My Lunch Can Beat Up Your Lunch!

Bento Recipes: Rice, the most basic of the basics.

 
   
 

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Rice is one of the most important foods in Japan. In fact, it's so central that "gohan," cooked rice, is also the word for meal. Traditionally, a bento lunch is half rice, 1/3 vegetables, and 1/6 meat, or so they say. Whoever "they" is.

The "right" rice is sticky rice, the kind you have at Japanese steak houses. (If you use regular non-sticky rice it will go all over the inside of your lunchbox, not to mention how difficult rolling sushi will be!) You can buy it in any Asian supermarket, in sacks from a few pounds to 20 pounds or more, and it's usually quite inexpensive. I use Nishiki brand myself. I've also used "sushi rice" bought in regular grocery stores and in health food stores, and so far it's cooked up the same, it just costs more.

How to cook the rice, for those who don't have rice cookers: put 2 cups of hot water and 1.5 cups of rice into a pot. Cover. Bring to a boil, then immediately decrease the heat and simmer with the cover on. Stir often, or it will form an impermeable layer at the bottom. After about 15 minutes or when the water is almost gone taste a bit and see if it's done enough (soft but not mushy). If not, add some more water and continue stirring and simmering. When it's done, remove from heat, then "fluff" it a bit to aerate it.  From here you can serve it, make sushi with it, pack it in a bento, and so on.

Umeboshi: In manga you've seen rice with something round in the center, ne? That round thing is umeboshi, which means dried plum. However, it's actually a pickled apricot. Go figure. It's red in the field of white rice, making it look like the flag of Japan. The taste and texture make me think of mushy green olives. Watch out for the stones if you try these.

Condimentation:

  • Soy sauce! That's my number one rice condiment.
  • Furikake, which is Japanese rice seasoning. It comes in all sorts of varieties: curry, wasabi, shrimp, egg, nori, and so on. I have several shakers of the stuff in different flavors, and it adds a nice bit of variety, especially to leftover rice.
  • Smoked salmon. Cut it into strips or small bits and put them on the surface of the rice. Besides being tasty, smoked salmon also adds vivid color.
  • Takuan. Some people love these gigantic pickled daikon radishes. Me, I can take a little mixed in with rice, but that's about it.
  • Snow peas. Nice and crisp, and they look pretty. Slice them into slivers, use them whole, make little pictures with them...

Condiments can be used for more than just flavoring. Some people make little images with them. The simplest example is an umeboshi in the center of a field of rice, representing the flag of Japan. From there it can get as complex as you like (and have time and patience for).

Flavoring:

You can cook rice in something besides plain water. For example, I've used water reserved from soaking dried shiitake mushrooms to give the rice an earthy flavor, and beef broth from pseuki yaki to make Beefy Rice. Broth from turkey can give you Thanksgiving Aftermath Rice.

Funky colors:

  • The most obvious way to add color to rice is to mix food coloring into the water before cooking the rice in it. I've made blue rice that way, and of course you can use any color you like.
  • I've also made lavender rice by boiling a large leaf of red cabbage in water until the color leaches out and I start seeing green in the leaves, then cooking the rice in that. As far as I can tell the rice doesn't taste or smell cabbagey, but it does look lovely. And because the color in red cabbage changes with the PH of its surroundings, it changes to a really nice rosy pink when you add in the vinegarey mix to make sushi rice.
  • Another way to make lavender rice is to use water reserved from boiling purple sweet potatoes. After I make a purple sweet potato pie, I make slightly-sweetish lavender rice.