Japanese bento: Out-of-the-box delicious idea

EAT’S EASY - Ernest Reynoso Gala (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2014 - 12:00am

Japanese cuisine is a fascinating reflection of the Japanese approach to life and talent for artistic expression. The use of seasonings is restrained and relies on the freshness, simplicity, and integrity of the natural taste of ingredients, similar to the Zen belief practiced by its citizens. With vast natural resources, the availability and diversity have resulted in an emphasis on the freshest ingredients in food, celebrating flavor, texture, regionality, and the seasons, with a simple preparation that lets the food speak for itself. From Kobe beef to sweet rice wine called sake and fresh raw tuna, Japan stays one savory step ahead. With great variety and rising culinary talents, Japanese food is becoming ever more popular all over the world. 

Another important factor in Japanese culture is discipline and organization. The Japanese have an uncanny knack for decorating with no fuss, instead focusing on structure and a minimalistic approach. This can be seen in their Zen gardens and the popular bonsai tree where precision becomes beautiful. This tradition extends to their cuisine with the invention of the famous bento box. Started in the fifth century, these wooden boxes are made of lacquer engraved with artistic designs. Not just a “lunch box,” bento is a systematic way of trying a variety of dishes with small compartments to segregate the food items. Early boxes were made of bamboo or oak leaf and sheath. The size was an oval or half-moon crescent called hangetsu. Each box contains rice, fish, meat or vegetables with soup served on the side. Rice, called onigiri, is very sticky, often shaped into balls or triangles for easier handling when using a chopstick. In some parts of Tokyo, asari or clam stock mixed with miso is added to the rice to increase flavor. In recent times, kyaraben or character bento was introduced wherein rice was decorated with animal figures or Japanese cartoon characters for more variety. The size, look, and material of the bento boxes have also made them status symbols among students. Men generally prefer the box type while women prefer the oval shape. Shokado Shojo, a monk and skilled painter, designed many boxes that were named after him (Shokado Bento) and highly prized during the Edo period. In the early Japanese plays, like the Grand Kabuki, actors and viewers would eat between scenes, or during the intermission, from what was called the makuno uchi bento. During the Meiji period, ekiben or train station bento was sold to travelers through the window. The popularity of bento has increased tremendously in recent times. With today’s fast-paced lifestyle, bento boxes are sold all over for commuters and urban dwellers to efficiently eat delicious food. Many Japanese groceries sell them in containers that are microwavable and easy to dispose of.

When preparing a meal, the ratio of rice to side dishes is generally one to one; the ratio of meat or seafood to vegetables is one to two. Liquid must be removed to prevent spoilage while the excess liquid is absorbed by the wood. In Japan, mothers often prepare the meals, which also makes for a great bonding experience with their children while ensuring that they eat properly. In some provinces, boxes are wrapped and tied in cloth for easy transport.

Sunumono-pickled cucumber with dried dilis

1) Peel only some parts of outer skin of two cucumbers, cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice crosswise into thin slices, then marinate at least one hour: 1/4 (one fourth) cup Japanese vinegar (mitzukan), 2 tbsps. sugar, 1/2 tsp. fine salt, and grated ginger. Serve in small bento container.

2) For dilis, boil together mirin (sweet sake), 1 tbsp. Kikkoman soy sauce with 3 tbsps. sugar. When syrupy, add dilis. Toast until crispy.

Japanese Chicken Teriyaki

1) 500 grams Magnolia Chicken breast fillet. Cut into one-inch cubes. 

2) Boil until syrupy: 1/4 cup soy sauce (Kikkoman), 2 tbsps. mirin, 2 tbsps. white sugar, 2 segments/clove crushed garlic, 1 tsp. ginger, 1 tsp. sesame oil.

3) Add chicken until sauce sticks to chicken breast. Serve in bento box.

A two-day Bento Box Module Workshop will be offered on Jan. 25 and 26, which includes karaage, yaki udon, crab spring roll, two types of rice balls, chicken teriyaki, mixed seafood fry, chahan, and sautéed vegetable and pork. All Japanese modules will be taught by Japanese chef Takahashi Kawasaki, executive chef of Hanaichi Japanese Restaurant located at Bonifacio Global City and Sakura Restaurant in Subic. Price is P6,000 per module workshop. Time 1:30 to 5 p.m. Paid reservations will be given priority.

A “Start Your Catering Business” and “Learn Food Costing Module” will be offered on Jan. 18 and 19, teaching how to make a menu, basic kitchen accounting, equipment, staffing, set-up, and event managing. Also included are hands-on training and cooking of tomato and basil soup, chicken Cordon Bleu, spaghetti puttanesca, and sautéed string beans. The two-day module will be taught by chef Jet Te, owner and executive chef of PikenmonJet Catering Services Inc. and owner of Don Joaquin Resort. Price is P6,000 for two-day module, from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Paid reservations will be given priority.  

Chef de partie and sous chef classes will begin first week Feb. Reservations are now accepted with 30-percent down payment required for guaranteed slots.

Galastars Culinary is at 79 Shaw Blvd., Pasig City, Metro Manila. For inquiries and reservations, call 67-4489 or 98 or 72. Visit www.sylviareynosogala.com or like us on Facebook at Galastars Culinary or Sylvia Reynoso Gala Culinary.

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