Back to Bento
Problems in the Lunch Box — Some Solutions
Research in Japan has shown that hamburgers are the most popular meat today in children’s Bento boxes. But there are some problems.
Bento are made early in the morning. By the time they are eaten, several hours later, the hamburgers are often tough, hard and flavorless. This problem can be solved, easily!Consumers report other problems with Bento lunches:
- vegetables tend to go limp and soggy
- eggs become tasteless
- concerns about safety of cooked rice
There is now a growing body of research among Japanese cooks, home economists and food chemists on ways of solving some of these problems. We’ll come to these shortly ,with some results and suggestions on making better dishes for putting in Bento.
First, beef is not the best ingredient for a burger eaten in a Bento. Beef hamburgers may be delicious when first cooked, but after they get cold and a few hours pass, they ge hard and tough.
Problems with beef result from its high melting point, and this is related to the chemistry of beef fat. Beef fat melts at 50 degrees Centigrade. When it cools, the fat hardens and the cold hamburger patty becomes hard and leathery.
Chicken and pork have much lower melting points. Pork fat melts at 40 degrees Centigrade, chicken at about 35 degrees Centigrade.
What this means is that beef may be delicious in a burger right after it is cooked. But it tends to get tough and hard to chew after it cools off.
A combination of pork and chicken can make a better burger for use in a packed lunch. But you have to know how to make it right. More on that soon.
Japanese chefs have found a way to make burgers for Bento that are said to be six to eight times juicier and more tasty than the usual grilled beef burger. We’ll give a recipe for such a burger.
The kind of breading used is another part of the secret to a better Bento burger, which holds up well by lunch time. Japanese Panko is good, but there is another secret replacement for Panko, the Japanese starch known as Fu, which works even better, if you can get some of it. Fu is the Japanese name for Wheat Gluten, and it is available in Asian markets. It makes for a moister, more juicy burger.
So Panko or Wheat Gluten will work well as breading. Also, you can use a mixture of rice flour and arrowroot or water chestnut flour (Japanese katakuriko) to make an excellent breading for grilled patties. We’ll give a recipe for this.
Next, there are the vegetables themselves, a standard ingredient in Japanese Bento lunches. The vegetables are often soggy and insipid by lunch time.
Using a special cooking method, based on recent advances in food chemistry, Japanese cooks can now produce a sautéed vegetable mixture for lunch boxes that keeps its crunchy, crisp texture for up to ten hours!
The use of a small amount of vinegar in cooking the vegetables is another part of the secret to making better Bento style vegetables.
Another part of the secret is the use of controlled heat and time with a limited amount of cooking liquid and most of the cooking done in a skillet covered with a tight-fitting lid. 
This special flash-cooking technique prevents the loss of water from the cells of the vegetables, which occurs with conventional steaming and sauté techniques. We’ll explain this technique in more detail, with a recipe showing how to use it.
Small amounts of vinegar are helpful flavor enhancers, and shredded dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) is a good enhancer to increase the flavor sensation called umami when you make any of these recipes for Bento lunch dishes.
Then there are the Fried Chicken meat and Scrambled Eggs, both popular ingredients in Bento lunches. These, too, tend to get poor marks for the falloff in flavor and tesxture between making and eating.
We’ll provide some recipes that deal with these problems. Even when making eggs for Bentol lunches, the way you beat the eggs before scrambling them affects the final result. Until recently, few people have been aware of this secret.
The key is in beating eggs so that the right amount of air — just enough but not too much — is incorporated into the egg mixture. We will explain how to do this.
Finally, there are newly discovered ways to improve the safety of Bento lunches, and reduce the growth of bacteria while the lunch box sits waiting to be eaten. Japanese picked plums (umeboshi) are traditionally thought to inhibit growth of bacteria in cooked rice. A pickled plum was often put into the rice to keep it safe.
Professor Nariko Ueda of Women’s Nutrition University, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, has discovered that if you put a large pickled plum in the center of cooked rice, the germ-killing effect after several hours is almost zero. 
A better way is to shred the plum finely and mix it with the rice, so that the plum segments come in more close contact with the cooked rice. This has a strong germicidal effect, and makes cooked rice much safer. People who tasted it describe rice made this way as delicious.
Key Points in Making a Better Bento Lunch:
We’ll look at some detailed Bento recipes in a separate Article, Bento III. 
For Further Information:
 Clear glass-topped skillets are available through Martha Stewart’s housewares line — http://www.kmart.com/search=martha%20stewart%20glass%20fry%20pan%20lid
 Women’s Nutrition University, Saitama Prefecture, Japan — http://www.eiyo.ac.jp/
 NHK Tameshite Gatten, special program on Bento research, October 31, 2012, featuring results of cooking consultant Mr. Hiromi Hayashi and research into health aspects by Prof. Nariko Ueda of Women’s Nutrition University, Saitama — http://www9.nhk.or.jp/gatten/archives/P20121031.html