First there was sushi. Then came ramen. Now the bento box is the latest Japanese food to add a new flavor and format to traditional lunchtime offerings. Customizable and convenient, the lunch boxes can be a lifesaver for those in a hurry or dining al desko, and non-commercial spaces, like schools and hospitals, are picking up on their built-in portion-control possibilities. They can up the sustainability factor of your operation too, with boxes that are recyclable or compostable, or with return-and-reuse offers.
The trend is growing to include fast casual chains, like California’s Supertoro, where customers build boxes with their choice of items like spicy tuna, chicken katsu, soba and seaweed salad. Kelley and Ping is a delivery-only bento box concept located in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a zero-waste operation that allows customers to use the boxes and return at the next delivery.
What to include?
Rice or noodles are usually one component, along with protein options, whether animal or plant-based. Some of the most popular bento box proteins include fried chicken, boiled eggs, meatballs and stir-fried beef strips. Classic veg choices include pickled carrots, grilled vegetables, burdock root, soybeans, bamboo shoots and taro.
The traditional mix is to have half carbs, half proteins and vegetables. Like any other entrée you serve, the key to a pleasing bento box is a balance of color, texture, cooking styles and ingredients.
It’s a temp thing
The best bento offerings can include a mix of stir-fried, boiled, pickled or fermented items. Even if you pre-pack the boxes and chill them, be aware that they might have some travel time for on-the-go diners and will need to still taste good at room temperature. Avoid ingredients that might ooze, like mayo, and avoid dishes that taste best when warm.
Garnish and sauce
Look to fresh herbs and edible flowers for adding a decorative and unifying touch to your finished creation. And be sure to give customers easy-use sauce options for their bento box. Marzetti™ pouch and cup size dressing and sauces come in a variety of flavors, from full-bodied, rich and tangy to lightly sweet, fat free and light. They’ll make a great pour-on or side dip for your new offering.
Munchies bento box how-to video with Elena Yamamoto, co-chef of Brooklyn’s Karasu restaurant