What is Bento?
Bento is a single-portion meal common in Japanese cuisine, constructed either at home or in restaurants in a box-like container, with several compartments housing different elements of the meal. The word "bento" comes from a Chinese slang term meaning "convenient," with similar styles of boxed lunches existing in the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India, as well. While the form has roots that can be traced back many centuries, the bento box as we know it today experienced a surge in popularity within the U.S. in recent years as a way to make packed lunches more interesting, varied and nutritious. More suited to grown-up diets and boasting elegant and convenient design, bento boxes allow a single lunch to contain several vegetables, a grain like rice or noodles, and a protein. While some enthusiasts spend time constructing complex bentos and collecting decorative elements and boxes to explore bento as an art form, everyone can take inspiration from bento when packing lunches this fall. Try Deborah Madison's recipe for Chilled Soba with Soft Tofu and Soy-Sesame Sauce, flavoring whole-grain buckwheat soba noodles and tofu with ingredients that draw upon Japanese cuisine, and these other bento-friendly lunch ideas:
Napa and Red Onion Salad by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid: This sturdy salad of cabbage and red onion holds its flavor and texture well, making it a good make-ahead choice for packed lunches.
Spicy Mustard Greens With Asian Noodles by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach: Just as good eaten at room temperature, this noodle dish gets flavor from sesame and peanut oil and some serious crunch from bean sprouts.
Black Soybean and Vegetable "Sushi" by Lorna Sass: We don't recommend including traditional raw fish sushi in a packed lunch, even if it's going to be refrigerated. This unconventional version is made by spreading black soybean paste on tortillas topped with nori, the type of seaweed you'll recognize from the tuna and California rolls available in most sushi restaurants.
Korean-Style Cucumber Salad by Madhur Jaffrey: Simple but flavorful seasonings make this dish unique. It can be served chilled or at room temperature.
Soba Noodle Vegetable Salad by Ellie Krieger: This healthy Japanese-inspired dish employs whole-grain buckwheat soba noodles and colorful vegetables like red peppers, carrots and basil. Use a large lettuce leaf to make it a low-cal wrap!
Chinese Almond Cookies by Pichet Ong: These light cookies, chewy in the middle and crisp around the edges, get their almond flavor from three ingredients: almond flour, almond extract and slivered almonds on top.