The Japanese habit of packing lunch into a bento box isn’t a new concept in Australia, but chef and SunRice ambassador Poh Ling Yeow has an idea to include something that’s not found in many Aussie schoolyards and office kitchens.
Bento boxes – plastic containers with internal dividers that originated in Japan – revolutionised our lunch breaks last year after the viral K-mart hack that used fishing tackle boxes, or even large covered ice cube trays, for an inexpensive alternative to genuine bento boxes. And so the practice of tightly packing colourful and various foods into a box without additional packaging became suddenly very popular in Aussie homes.
But Yeow says that despite rice being a staple packed into almost every Japanese box, in Australia it's not an ingredient we immediately think of including; but we should. And not just rice, but cold rice.
"We eat cold rice in the form of sushi, why don't we do that at other times?"
As the bento box workshop showed us, cold rice can add variety and novelty to pre-packed lunches, especially if it's shaped into cute characters as is usually done in Japan.
For that reason, using the right sort of rice, that's dense whilst being fluffy, is key. Yeow recommends Koshihikari sushi rice, because of its optimum water absorbency properties, meaning it can be easily shaped into any fun character, using cookie cutters and silicone moulds. The chef also suggests cooking using the absorption method, or even investing in an inexpensive and simple rice cooker.
The benefits of including rice in lunch boxes are plentiful; it's inexpensive, it can be made the night before, it can be made in bulk, it's satisfying and the perfect compliment to fruits and vegetables, it can come in a variety of grains, and it appeals to all ages. And making a bento box is so straightforward and fun, the kids will want to get involved.
Yeow says it's easy to add flavour to cold rice to make it more satisfying, and not simply by adding sushi vinegar.
"Fry up butter and onions, kids will love it," she says.
Yeow agreed that cooking rice in vegetable stock is another delicious option.
LISTEN: Poh Ling Yeow talks to Mamamia on I Don't Know How She Does It
It's important to note that cold rice needs to be prepared properly, so precautions must be taken in the preparation and storage. The Australian Institute of Food Safety advises that "All cooked rice should be stored in the refrigerator at the correct temperature, under 5 degrees celsius."
So it's advisable to use some salt and/or vinegar to help preserve rice as part of the cooking process, or once it's been removed from the fridge, and it should be packed during the warmer months using an insulated bento box, or an ice brick.
The final step is for everyone to count down the minutes until lunch time.
And that's why if you're looking for an easy and cheap way to shake up weekday lunches, a bento ticks all the boxes.