This Week: Bento (Japanese lunch box) from Fujiya Market(1335 W. University Dr., Tempe)
The Basics: Bento is a blanket term that describes a near infinite variety of Japanese boxed lunches. In Japan you can head into any major convenience store at virtually any hour and pick up a complete bento meal. am/pm Japan stocks far more than sad hotdogs and questionable burritos. According to Fujiya Market owner Taka Fujita, they will even heat your meal up for you. Bentos come in all sizes and some particularly creative cooks even prepare themed ones.
What unifies bento is their basic composition: A portion of rice, a main course (typically meat that's been fried or broiled), and some smaller sides, usually a pickled vegetable. Ideally all these elements should be balanced against each other for maximum satisfaction. They should also be good whether served hot or cold.
Find out what's in the box after the jump.
Fujiya Market's Bentos: For first time bento eaters Fujita recommends katsu or karaage anything. Both types of bento will be mostly rice and some sort of deep-fried meat or vegetable. When trying new things you can rarely going wrong with battering and frying it.
Along with bento, Fujita also offers several other Japanese dishes including curry rice and udon. He said that when his market first opened in 1995, they exclusive served sushi because it was such a rarity in the Valley. Since then he has switched to making bento because in his words, "Now you can get sushi anywhere, even the supermarket."
The following two bento should give you some idea of the variety that is available when ordering this delicious lunch time meal.
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Bento #1: Nori Fish Fry Fujita said that this is one of the most popular bento combination in Japan. Fried shiromi (white fish) is served alongside fried chikuwa, a tube-like fish cake not unlike imitation crab. Nori is the paper like seaweed sheet that separates the rice from the other elements in the dish. The sides in this case are kinpira gobo and the ubiquitous tsukemono (the "t" is silent). Gobo is thinly sliced grilled burdoch root flavored with soy sauce and sweet rice wine. Tsukemono describes an entire class of pickled vegetables but is generally composed of cucumber.
Bento #2: Chicken Karaage and Onigiri The second bento is a bit more complex. The rice balls are called onigiri and are wrapped in nori. Each onigiri is flavored with either furikake or salted salmon. Furikake are popular flavored rice toppings. The particularly purple furikake is flavored with plum and the green one is nori based. To the left of the onirigi are two classic Japanese flavors. The top one is chicken karaage which are morsels of dark meat marinated in soy sauce and quick fried in a light batter. Below that is a side called nimono, vegetables simmered in a light fish broth. You may have noticed the spaghetti in a small cup between the karaage and the nimono. Why bento often include spaghetti is something I have never been able to get a good answer for aside from, "everyone loves spaghetti." This particular mouthful of spaghetti was flavored with a light dusting of nori.
Fearful? The vegetables in the nimono can be a bit slimy so \be prepared to embrace exciting new food textures. Otherwise bento is an excellent and tasty way to dip your toe into Japanese food that isn't raw fish.