Yummy Kawaii Bento: Preparing Adorable Meals for Adorable Kids, written by Li Ming Lee, showcases over 160 tutorials to create an amazing assortment of charaben (characters, people, animals) style bento boxes. With the help of detailed instructions and step-by-step photographs, you can learn how to shape your family’s lunch into pigs, bears, sunflowers, penguins, ninjas, ducks, mermaids, owls, snails, and much much more. There are even specialty bento boxes to celebrate birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Halloween, Easter, and Valentine’s Day. Following the review, I will be featuring her recipe for Steamed Piggy Buns.
Disclosure: I received this book from Skyhorse Publishing in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own. This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you.
Li Ming Lee
Li Ming Lee lives in Singapore as a stay-at-home mom with two sons. She started making bento-style lunches once her first child was in elementary school as a way to help him cope with the long hours away from home. She started chronicling her creations in her blog, Bento Monsters, in August 2011. Li Ming Lee now has an extensive following and has been featured on New York Post, The Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Today, and other sites around the world.
Yummy Kawaii Bento
Chapters are divided into the following: Introduction, What is Bento?, Bento and Food Art Tutorials (Rice-Based, Bread-Based, Salad and Noodle, Special Occasions, Seasonal, Food Art, Bonus Food Art Recipes), Recipes (Meat, Seafood and Egg, Vegetables, Noodles and Soup), Glossary, and Templates.
For those new to assembling bento boxes, Ming provides a full introduction with descriptions of the types of containers available, various tools, and where to find helpful supplies. She also explains Japanese foods and other popular ingredients in the glossary with information on how to use them, where to find them, and substitutions when available.
In addition to the dozens of tutorials, Ming also gives you the skills to help make your own bento creations with useful techniques such as how to dye rice a variety of colors, how to mold different shapes, packing the bento box, and adding decorative touches. I particularly appreciated the tips on making detailed petals in vegetable flowers with a little knife work, cutting out circles in the would-be-discarded bread crusts to decorate bear sandwiches, and a simple way to turn grape tomatoes into hearts.
Measurements are provided in US Customary and Metric. Every single recipe contains a beautifully-styled photo of the finished product and the tutorials include step-by-step photos.
This book is a great choice for families with younger children or even those love to play and decorate with food. The tutorials are designed for a range of skill levels from the simple Animal Tortilla Chips to the more complex Sushi Birthday Cake. The detailed, well-written instructions are thorough with accompanying step-by-step photos. Having bento-related tools such as nori punches, cutters, and rice molds are helpful. For many of the recipes, the bentos can be prepared with average kitchen items such scissors, plastic wrap, knives, tweezers, and toothpicks.
These recipes are meant to be used to pack bento boxes, but they are definitely not needed to still enjoy the food. I do not yet own any specialty tools, but do have steel and plastic bento boxes. The last section of the book is devoted purely to recipes such as Japanese Beef Curry, Chicken Tofu Patties, Tonkatsu, Honey Chicken, Ketchup Shrimp, Lemon Soy Sauce Salmon, Green Bean Omelet, Bell Peppers Stir-Fry, Butter Mushrooms, Sesame Spinach, Pad Thai, and Tomato Soup.
Most of the recipes use ingredients that are readily available in larger grocery stores with an international section. A few that may require a trip to the Asian food market include Chinese rice wine, shabu shabu pork (thinly sliced), oyster sauce, mirin, dark soy sauce, bonito flakes, and nori. Ming notes that her templates and designs are guidelines and the most important thing is to “be creative and have fun.”
Steamed Piggy Buns
These Steamed Piggy Buns are a cute way to transform simple steamed buns into fun faces. The buns are filled with a seasoned chicken mixture, topped with pink and brown dough pieces to make a pig’s face, and steamed until puffed and cooked through. Of course, you can fill these buns with any of your favorite fillings, vegetarian or even pork to be more “anatomically correct.”
If you don’t have Morinaga Pancake Mix available, you can “also use 2 1/2 cups (270 grams) plain flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder to 1/2 cup (140 ml) water. You need to add 3 tablespoons of sugar and a pinch of salt as well. Cover the dough after step 7 and leave it for half an hour before you start rolling it out.”
I altered how I made the buns slightly. Instead of using artificial pink food coloring, I set aside two tablespoons of the dry ingredients and mixed in the natural beet coloring in place of water.
I also made the Penguin Sandwich, Hot Dog Bread Bun, Pesto Pasta Frog, and Relaxing Panda.
The Penguin Sandwich was one of the easier bentos to make. Brown and white bread are paired together with oval slices of carrots, cheese circles, and blueberries to turn the peanut butter sandwich in the shape of a penguin. Ming recommends pairing the sandwich with grapes, strawberries, cajun spiced grilled wings, and cucumbers cut into snowflakes.
The Hot Dog Bread Bun is made by cutting hotdogs into dogs and placing them in rolls instead of the usual length hot dog bun. The face is made with pieces of nori and the head/tail are held together with pasta sticks. I never thought to use thin pieces of pasta (broken spaghetti or fideos) in this manner. They will soften as the lunch rests or can be pan-fried first if eating right away. Ming recommends pairing the hot dogs with carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, kiwis, grapes, and strawberries.
The Pesto Pasta Frog was Evan’s favorite. I used Lee’s recipe to make Pesto Pasta, then cut out cheese, nori, and cherry tomatoes to arrange on top for the frog’s face. The eyes of my frog should have been a bit bigger, but I cut them out a little too small instead of using a round cutter. Ming recommends pairing the pasta with cheese baked shrimp and zucchini and tomato baked with cheese.
The Relaxing Panda was my first time wrapping rice. Mine definitely didn’t turn out perfect, but it was still cute and Evan liked it! Balls of rice are molded, wrapped in nori, and held together with pasta sticks to resemble a panda bear. Evan worked with me on this and had a ton of fun. The eyes on my photos should be a bit bigger and the main balls of rice a bit smaller. Ming recommends pairing the panda with chicken carrot stir-fry, crispy fried shrimp, scallion tamagoyaki (Japanese egg omelet), edamame, and lettuce.
Looking for more bento recipes?
Steamed Piggy Buns Recipe
Excerpt from Yummy Kawaii Bento
Steamed Piggy Buns
- 2 cups (300 g) Morinaga pancake mix
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salad oil
- 1/4-1/3 cup (90-100 ml) water
- Pink gel-based food coloring
- Cocoa powder
- 1/2 pound (250 g) boneless chicken thighs cut into strips
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
- 1 tablespoon ginger juice
- Pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 scallion chopped
- Combine all ingredients for the filling together and mix well using your hands. It is best to leave the meat to marinate overnight.
- Sift pancake mix and add salad oil.
- Add water gradually, using your hands to keep mixing until the dough comes together.
- Scoop out 2 tablespoons of dough and mix in pink gel-based food coloring using a toothpick. Keep kneading until the colors are even.
- Scoop out 1 tablespoon of dough and mix in cocoa powder. Keep kneading until the colors are even.
- Dust work surface with flour. Use your hands to knead the remaining plan colored dough for around 5 minutes, until the dough becomes soft and smooth.
- Divide dough into six parts and roll each into a ball. Use a rolling pin to flatten each ball.
- Place filling from step 1 in the middle of the dough. Wrap it up and pleat the edges to seal.
- Turn it over and shape into an oval. Repeat for the other five balls.
- Take the pink dough and shape out two rounded triangles for the ears. Use water to attach the ears onto the buns.
- Take some pink dough and shape out an oval for the snout. Poke two holes in the snout using a straw. Use water to attach it onto the buns.
- Take some brown dough and shape out circles for the eyes. Use water to attach the eyes onto the buns. Place the buns on wax paper and steam over low heat for 15 minutes.