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Feed their tummies and minds with a back-to-school bentō

by Makiko Itoh

April marks the start of the school year in Japan. If you’re a parent, this may mean that you’re faced with the task of making bentō (boxed lunches) for the first time. While bentō are virtually a national institution that come in many formats and are enjoyed by almost everyone, making them for small children is another world altogether.

First and foremost, homemade bentō should be tasty, nutritious and filling. They should contain enough food so that your child won’t get hungry during the afternoon, but not so much that they find it daunting to finish — teachers tend to encourage kids to finish their bentō, since lunchtime is used as a teaching opportunity, especially in kindergarten.

A typical bentō lunch should contain at least one starch-rich item, one with protein and one or two vegetables, just like any meal. The usual starch is rice, but this can be bread or pasta or any grain that tastes good when it’s eaten cold. To start with, you may want to stick to foods that your child likes already, since she or he may feel intimidated by new surroundings. Think about making a list of things that your child likes right now, before the bentō-making rush starts.

I strongly recommend doing a little planning in advance to streamline your workflow. For instance, if you make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, you may want to set aside a few meatballs for bentō the next day. Cooking things that can be stocked in the freezer or refrigerator in advance is a good idea too.

While it’s also important to make bentō look appetizing and attractive, this aspect of bentō-making tends to get over-emphasized, especially online. You may have already seen pictures of amazingly intricately decorated kyaraben (short for “character bentō) or decoben (“decorative bentō”), with rice balls shaped like popular characters, intricately cut sausages and more. These are just embellishments, like accessories on an outfit, so don’t worry too much about it if you’re a bentō beginner.

An easy way to embellish your child’s bentō is to use colorful and cute accessories. You’ll find a bewildering array in stores, from bentō boxes in all shapes and sizes (choose small ones for small children, with practical leakproof snap-on lids), as well as paraphernalia such as little sauce bottles, colorful divider cups, shaped plastic skewers and more. One warning though: Collecting bentō equipment can become addictive! You can also find ready-made edible decorations at your local supermarket, from “octopus” sausages to kamaboko fish cakes that reveal fun images when cut. Who says lunch has to be boring?

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.


Recipe: meat and vegetable curry soboro

The recipe this month is for a very versatile freezer stock item called soboro, which is kind of a dry meat sauce that can be sprinkled or mixed into rice, pasta and more. This version is mildly flavored with a little curry powder and some ketchup, two flavors that kids usually love. It contains plenty of vegetables, chopped up finely so they will barely notice they’re there. This recipe makes enough for many bentō (boxed lunches) and will keep for about three months in the freezer. Pack a spoon with the bentō if you serve this with rice — small hands may find it a little hard to eat with chopsticks.

Ingredients

1 kg mixed ground beef-pork mix or ground beef
1 medium carrot
2 large or 4 medium bell peppers of any color
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
1 ¼-cm-thick slice fresh ginger
1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp raisins or sultanas
3 tbsp ketchup
100 ml water
1 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
1 tbsp curry powder
2 tsp soy sauce

1. Finely chop onion, garlic, ginger and carrot in a food processor or by hand. Finely dice the peppers. If the raisins are large, chop them up roughly.

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the onions. Sauté over medium heat until soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté briefly. Add the carrot, then the peppers. Sauté until softened. Take the vegetables out of the pan and set aside.

3. Brown the ground meat, and drain off any excess fat. Put the sautéed vegetables back in along with the raisins, ketchup and water. Simmer over medium heat until the moisture in the pan has almost evaporated.

4. Push the mixture to one side of the frying pan and add the curry powder to the empty space. Stir it around briefly until fragrant. Mix it in with the rest of the pan ingredients. Season with salt, soy sauce and pepper to taste.