Marcus Lovitt reviews Makiko Itoh’s The Just Bento Cookbook
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
An easy recipe for negitoro maki that can be adapted to suit your own taste.
Norimaki is the ever-popular type of sushi which comes wrapped in nori (seaweed). This particular recipe has tuna inside, but you could just as easily fill your norimaki with other ingredients. Indeed, the American California roll is essentially norimaki with avocado.
For this version you’ll need a makisu (bamboo rolling mat). Naturally, makisu are easy to come by in Japan (here they’re available from supermarkets and even 100 yen shops). Elsewhere, you should be able to buy one from any good Asian grocery store.
- 2 go sushi rice (refer to the chirashizushi recipe)
- 5 to 6 sheets of nori (seaweed)
- 400g of (preferably fatty) tuna
- 10 asatsuki chives
Method (makes 5 -6 rolls)
First, prepare sushi rice according to the chirashizushi recipe. Next, mince the tuna with two kitchen knives until it becomes a rough paste and thinly chop the asatsuki chives.
Toast a sheet of nori by passing it over a high flame to make it crispy and dry.
Set the makisu (bamboo rolling mat) onto a flat space. Place the sheet of nori onto the mat and then gently spoon some of the sushi rice onto the seaweed. Spread it over the sheet, leaving 3 cm uncovered at the top and bottom.
Place some of the minced tuna and a pinch of the chopped asatsuki onto the rice (if you’re worrying about quantity, aim for roughly 1/5 to 1/6 of each ingredient per roll). Now dab your finger in water and run it along the edge of the seaweed (the area that isn’t covered). Lift the edge of the bamboo mat and the nori sheet together nearest you, and bring over to meet the far edge of the sheet. Gently press the bamboo mat around the roll to shape it.
Finally, slice the roll into 6 – 8 equal pieces. Use a moistened cloth to clean the knife after each use.
Repeat this process 5 – 6 times.
Chirashizushi is the perfect thing for your next party or celebration. It’s best known as a dish with which to celebrate momo no sekku or hinamatsuri (the Japanese Doll Festival).
Every year on the 3rd of March, Japanese parents display dolls for their daughters – a tradition dating back to the Heian period (1200 years ago). At that time the (then) paper dolls were viewed as a talisman – evil spirits were thought to possess the dolls and they would be destroyed in order to protect the health of young girls. The tradition continues to this day, although Japanese now display dolls in their homes, no longer watching them float out to sea.
Here, maguro (tuna) can be used instead of salmon. You can also add ikura (salmon roe) or cubed cucumber as a garnish.
Sushi rice (learn how to prepare this here)
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- vegetable oil
- 4 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1/2 cup dashi soup
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 1 tablespoon of mirin
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 10g dried gourd (kanpyo)
- 2 pinches of salt
- 1 cup dashi soup
- 3 tablespoons of sugar
- 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons of mirin
- 1/3 burdock
- 1/3 cup dashi soup
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon mirin
- a small bowl of cold water with 1 tablespoon of vinegar
Lotus root garnish
- 40g lotus root
- 3 tablespoons dashi soup
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- a small bowl of water with 1 tablespoon of vinegar
The part about the snow peas
- 8-10 snow peas
- Hot water
- 1 pinch of salt
And the salmon
- 100g salmon (sashimi-grade raw fish)
Cook sushi rice according to the inarizushi recipe.
Egg garnish: beat the eggs with cutting strokes and add the sugar and the salt. Coat a frypan with a mall amount of vegetable oil. Warm the pan on a medium heat.
Pour 1/4 of the beaten egg into the pan and cook it like a crepe. Repeat the process 3 more times. When the sheets of egg have cooled down, fold them and cut them into very thin strips.
Mushroom garnish: soak the dried shiitake mushrooms into a small bowl of cold water to soften them. Once they have become soft, cut the stems off. Put 1/2 cup of dashi soup, sugar and the mushrooms into a pan and place it over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add mirin and soy sauce, then simmer until the sauce has almost evaporated. When they cool down, cut the mushrooms into thin (2-3mm) strips.
Gourd garnish: briefly wash the dried strip of gourd (kanpyo) in cold water and rub it with salted hands. There’s no need to be gentle, and you should have about 2 pinches of salt in your hands. Once this has been done, wash away the salt in cold water. Next, put the strip into a pot with plenty of water and boil it. When the strip becomes soft (you should be able to leave an impression with your fingernails) wash them again in cold water. Next, put the dashi soup, sugar and gourd into a pot and cook it on a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and the soy, simmering until the sauce has almost evaporated. When it has cooled down, cut it into 1 cm lengths.
Burdock garnish: scrape off the skin of the burdock using the back of a knife. Make a lengthwise cross-shaped incision about 5cm deep at one end, and cut it from that end (as if you were sharpening a pencil). Bleach them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar for 5 minutes and drain them. Place the dashi soup, sugar and burdock into a pot and cook them over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and soy sauce, simmering until the sauce has almost evaporated.
Lotus root garnish: peel the lotus root and slice thinly. Cut the slices into quarters. Bleach them in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar for 5 minutes and drain them. Boil them in hot water for 1 minute and drain them. While hot, soak them in the sauce made of dashi, vinegar sugar and salt. Submerge them in the sauce then let them stand until they cool.
String the snow peas, boil them in hot water for 30 seconds and put them in cold water (so as to maintain the color). Cut them diagonally into pieces 1-2mm thick.
When the sushi rice has cooled to room temperature, mix it with the toasted sesame seeds, followed by the mushrooms, gourd, burdock and lotus root.
Sprinkle the snow peas and the salmon (cut into 1cm cubes) onto the rice. Finally decorate with the egg and serve.
Inarizushi are commonly served as part of a sushi bento (Japanese lunchbox). They are also great for picnics, or as finger food for guests. This particular recipe uses roasted sesame seeds to flavour the rice, but you can also add finely sliced ginger that has been pickled in sweet vinegar. In summer, use boiled edamame (green soybeans) to flavour the sushi rice.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 2 cups of rice
- 8 sheets of deep-fried tofu
- 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds
- 3 tablespoons of vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1 and 1/2 cups of water
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 5 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons of mirin
- 2 tablespoons sake
Cook the rice, but use less water than usual. It should still be slightly hard (you’re going to be adding more moisture with the vinegar). Next, pour all the ingredients for the sushi vinegar into a pan. Warm it over a low heat until both the sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Leave the mixture for 10 to 15 minutes, allowing it to cool.
Transfer the rice to a wooden sushi bowl moistened with water. Sprinkle the sushi vinegar all over the rice. Toss the rice with downward cutting strokes until the rice cools. Add the 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, quickly mixing them with the rice.
Now cut the deep-fried tofu sheets in half. Be careful to slice these halfway down the long side, forming what should be two squares. Carefully open each of them to form a pouch.
Next, boil 1 liter of water in a new pan. Place the deep-fried tofu into the pan and boil them for approximately 1 minute to remove any oil. Once this is done, wash them in cold water and then carefully squeeze each of them to remove any excess water.
Place all the soup ingredients into a new pan and boil them. Put the deep-fried tofu pouches into the pan and cook them for 25 – 30 minutes on a low heat. The tofu should soak up all the soup.
Once the deep-fried tofu has cooled, again squeeze the pouches gently to remove the excess soup. Holding the pouch in one hand, scoop the rice into the pouch with your other hand. Shape the tofu pouch into a small cylinder, sealing the opening by folding the two sides over.
Your inarizushi are ready to serve.