Travel Photos: Bento Boxes and Rice Dishes in Japan
This beautiful bento box illustrates one of the reasons why I love train rides in Japan (clearly a country where even meals-on-the-go are done right). It doesn’t take long to zoom all over the country on the smooth-as-an-airplane bullet trains that travel up to 280 km/hour (170 mph). In fact, I have traveled from Kyoto to Osaka in less than the time it took me to pick out a bento lunch in Kyoto station. But back to bentos in a bit…
This is more of a post about rice. Japanese rice-based dishes, specifically. Nearly everyone knows about “sushi rice,” the short-grained sticky staple of the Japanese diet. But its use in sushi is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a myriad of delicious dishes that you might never have encountered in Japanese restaurants overseas.
First, there are many types of donburi, a giant bowl of rice covered in toppings ranging from soy sauce-simmered beef (gyu-don)– which you may know from the restaurant chains Matsuya or Yoshinoya– to deep-fried breaded pork cutlet (katsu-don), or slices of raw tuna (tekka-don). My personal favorite is oyako-don.
Oyako Donburi is a bowl of rice topped with flavorful chicken and egg (often simmered together with onions and sometimes mushrooms). The name is especially cute (slash gross): Oyako means mother and child, which in this case refers to the chicken and the egg!
Another scrumptious classic is ten-don: tempura shrimp and vegetables served atop a bowl of rice. (Tempura is also commonly served on top of bowls of hot noodle soups with udon or soba noodles.)
Just a glimpse of the gigantic furikake selection at a 100-yen store (like a dollar store).
Then, though not a dish in its own right, there is something called furikake: a powdered mixture of flavoring to sprinkle over and liven up day-old rice, often including sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar, and salt, and sometimes containing flavors like egg, shiso, salmon, shrimp, and other types of dried ground seafood.
While furikake most often makes an appearance at home, rather than at restaurants, it has found its way into a dish that is easy to make at home, yet also a popular end-of-the-meal comfort food at izakaya restaurants: Ochazuke (a previous recipe post). A warm bowl of rice, sprinkled with furikake-like seasonings, and submerged in green tea, ochazuke is a unique tea-based soup, often served with pickled plum and wasabi.
Yet another food that sometimes incorporates furikake: the triangular-shaped riceballs, called onigiri (or omusubi). These are available at every single convenience store in Japan, that is, unless they’ve just sold out after a lunch or dinner rush… Onigiri sold at convenience stores are the same general shape as the homemade rice balls pictured above, but usually include a tiny dab of filling in the center, such as tuna & mayo, salmon, raw tuna, pickled plum (umeboshi), or even– more recently– kimchi! At home, and sometimes in stores as well, the entire rice ball might have furikake flavorings mixed into it before it is shaped.
Fresh onigiri at home make a hearty rice side dish to home-cooked meals. Those in stores, wrapped in crisp nori seaweed that ingeniously only comes into contact with the rice once the inner layer of plastic wrap is removed, are a tasty type of Japanese fast food. And I should know: I ate two of these rice balls for dinner WHILE riding my bicycle from work to my Japanese lessons two nights a week for two years.
Zosui is yet another comforting kind of rice-y soup (or soupy rice). It can be made with meat, fish, shrimp, or mushrooms, flavored with dashi, miso, or soy sauce. Zosui is almost like porridge, but I prefer it when the rice is not actually overcooked, but simply smothered in the tastiness of egg and broth; almost like fried rice soup, but with a little less spice and a little more umami.
An unusually fancy/grown-up version of Omurice:
Circular instead of semicircular, and with tomato sauce and greens instead of ketchup.
Then there is the classic but slightly crazy-sounding Omuraisu (yes that word comes from omelette + rice, and is sometimes spelled omurice). A super thin coating of egg wrapped around a mound of mushroom- or chicken-fried rice, usually in a giant semicircle omelette or calzone-like shape, omuraisu is often zig-zagged with ketchup, and served with a spoon. In other words, this is the guilty pleasure kids’ meal on the menu, much like macaroni & cheese in the states, but still enjoyed by those adults who are not too embarrassed to order it. And those adults are not few in number; Japanese-style omurice has even become popular in Korea. I have no idea why it’s not a bigger hit in the U.S., other than the fact that when people think Japanese food, they are often unfortunately limited to thinking “trendy” and “sushi.” They are missing out.
A glimpse of karee-raisu pictured on a menu.
Japanese curry, or karee-raisu, is another classic Japanese rice dish. I regret to say I have no close-up photos of karee-raisu though, since the sauce is usually beef-based, and I don’t eat beef so I can rarely order it. Japanese curry is darker in color than curries in other cuisines, like Indian or Thai, and is always served with rice (or udon noodles), rather than bread. It’s popular both as a fast food at Japanese restaurant chains, and in Japanese homes, since it can be easily prepared by using cubes of instant curry roux, then adding meat and vegetables.
A bowl of Oyako Donburi (rice topped with chicken and plentiful amounts of egg),
mysteriously served with an additional egg on the side (in Kyoto).
The salad and miso soup accompaniments to my meal of Oyako Donburi;
and a restaurant sign advertising “lunch time” in Tokyo.
Lastly, in my brief guided tour through the wonders of Japanese rice dishes, let’s not forget that in Japan, rice can also be a dessert! These skewered mochi dango (little rice dumplings) are just one example. Mochi rice is also pounded into sticky sweets, with a satisfyingly chewy texture, that are flavored with peach or green tea (as with Okayama’s famous local kibi-dango), served covered in kinako (toasted soy powder), or filled with anko (sweet red bean paste).
And as if this rice-focused ramble weren’t long enough already, I still haven’t forgotten about coming back to the bentos:
The beauty of most Japanese bentos is the sheer variety: the balance of shapes and colors, proteins and vegetables, assembled into such a small space. Of course homemade bento lunches might be packed more pragmatically, half full of sticky rice with perhaps a pickled plum (umeboshi) for flavor, and a little of whatever dinner leftovers might have been lingering in the fridge. But this delicate and seasonal array (shown below), with each bite designed to offer its own unique contribution, is the ideal.
And if you’re surprised by the importance placed on the visual display of this on-the-go lunch, you might be even more taken aback to learn of an entire industry that is devoted to selling the idea to children (and their mothers, who most often pack their lunches) that the food in your bento must be cute to be worthy of eating. Yes, I think the right word is cute, more than appetizing. Take this panda bear bento box (with black sesame ears, seaweed eyes, and a pickled plum nose) as an example:
I hadn’t necessarily thought of writing about this during my most recent trip to Japan, so I don’t have many photos of the hundreds of cute bento box accessories being sold to bento-lunch-making parents at stores all over Japan, but they include such things as disposable paper muffin cups (with the cute smiley animals or hearts design on the inside, not outside) to hold an item of food in the lunch box, plastic toothpicks topped with smiley animals to decoratively spear each bite of food, and paper hole-puncher like apparatuses (to be used on seaweed sheets) that punch out teeny tiny seaweed facial features to give mini rice balls a little personality before they are eaten.
Although I failed to take pictures of such widespread bento marketing gimmicks, I did get photos of two of the wackier ones I spotted:
“Food Drawing Pen,” to draw smiley faces onto your child’s bento box lunch; and a plastic cookie-cutter-like gadget that cuts into half of a hot dog to make it look like an octopus. (Called tako-uinaa = octopus wiener.)
All this is not to say that the design usually outweighs the deliciousness. On the contrary, I think most bentos sold in Japan have found a nearly perfect balance, and usually still have had more thought put into both their design and their deliciousness than just-as-fast food elsewhere.
This bento lovelied up a recent train ride and then some: sweet omelette and tangy pickles, goma-ae (sweet sesame-coated) boiled vegetables, steamed kabocha pumpkin, grilled teriyaki chicken, and partially-scorched rice with seasonal chestnuts.
A final note: It would be wrong to publish this blog post without mentioning the excellent blog called Just Bento (by the same woman who created the blog Just Hungry). Check out the awesome-sounding bento recipes, and Just Bento’s awesome-sounding cookbook.
Also, this marks my fifth & final post of travel photos from my most recent trip to Japan. (If you’re interested, take a look at the other ones about sushi/seafood, izakayas/cafes, tofu/noodles, and international food.) Guess it’s time to start planning my next trip!