Japan Eats

Book Review: The Just Bento Cookbook

Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh

Through her sites Justhungry.com and Justbento.com, Makiko Itoh celebrates the many facets of Japanese cuisine, describing ingredients, detailing cooking techniques and offering recipes to an international audience. The first of these sites, Justhungry, has been up and running since 2003 and contains Itoh’s musings on the rudiments of Japanese cooking; how to make dashi, the way in which to prepare sushi rice, and so on. It is Justbento, however, for which Itoh is particularly well known. Here, she writes on the humble Japanese lunchbox, demonstrating both its versatile flavors as well as the health benefits associated with a balance of ingredients.

With her first book, The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go, Itoh brings her passion for the bento to an even wider audience. “A bento-box lunch is really just a packed lunch – but it’s a packed lunch prepared with a little extra care, for your family and loved ones, or just for yourself” notes Itoh in the introduction. “Bento-box meals are satisfying to the eye and the soul, as well as the body. They do not have to be overly cute or take hours to prepare. With minimal effort and a splash of creativity, they can be things of simple beauty that not only bring a smile to the recipient’s face but can be as pleasurable to make as they are to eat”.

Born in Tokyo, Itoh is particularly well suited to the role of bento evangelist – she has lived in several countries and is as much at home in English as she is in Japanese. Western readers will have little trouble grasping explanations of how to prepare tamagoyaki (“a rolled omelette that is savory yet slightly sweet”) or chicken kara-age (“deep-fried marinated chicken”). Not that more experienced cooks will find the book too prefatory – there’s plenty here to interest even those who already have a good knowledge of Japanese cooking basics.

Indeed, Itoh understands her audience. A frequent complaint of those living outside Japan is that it’s often difficult (if not impossible) to source Japanese ingredients when following Japanese recipes. Here, Itoh gets around this problem by offering two types of recipes: “Japanese style bentos” and “Not-so-Japanese Bentos”. The former includes such standards as ginger pork bento, soboro bento (“ground meat, fish, egg, or vegetables, seasoned and served mixed in with or sprinkled onto rice”) and soba noodle bento. Throughout the text, Itoh explains whether or not ingredients are commonly found outside Japan, and offers possible substitutes for items not available.

Itoh really mixes it up in the second part of the book dealing with bento inspired by other cultures. Recipes include “Everyone Loves A Pie Bento” (containing pies made from a yeasted dough of wheat flour and olive oil), “Spanish Omelette Bento” and a “Mediterranean Mezze-style Bento” (the use of edamame in place of chickpeas when preparing hummus is particularly clever). Prescriptivists will no doubt bristle at all this freewheeling creativity, but Itoh recognizes that not everyone is going to be satisfied with a noriben or the richness of unagi no kabayaki.

In addition to the recipes, the book carries helpful information on the various types of bento boxes and a glossary of Japanese ingredients. There’s a section on safety tips (“Cool down cooked food before packing into a bento box”, “Use an ice pack for certain foods, and in hot weather”) and another dealing with practical tips for speeding up the bento-making process. Throughout the text, Itoh also discusses the nutritional benefits of her recipes, choosing low-calorie accompaniments for rich meat dishes and offering vegan alternatives where possible (not something you’ll come across in similar Japanese cookbooks!)

The Just Bento Cookbook thus contains a wide variety of recipes and practical information – 150 ‘easy-to-prepare, original, bento-box-friendly’ recipes, according to the introduction. Curious then that the design of the book feels somewhat underdeveloped. Given the glut of cookbooks heavy on the food-porn photographs and light on actual recipes, it seems odd that Kodansha didn’t furnish Itoh with a larger budget for the images. It matters little, though. Itoh’s writing is enough to sell readers on what to expect from each recipe.

In sum, The Just Bento Cookbook is a well-written introduction for those new to preparing Japanese lunch-boxes, and a useful reference for anyone who already knows the classic Japanese recipes and is looking for fresh ideas. Best of all, Itoh is clearly unafraid of experimenting with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. What matters is not what’s authentic but what’s practical and tastes good. Her readers will no doubt appreciate Itoh’s efforts to render the bento a practical lunchtime alternative and follow her example.

The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go
by Makiko Itoh
Kodansha International, 2,000 yen, 127 pages

Recipe: Tangy Pantry Chicken

Kupa Hokianga prepares a delicious Valentines dish

I recently took the opportunity to clean out my kitchen pantry. The TV was on in the background, tuned to a Discovery Channel show about waste reduction and simple low-budget eco ideas. The discarded pantry items were on the table waiting to be disposed of, but after listening to the TV program, I began to feel a little guilty. Surely I could do something with this food.

I want to share just one of the recipes I made that day: a B-class gourmet chicken breast glazed in rosemary, marmalade, and chilli-infused honey; a perfect Valentine’s meal for two.

Unsure what to do with that leftover marmalade or honey? Combine with chilli to make a glaze.

You will love it. It’s a simple, inexpensive recipe using basic ingredients you may find in the fridge at home, takes only minutes to prepare, and looks and tastes fantastic.

Chicken is an inexpensive meat in Japan. I generally find it’s great value and, when prepared well, versatile, moist, and tasty. In my pantry, I found a jar of honey that had crystallized, cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving, and several almost empty jars of  jam and marmalade.

Here’s my really simple recipe for Tangy Pantry Chicken

The good thing is that any ingredient can be substituted with whatever your have. The objective is to get a sweet glaze syrup.
Chilli and honey balance really well and I actually use them in yogurt desserts; rosemary and honey also pair perfectly with chicken, but sage or thyme would also do.

I used three chicken breasts, but any chicken cut will be fine.

Check your cupboards for:

  • 3 – 4 tablespoons of honey
  • 3 tablespoons of marmalade (or any sweet fruit jam or cranberry sauce)
  • 1 dry or fresh chilli
  • 1 lemon or any citrus fruit
  • Fresh rosemary or a woody herb
  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar (if you have it)
  • Seasoning and olive oil or vegetable oil

(Quantities may vary depending on the viscosity of your ingredients.)

Preparing the chicken:

  • After removing the retail wrapping, it’s best to reduce the moisture from the meat. I usually do this by placing the cuts, lightly salted, on a draining rack and leave them in the fridge for 2 – 3 hours, but if you’re in a hurry, just dab them with a paper towel.
  • Place the chicken in a large bowl, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and drizzle on a little oil. Grab the fresh rosemary and massage the chicken using your hands. Allow it to rest while you prepare the oven and glaze.

Next preheat your oven and roasting dish to 190°C (about 375°F). A heavy-based pan works best.

The Glaze:

  • In a small pot on a low heat, spoon in the honey, fine chop the chilli and infuse the honey with it. (You could also use any citrus zest.) Heat and stir for 2 – 3 minutes.
  • Next, spoon in the marmalade or jam and continue to heat the mixture for one or two minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat before it begins to boil or caramelize. You just want a free-flowing combined mixture.

Warning: Do not be tempted to put your fingers into the honey mixture. It will burn you.

  • Drain any blood or moisture that the chicken has released from the bowl, then pour about 70% of the hot glaze mixture over your chicken. Using a spoon or tongs, toss your chicken so the glaze covers all the surfaces. Allow it to sit for a few minutes.
  • When the oven is hot, drop in your glazed chicken – skin side up – and set a timer for ten minutes. After ten minutes, use a spoon or a pastry brush to coat or baste the chicken with the pan juices. Repeat every five minutes until the meat juices run clear.
  • Finally, reheat the remaining honey glaze in the small pot and stir in a table spoon of brown sugar (or soy sauce), reducing it so it becomes a thick syrup. Take the roasting dish from the oven and remove any watery pan juices so only the cooked chicken is left. Coat the chicken with the honey and brown sugar glaze and roast it for 2 – 3 minutes or until the surface caramelizes.
  • Remove the chicken from the oven, cover it, and rest it on a pre-warmed plate for five minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a little zest, then serve it hot, drizzled with pan jus, or wrap it and have it cold in a fresh mint and pineapple salad the next day.

A jam and honey glaze can be made up in advance and kept for weeks in your fridge. Enjoy it on sliced grilled ham, pork chops, or grilled sausages, even on char-grilled slices of fruit such as nashi, apples, pineapples, or peaches – the possibilities are endless.