Monday, 14 January 2008

Bento accessories

To make bento, you essentially just need a suitable container (in the right size that meets your requirements) and food to put into it. But there is a whole array of related bento accessories out there that could make packing food easier, more attractive and some are just plain silly and fun.

Triangular onigiriDisc shaped onigiriCylindrical onigiri

A staple in many Japanese bento is onigiri or rice balls. Traditionally, they are shaped by hand (as seen in these instructions from Naomi Kijima's 'Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals On the Go'). But onigiri moulds do make the job easier. They come in regular triangular shapes as well as more novelty ones like heart and flower shaped. The smallest white mould is actually for making nigiri sushi, which just happened to have sneaked into the photo.

Onigiri and sushi moulds

Small containers/cups
Cups and containers

If your bento container does not come with a divider or inner compartments or if you want to partition your food in different ways, small containers and cups are very useful. Many people use foil cupcake liners to do this as they are leakproof and disposable, which makes them convenient. I prefer silicone cupcake liners which are flexible enough to accommodate different spaces as well as reusable. You can get silicone cupcake liners from most household and department stores. They do cost a bit but work out better in the long run as you can use them over and over again. I find that the mini ones fit better than the regular sized ones for bento containers. The Clickety Click containers are useful for holding dips and sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise, chilli and any other condiments that you might want to include in your lunch at the point of eating.

Sauce containers
Sauce containers

Here is a variety of sauce containers that I have in the shape of fish, pigs, animal heads and vegetable/fruit. They come from eBay, and some shops in Oriental City (London). I am almost embarassed to show the amount of sauce containers that I have. I seem to collect more and more of them because they are so pretty and offer an easy way to add a pop of colour and interest in a lunch. They are particularly useful for soy sauce and oil-based salad dressing. The screw cap makes them much more secure than lidded containers. I always keep some of them pre-filled so that I can grab one and toss it in my lunch when I'm packing in a hurry. Some sauce containers might come with a dropper that you could use to suck up the sauce and drip into the bottle. What I do is use the suction method: squeeze the bottle between your fingers to remove as much air as possible, maintain your grip, dip the mouth of the container into a small saucer of soy sauce and release your grip. The sauce will be sucked into the container. You may have to do this twice to fill it up compeltely. I use the same suction method to clean the bottles with soapy water. But then I tend to use the same bottles for the same types of sauces so it's not a problem.

Nori cutters
Nori cutters

In an earlier post, I have highlighted nori cutters that can be used to cut out shapes (such as faces, hearts, stars, musical notes etc.) for decorating eggs, onigiri and sandwiches. They can be bought from eBay stores (search for "nori cutters"). Another option is to look in your local craft store for paper punches. As long as you use them exclusively for nori, they should work just as well. As nori is dry, they should not require washing. Just brush away bits of nori from the blade and surrounding areas with a pastry brush.

Food picks

Picks are useful to include in bento especially for kids to eat small pieces of food with. They are quite handy for adults too! I tend to put them in with pieces of cut fruit, as well as use them as skewers. They are also handy for adding some colour and cuteness to your lunch.


Furoshiki are a type of traditional wrapping cloth used to transport gifts, clothes, food and other goods. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in furoshiki as environmental awareness of using plastic bags led to greater popularity of reusable carriers and furoshiki are commonly used to wrap and transport lunch boxes (bento), often doubling up as a table mat for the lunch. The Ministry of Environment for Japan has posted this excellent diagram showing the different ways of tying furoshiki. There are gorgeous furoshiki available from Japan and on eBay but it is essentially a large piece of cloth so a large handkerchief, scarf or bandana would work well. This one that the picture above is an old scarf that I no longer wear but works a treat as a furoshiki. If you remove the chopsticks, the top section (formed from the two corners tied together) forms a nice carrying handle.

Sidecars and the list goes on

Small lidded containers/tupperware are also great as sidecars, when you want to bring along some extra fruit or snack or when your main bento is rather small. There are many other accessories and useful items that I have not profiled here, such as insulated bags (for keeping lunches cool or warm), mini ice (gel) packs (that could be tucked into containers to keep food cool till lunch), egg moulds, plastic sushi grass/dividers and the list goes on. Remember that you don't have to buy expensive items from eBay or shipped from Japan. Keeping your eyes peeled and using your imagination in your local shops could often turn up surprising finds. Some folks have mentioned finding great mini containers and cutlery (good for packing with lunch) at the children or maternity sections. Or find new uses for things that you already have in your kitchen or in the house, like a old scarf as a furoshiki.


missbliss said...

Brilliant post, thanks. I'll be looking out for some of those silicone cupcake moulds - today I wanted to pack blackberries but they were going to get squashed so had to resort to a placcy bag (boo, unnecessary rubbish). Today at work someone asked blokey about his lunch box. Hooray! You've inspired me to make sure he gets a proper lunch :)

Little Corner of Mine said...

Preparing a Japanese bento is a lot of work and the extra little things to clean later. For me, still prefer the scoop of rice and scoop of two dishes on each side and done!

Nilmandra said...

miss bliss: Glad to hear that you're having fun with the lunches. And yeah, Andy's colleagues seem to look forward to seeing what's in his lunch every day, which I find rather amusing :)

little corner of mine: Hehe, I know what you mean. I wouldn't bother either if I could have lunch at home! Or get some cheap and good kopitiam food :D I don't always use those accessory items in every bento so it's not too bad with the washing up.

Kevin said...

It has been a while since I last made onigiri. Those little sauce bottles would come in really handy for lunches.

Ling's Passion said...

Chance upon your blog and am amased by the varieties of your bentos. BTW, when do you prepare the food? The night before? If so, how do you keep them fresh.

Nilmandra said...

Ling: Sometimes I would prepare the lunches the night before (and keep them in the fridge) and sometimes I would make them in the morning. Food that can be eaten cold (or are still palatable to return from cold to room temperature without reheating) e.g. sandwiches, salads, even sushi, I tend to make them the night before. Most rice and noodle dishes are made that morning. Or if possible, they would already be cooked and prepared the night before and just reheated in the microwave in the morning and then packed into the boxes.

By the way, your decorated cakes look fabulous!

Ling's Passion said...

Thanks for your valuable info. Occasionally, I do pack lunch to office but limited to only yogurt, fruits and the usual boring tuna sandwich. Will try out some of your food ideas.

Fenke said...

okay, now i see - maybe i am lucky on ebay for the soy sauce containers! thanks - i also love the moulds and the cutters... sweeet.

Nilmandra said...

Fenke: Thanks for dropping by. Yeah, most of the stuff I got from eBay, not having cheap Japanese/Asian homeware shops nearby.

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