Who So Delicious? Shiso Delicious! Bento, pt 1

Photo: Sara Kiyo Popowa @ShisoDelicious

THIS IS A TWO-PART SERIES ON HOW TO MAKE A HEALTHY, INSTAGOOD LUNCH.

One of life’s ongoing dilemmas happens around noontime every day: What should I eat for lunch? When your days are packed, lunch is more than a midday meal. It’s a much-needed break and something to look forward to. A reboot. When you get a hit of happy around lunchtime—a meal that looks good, tastes good, and does a body good—the effects carry through the rest of the day.

Discovering my newest obsession @ShisoDelicious feed on Instagram reinspired my lunch game. I was drawn to the almost magical quality of her feed–if fairies were vegetarians, they’d eat Shiso Delicious-style in the enchanted forest. Her influences also felt familiar: Asian (the ingredients, proportions, presentation, a certain coziness) and a modern healthy-but-not-hippie approach that reminded me of my adopted home state of California.

A NEW WAY TO THINK ABOUT HEALTHY

Sara Kiyo Pokowa is the creator of @ShisoDelicious (and sister feed @bentoparty). Her eclectic background explains her unique interpretation of food. Half Japanese and half Bulgarian, she grew up in northern Sweden. Now based in London, her background in graphic design shines through her dishes that look like works of art. Neither formally trained chef nor nutritionist, she learned about food from working at restaurants and at a health food store. She’s self-taught; common sense, life experience (overcoming struggles with dieting and body image like so many) and curiosity are her guides. That’s an essential part of the Shiso magic, her food is personal. She shows you who she is by what she makes.

Sara’s signature is the Bento Box, a traditional Japanese lunchbox. But in her hands, it’s an irresistible jewel box of healthy delights. Today is the first part of a two-part series to learn how to make them. I know what you’re thinking—How can I possibly make that? I’m telling you it’s shockingly simple and fun.

SARA’S BENTO SECRETS

Make yours with love. “I discovered them when I was studying abroad in Japan,” she explains. “The mother of my host family would make them for me every morning.” She was drawn to how much care was put into the packing of these boxes. At school, everyone would pull their desks together and unpack their homemade lunches and eat together.

Years later she rediscovered bentos when she returned to Japan with her husband, Andy, who appears in her blog, poetically and mysteriously, as “A.” When the pair got back to London, they began a new tradition based on the old. She started to pack A’s lunch every day, a bento made with love. In fact, Shiso Delicious reads like an Instagram love letter, played out post by post–to her husband featuring the bento she makes for him daily.

Adapt them to how you like to eat. One of the reasons why her bentos are so compelling is that she’s infused them with her own food philosophy: Simple, veg-centric, with mix of traditional and non-traditional ingredients. Traditional bentos can take hours, Sarah’s just a few minutes. They may look beautiful but they can be comprised of leftovers or an improvisation of whatever’s in the fridge.

Follow the Rule of 5. A well-rounded bento contains 5 colors, 5 flavors, 5 ways.

  • Colors: White, black, yellow, red, green.
  • Flavors: Salty, sweet, bitter (i.e. greens), sour (i.e. citrus), spicy
  • Ways: Carbs, leafy greens, protein, fruit, veg

It’s not complicated; it’s the basis for a well-balanced meal!

Prep them properly. The point of the bento is that it’s portable. According to Sarah, you can use any food prep containers—glass, plastic, enamel.  However, as you up your bento game, you might want to upgrade to a real bento box! Whatever you use, your box must:

  • Hold your portion size exactly. The contents of your box should look the same when you open it as when you packed it. So be sure your elements fit snugly against each other. A tossed mess is the opposite of the bento vibe.
  • Be as leak-proof as possible. Just be careful! Traditional bento food is non-wet, but some modern dishes may be dressed or have some juice.
  • Make you happy! A bento should be a joy to look at as well as to eat!

Wrap and unwrap them like a gift. In Japan, bentos are transported either in a special fabric bag or in a furoshiki, a bento wrapping cloth. They add to the “afternoon delight” of bento lunch and serve as a placemat or mini tablecloth of sorts. If you’re more of a grab-and-go American, a tote will do as well. Just designate one as your lunch tote, and be sure to wash it regularly. Keep it chic, keep it clean!

BENTO BASICS

Today we’ll learn how to prepare the foundation of the bento: the carb and the veg. As someone who’s not much for meal prep, I asked Sara to make things as clean and simple as possible. She created inspiring micro-recipes that are 5 ingredients or less to assemble into one bento, so easy, yet still special.

 

 

FIRST, THE CARB

The basis of any bento is either rice or noodles. Full disclosure: I’m an Asian who can’t even make rice. After making her twist on sushi rice, I never want to eat any other kind of rice. It’s so light, fluffy, flavorful.

“Adding grains and seeds to white rice adds texture and interest,” says Sara. “It makes the rice more nutritious, while still a lot quicker to cook than wholegrain rice. Either cook in the evening, let cool overnight and pack in bento box in the morning. Or, cook in the morning, pack and let cool in bento box before closing the lid. Store leftovers in the fridge and use for next day’s bento, or use in a stir fry for dinner. Lasts 3-4 days covered in the fridge.”

 

QUINOA SUNFLOWER RICE

  • Makes enough for 2-3 bentos
  • 2/3 cup white sushi rice (160ml)
  • 1/3 cup quinoa (80ml)
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
  • 1 1/2 cup water for cooking (355ml)
  • When cooked, stir through:
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar (brown rice vinegar if possible)
    Place grains and seeds in a cooking pot or rice cooker. Wash once in cold water to remove as much of the cloudy starch as possible. Drain completely and add the water for cooking. If using a rice cooker, cook as white rice. If using a cooking pot, bring to a boil with the lid on. Turn to lowest heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Without removing the lid, let rest 5 minutes. While the rice is still hot, gently mix through salt and vinegar, taking care not to crush the grains too much.”

THEN, THE VEG

“Gentler to eat than fully raw broccoli,” Sara explains. “This takes moments to prepare and only needs a heatproof bowl and a kettle (ok, and a knife!). You can use the same method for green beans and cauliflower florets. Lasts 2-3 days covered in the fridge.”

 

QUICK BLANCHED BROCCOLI

  • Makes enough for 1-2 bentos
  • 1/4 medium head broccoli, florets halved lengthwise
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce (organic tamari or shoyu)
  • A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds (optional)
  • Boil your kettle, place broccoli in a small heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover bowl with a plate and leave to stand 5-10 minutes. Cool by rinsing briefly in cold water under the tap. Either toss in soy sauce in the bowl then pack, or if you’re in a rush, dump in bento box and drizzle with a little soy sauce and sesame seeds if using.
  • The use of seeds and nuts adds a little something extra to these basics. With a sesame garnish, ensconced in their bento box, rice and broccoli gets transformed into a main event!

Click to Part 2: The Juicy Bits…

*All images, video and recipes by Sara Kiyo Popowa