Want to try making bento? Here’s a time-saving tip!

Bento: healthy, convenient, and (with a little planning) yours for only 10 minutes of your morning.

I know a lot of JETs partake of school lunch on a pretty regular basis, but do you ever have days when you need to provide your own lunch? And how about those of you who work at schools without kyushoku, or who don’t work at schools at all? Do you ever feel envious of the neatly packed bento that your students or coworkers bring from home? Do you want to make your own lunch, but feel daunted by the prospect of waking up even earlier than you already do?

There are two ways that I bribe myself into making bento for myself (almost) every morning. The first: giving in to my ego and posting photos of my lunches online for people to write nice comments on. The second: making stuff in advance.

While psychological motivators are all well and good, preparing dishes in advance is actually a very effective time saver, and could ultimately be the difference between a one-time early morning stint and a sustainable bento-making schedule. Sometimes you might just put aside a little bit of whatever you had for dinner the night before, but it’s also helpful to have something with a long life span on hand in the fridge or freezer. Meat products lend themselves to this particularly well, but there are a number of vegetable dishes that can be set aside for later.

My personal favorite is kinpira gobo (金平ごぼう). Kinpira describes a method of cooking which is a combination of simmering and sauteeing in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and sugar. The final result is salty, sweet and spicy, all at the same time. A variety of vegetables and other ingredients can be prepared this way, but my favorite is gobo (burdock root), a root vegetable available in the produce section of Japanese grocery stores year round. Gobo is a long, skinny root, usually still covered in dirt, sold in a large plastic in quantities of 2-10, depending on the size of the roots. It is somewhat tough, and needs to be soaked to remove bitterness before being prepared. It’s unique, earthy flavor is worth the work, though. It makes a good addition to miso soup or stir fry, but I think its flavor is best exhibited in kinpira.

Kinpira is a great addition to bento for a number of reasons.  For one, it tastes just as good (if not better) cold as it does hot. Equally important is the fact that it keeps well in the refridgerator, and can be set aside in the freezer for a long time if sealed properly. I usually make a big batch of it all at once, then wrap it in small portions in plastic wrap and keep it frozen until I need it.

Want to try making kinpira? Check out the recipe on my blog!

I got up at 7:00this morning, washed my face, got dressed, did my hair (okay, actually, I just sort of ran a comb through it - it looks pretty weird), made lunch, ate breakfast, read a front page story from the New York Times, and was out the door by 8:00. With a little planning, making a bento every day is not an unattainable goal.

Chelsea Robinson is a first year CIR in Tsubata with a thing for food. Check out Hokuriku Expat Ktichen for more bento ideas and culinary musings.