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.
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. She 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.
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.”
These Steamed Piggy Buns are a cute way to transform simple steamed buns into fun faces for children. 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 have it available, you can use Morinaga Pancake Mix in place of the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Morinaga Pancake Mix is often used in Japan to make pancakes, steamed cakes, buns, and doughnuts. It can be found in some Asian food markets with a notable Japanese section.
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.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Skyhorse Publishing in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Steamed Piggy Buns
Adapted from Yummy Kawaii Bento
1/2 pound (250 grams) 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
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 scallion, chopped
2 1/2 cups (270 grams) all purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons salad oil
1/2-3/4 cup (118-177 milliliters) water
Pink gel-based food coloring
In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinese rice wine, ginger juice, salt, cornstarch, and scallion. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix in the salad oil and gradually add water to form a smooth dough. Pull away two tablespoons of the dough and mix in food coloring until evenly pink. Wrap the pink dough in plastic and set aside. Pull away another 1 tablespoon of the dough and mix in cocoa powder until an even brown color. Cover with plastic and set aside. Knead the remaining white dough until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Form a piece into a ball and use a rolling pin to flatten into a circle about 1/4 inch thick. Place a mound of the marinated chicken in the center of the circle. Wrap up the edges of the dough over the filling and pleat to seal. Turn the sealed ball of dough over so the smooth part is on top. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough and the filling.
Unwrap the pink dough and take off small pieces to form triangle ears. Wet the bottom of each ear with water and attach to the top sides of the formed balls of dough. Take off more pieces of the pink dough and form into ovals. Use a straw to poke two holes in each oval to make a snout. Dip the bottoms of the snouts in water and attach to the buns.
Unwrap the chocolate dough and remove small pieces to form into eyes. Dip the bottom of each into water to attach to the buns. Place each bun on wax paper and steam for 15 minutes, until puffed and cooked through. Repeat with remaining buns.