue the tradition of ohanami parties in parks and private gardens throughout the country. In fact, local news broadcasts provide detailed accounts of where the flowers are blooming, and sakuramatsuri, or cherry blossom festivals, begin in cities like Hirosaki, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, just to name a few.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of cherry blossom viewing parties are the meals! Hanami bento are a type of koraku or large picnic bento specifically crafted with the sakura in mind, famously enjoyed during picnics. These larger bento boxes are made for sharing! They’re filled with colorful, seasonal foods, including hearty items like rolled egg omelet, fish and shrimp, and mini-burgers and chicken karaage. Vegetables like carrots, asparagus and green beans are crisply cooked, cut and arranged so they look like the cherry blossoms. Seasoned rice, like sweet rice cooked with adzuki beans, are included and formed into flower shapes to add beauty to the mix. And of course, the bento wouldn’t be complete without some form of wagashi or sweets like tricolor dango called hanami dango.

A variety of sweet and savory foods fill this hanami bento (photo by Blue Lotus)

Hanami bento can be made at home and taken to cherry blossom viewing parties, and they can also be purchased from specialty shops and depachika, or the food halls in the basements of department stores. Depachika versions include traditional items, Western foods, and new, innovative combinations, as well!

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area of the United States where cherry trees bloom, plan your own ohanami party and bring a bento! We love including mini-hamburgers with two sauces, a Japanese one made with soy sauce and mirin and a Western one with Worcestershire sauce and ketchup. We also love adding crisp veggies like aemono, made with fresh spring green beans. And the ever popular hanami dango, with white, pink and green sweets.

We hope you enjoy your bento and let us know where you saw the blooming cherry trees!

30 Days For 30 Years Giveaway!
Today and today only, we are giving away a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar in Lemon Yellow*! Comment below and tell us what your favorite item in a bento box or lunch is, for your chance to win! #ZojirushiHappy30thGivaway

*must comment before 11:59PDT on 04/04/2017 THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.

Giveaway rules and details: bit.ly/Zoji30thRules

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!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Kaiseki Ryori & Shojin Ryori

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Refined, delicate, purposeful, seasonal, healthy, flexible… all of these words describe the essence of Japanese cuisine, or washoku. As part of our exploration of the essentials of Japanese cooking, we’ve learned about the ingredients and foundational foods at the core of this cuisine. This month, we explore the principles of the washoku tradition that guide kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori.

Washoku is often translated to mean harmony (“wa”) and food (“shoku”). According to Elizabeth Andoh, one of Japan’s premier chefs, in her book Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, “washoku, or the “harmony of food” is a way of thinking about how we eat and how [food] can nourish us. The term describes both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit.”

This philosophy is best illustrated by an ichiju sansai meal, which consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup and three side dishes, typically comprised of a piece of grilled fish or meat or tofu, pickles and simmered vegetables. An ichiju sansai meal is the typical meal served at lunch and dinner in Japanese households and is loosely translated to mean “well-balanced meal”. Both kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine, and shojin ryori, Japanese temple food, rely on this framework.

ichijusansai

An example of ichiju sansai

Kaiseki ryori (as seen in the title image) offers a richer, more elaborate but no less balanced version of an ichiju sansai meal. Kaiseki meals were originally prepared as part of formal Japanese tea ceremonies, and were later served to nobles as a sign of wealth and class. A kaiseki meal consists of four courses or “sets” offered in a prescribed sequence. The starters set includes an aperitif course (skokuzen-shu) in which a small cup of sake or wine is served, followed by an appetizer course, consisting of decoratively prepared bite-sized appetizers served on a long dish called a hassun. The starters are followed by the main set, which consists of a soup course (suimono), a sashimi course (otsukuri), a simmered dish (nimono), a grilled dish (yakimono), a deep fried dish (agemono), a steamed dish (mushimono) and a pickled dish (sunomono). The third set, called a shokuji set, includes a bowl of white rice, miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono). Finally, the meal is concluded with a small dessert of fruit, confections, sorbet or ice cream.

Though there are many dishes in a kaiseki meal, each dish is served in small proportions, slowly and with great attention to detail, and with the utmost in hospitality. Even seating, tables, flowers, quiet and privacy are considered in the preparation of a kaiseki meal! Today, kaiseki meals are served in Michelin-starred and fancy Japanese-style restaurants and high-end ryokan, or Japanese-style inns.

shoujinryori

Shojin ryori

Devotional or temple cooking, known as shojin ryori, hones the concept of “harmony of food” into a set of offerings that are based on Buddhism’s inherent respect for living a life that eschews doing harm. This type of cuisine became popular in the early 11th century when Buddhist monks used this way of “earnest commitment” to procure, prepare, serve and eat their meals. At its most fundamental nature, shojin ryori is vegan, consisting of no animal products, uses gentle seasonings and reduces waste as much as possible. A typical meal consists of a few vegetables such that all parts are used, the leaf, the root, the skins, prepared using simple techniques like blanching, simmering and braising, along with rice, soup, pickles, beans, legumes and tofu. Each item is prepared simply, without strong tastes such as garlic, chilies or wasabi. The entire meal is prepared with quiet thoughtfulness and eaten with reverence. Restaurants that serve shojin ryori meals offer more creative versions of this honest, simple food and are becoming more popular as people are gravitating towards a plant-based diet.

Both kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori style meals make a conscious effort to use seasonal ingredients, taking care to respect when foods are most fresh and full of their inherent flavor. These two styles of cuisine are also deeply concerned with how food is presented, including how ingredients are cut, arranged, plated and served.

The utter refinement of washoku in these cooking styles shows you the wonderful variety of Japanese cuisine. Which ones have you tried? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Unlock Umami-Rich Dashi

shrimpball

“Dashi is a subtle broth with the capacity to enhance and intensify the flavor of those foods with which it is cooked or blended. That ability is locked within kombu (kelp) and katsuo bushi (smoky bonito fish flakes), the two ingredients used to make this basic sea stock: Both are both rich in water-soluble glutamates.” – Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku and Kansha, and leading expert on Japanese cuisine

If umami represents the soul of Japanese cooking, then dashi certainly represents the heart, enhancing and harmonizing the flavors in many Japanese dishes. This month, we continue our series about umami with a tutorial about how to make dashi. We also feature recipes that use dashi, showcasing the breadth of dishes that rely on this essential ingredient.

In classical Japanese cooking, dashi is commonly made with water, kelp (konbu) and the shavings of dried, smoked skipjack tuna (bonito flakes or katsuobushi). Two types of dashi can be prepared from one batch of ingredients: ichiban dashi and niban dashi. Ichiban dashi is the first extraction of umami from the konbu and katsuobushi, resulting in a pale, clear and delicately fragrant broth. Niban dashi is the second extraction of umami from the leftover konbu and katsuobushi used to make ichiban dashi and results in bolder flavor. Japanese cooks use both types of dashi to flavor specific types of dishes and to fully utilize the ingredients without waste.

dashiprocess

Ichiban dashi is simple to make, as long as a few techniques are followed with precision. To extract the full flavor-enhancing properties of the glutamate-rich ingredients, start with cold water. Place the water in a saucepan, along with a square piece of konbu. Heat the water over medium heat until just before it boils, when bubbles start to appear along the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove the konbu, and let the water come to a full boil. Removing the konbu at this precise time prevents the glutamates extracted from the seaweed from becoming bitter due to prolonged exposure to high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool. Then, add the katsuobushi to the saucepan and heat the mixture again until it reaches a boil. Turn the heat off and let the bonito flakes steep in the liquid. Finally, strain the liquid through several layers of paper towel or cheesecloth, into a clean glass container, so that no small pieces of fish or seaweed are left in the broth to muddle the flavor.

This step-by-step recipe for Ichiban Dashi notes the actual proportions, temperatures and cooking times…and we know you’ll find it enjoyable to make!

Niban dashi is made using the already-cooked seaweed and fish left over from preparing ichiban dashi. Add both ingredients back into the saucepan, add a few cups of water, simmer the mixture for several minutes over low heat, then strain.

In the case of both ichiban and niban dashi, the keys to creating the best dashi lie in extracting and preserving the glutamates from the konbu and katsuobushi. Prolonged cooking, excessively high heat and inadequate straining can result in a dull and fishy broth that sullies, rather than enhances, the dishes that rely on dashi to infuse them with umami.

Ichiban dashi is used in many types of dishes, from soups to appetizers to salads. We have some great recipes that use ichiban dashi on our website, like Tofu Misoshiru, Shrimp Ball Broth, Hiyashi Chawanmushi and Crab & Cucumber Sunomono.

Bringing out the flavor of fresh, high-quality ingredients using umami-rich dashi is at the core of Japanese culinary tradition. We encourage you to make your own dashi, and as always, would love to hear about your experience!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Sake and Mirin

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We’ve talked about the five basic elements of Japanese cooking so far in this series, showcasing salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and miso in ryori no sa shi su se so. But we have yet to explore sake and mirin, both of which are essential to Japanese cooking, and are the topics of this month’s post.

Sake and mirin are alcoholic liquors that are both imbibed and used as ingredients in cooking, similar to the way wine is used in French cooking. Both sake and mirin were originally cultivated as drinks–sake as a sacred offering to the gods, and to be enjoyed in ceremony by the Japanese people— and mirin as a popular aperitif among the upper classes. Today, their culinary uses have permeated all of Japanese cooking.

sakagura

A sake brewery

Sake, or nihon-shu, is a rice wine made from rice, spring water, rice koji and shubo. The technique for making sake was originally introduced to Japan from China, around the same time that the rice plant was introduced. The entire brewing cycle is overseen by a brewmaster, or toji, who carefully orchestrates the multiple steps that go into producing this wine. Rice from the last harvest in autumn is typically used to make sake, and once it is milled, it’s washed, soaked and steamed until the texture is ready for cultivating koji. Koji is a fermentation agent made by mixing the fungus Aspergillus oryzae to the steamed rice and allowing the enzymes from the mold to convert the starches in the rice to fermentable sugars. After about 48 hours, one part koji is then mixed with three parts steamed rice and placed in a temperature controlled tank or vat. A special type of spring water is used in sake brewing, containing very little manganese and iron, and containing high quantities of potassium, magnesium and calcium. This special brewing water and shubo, or yeast, is added to the koji rice mixture, allowing the yeast to consume the sugars created by the koji, and turn them into alcohol over the course of approximately three weeks. When the toji believes the brew temperature, sugars, alcohol levels and acidity levels are just right, the mixture is poured into cloth bags that are placed neatly in a pressing tank, which compresses the mixture and drains the liquid sake out of the base of the press. The sake is aged for up to four months in refrigerated tanks, after which it is either pasteurized or kept cool and packaged for sale.

Sake is powerful stuff. It’s got up to a 20% alcohol concentration!

Mirin is sweeter, and milder. Brewed in a way similar to sake, mirin is made with glutinous rice (instead of the rice used for sake), koji, and shochu (a type of distilled spirit), then fermented up to two months. The shochu suppresses the production of alcohol in mirin, so the final product is contains less of it than does sake. Two types of mirin are generally available: hon-mirin, also known as real mirin, and mirin-fu chomiryo, also known as mirin-like condiment, which has virtually no alcohol but a similar flavor.

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

Both sake and mirin are wonderful ingredients in Japanese dishes. Sake is often used to tenderize meat, poultry and seafood, eliminates unpleasant odor and draws out the natural flavors of the foods it is cooked with. Mirin can firm up meats and seafood, and add a touch of sweetness and sheen, especially to glazes and sauces, such as teriyaki sauce.

While mirin is almost exclusively used in cooking, sake is still a beverage enjoyed from the beginning to the end of a Japanese meal. Grab a small cup and pair it with Chanko-Nabe, a one-pot stew flavored with sake and mirin, or Teriyaki Yellowtail, marinated with sake and mirin.

As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.