Gluten-Free Vegetarian Bento: Gobo Kinpira Recipe, Lotus Root Sesame Stir Fry Recipe, and Inari Zushi Recipe


What with unappetizing airline food, unhealthy cafeteria food, and limited lunchtime options at the office, the Japanese Bento tradition has never been more appealing. People interested in lower calorie meals, vegetarian cuisine, and allergy friendly meals-to-go have found bento to be useful and delicious option. But what IS a bento?

“Bentō (弁当 or べんとう, Bentō) is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, a protein element, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables as a side dish. ” (source: Wikipedia)

In Japan, packed lunch for children can be insanely complicated, with Mothers buying books full of decorative ideas for making the perfect bento that is as balanced in color and design as it is in nutrition. There has recently been an explosion of gorgeous blogs on the blogosphere aimed at introducing the bento to a wider audience. Some of my favorites include:

Biggie’s Lunch in a Box (See her recent post on airline meal bentos for some great ideas for the gluten-free traveler)
Maki, Just Hungry creator’s Just Bento
Bento TV for when text and pictures just aren’t enough and you crave cute video.
An old favorite,Cooking Cute, a blog that no longer has new posts but has some great archives.

While these blogs are not vegetarian, they have a plethora of ideas that can easily be made vegetarian simply by substituting a protein source. While fried dishes may not be as appealing cold, and the gluten-free bento creator may wish to steer clear of battered main dishes, sweet simmered dishes like the below kinpira gobo or vegetable salad dishes are a natural to convert to gluten-free with a switch to wheat-free soy sauce like San-J.

A collection of vegetarian sides from the following books can be a great start for a gluten-free bento, although vegetarians may find the fish and meat recipes in the first book to be less than helpful. For vegans or vegetarians, the Vegan Lunchbox Blog author’s book is a great start, although you will find more generally international recipes than Japanese recipes.

Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go

Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day: 101 Full-Color Recipes for Authentic Tsukemono

Vegan Lunch Box: 150 Amazing, Animal-free Lunches Kids and Grown-ups Will Love!

bento6.jpg bento31.jpg

For my recent bento, I started with two of my favorite Japanese vegetables- Renkon, or lotus root, and Gobo, also known as burdock. For the renkon side, I experimented with a recipe in one of my favorite Japanese side dishes books, translating it from the Japanese and modifying it to suit our family. I was happy with the resulting recipe, as it was flavorful, crisp and sweet, perfectly taking advantage of the qualities of the lotus root. Meanwhile, I decided to use the gobo for a kinpira, finely chopped vegetable recipe simmered in a flavorful sauce. Because DH has a weakness for thickened sauces, I impulsively added a cornstarch slurry to the dish, and found that it made the delicious sauce stick to the vegetables beautifully. DH said it was his favorite dish I made, so… mission accomplished! And then of course, I needed a starch for the dish, as well as a protein. I went a little unconventional and made another of DH’s favorites- inari zushi, fried tofu pouches filled with rice and simmered in a sweet, tamari broth.

We were able to enjoy these side dishes in several slightly different meals. We enjoyed all three dishes for a dinner and then a bento the next day. I also made some brown rice later and enjoyed it with the two sides once we had eaten the inari zushi. To make it more fun I shaped the brown rice using 1/3 cup measuring cups and added a leaf of parsley to each circle. Tasty AND healthy. DH pronounced the experiment delicious, and I satisfied my craving for home-style Japanese food that I enjoyed so much while we lived in Japan.

So why not try packing your own gourmet, Japanese, gluten-free bento lunch the next time eating out or relying on airlines gets you down? Nothing like a yummy bento in the fridge or cooler to make you look forward to lunch. :) Have you tried making a bento? Tell me about your experiences or favorite bento side-dishes in the comments.


Other Book of Yum Recipes perfect for a packed lunch:
Vegetarian Sesame Spinach Onigiri Recipe
Japanese Potato Salad Recipe
More Japanese Onigiri, with pescatarian Korean recipe and two Vegetarian dishes

Vegetarian Inari Zushi
3 1/2 cup cooked sushi rice
1 package of fresh aburage fried tofu sheet package(containing 5 pieces)- found in the refrigerator tofu section in your local Japanese or Chinese market. (Canned varieties may contain wheat soy sauce and who wants canned fried tofu anyway, yuck.)
3 1/2 tbsp sugar (or slightly less, to taste)
2 1/3 tbsp wheat-free tamari like San-J low sodium
3 1/2 tbsp water

1 tbsp light sesame seeds
1 tsp kurogoma black sesame seeds
pickled ginger for garnish if desired

Start your sushi rice in the rice cooker.

Cut your Aburage in half so you have two pouches ready for use. Bring a pan of water to boil and add your fried tofu pouches, submerging them beneath the boiling water for two minutes or so. Take off burner and drain, submerge in cold water and then drain again.

Combine your sugar, water, and tamari in the same pan (cleaned). Bring it to a boil, then add your drained aburage to the boiling flavored liquid. Lower the temperature and simmer the fried tofu in the liquid until it has all absorbed into the tofu.

Get your rice and sprinkle it with light sesame seeds (toasted). If the rice sticks to your hands, get a dish filled with water and a healthy splash of vinegar to periodically dip your hands into. Grab a portion of rice (about the size of an egg) and fill the individual aburage pouch with rice. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds and add a piece of pickled ginger or two if you like. Continue until all the pouches are filled. Enjoy!

Renkon Lotus Root Sesame Stir Fry Recipe
1 whole Renkon a.k.a. Lotus Root, raw
4 green onions
1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil (Japanese brand)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp wheat-free soy sauce like San-J low sodium
light sesame seeds, if desired
Peel the renkon/lotus root. Quickly use a mandoline, food processor, or knife to thinly slice the renkon. Put each slice in a large bowl of water as you slice it. Cut your green onions into 2 inch long pieces, separating into two piles white bulb part of stalk from green stalk.

Heat a wok and add your tablespoon of sesame oil. When it is hot, add your slices of renkon and stir fry them until they are no longer fully opaque. It’s desirable to get them to brown as much as possible without burning, in my opinion. You can add the white parts of the green onion at this stage or partway through this stage if you want. When the renkon looks mostly done, add a hearty sprinkling of sesame seeds and the combined sugar and soy sauce. Mix the sauce and sesame seeds throughout the dish and let it heat until its warm but not burnt. Sprinkle the green part of the green onion stalk, let it wilt and remove from heat and serve.

Gobo Burdock Root Kinpira Recipe
6″ Gobo (Burdock root), cleaned and peeled (This is a long, brown,
cylindrical root looking thing, found in asian markets and excellent produce departments of grocery stores)
1 tsp cooking oil (i used peanut, anything is ok)
1 tsp sesame oil (unless you have allergies, obviously)
1/2 carrot, julienned
3 tsp GF tamari (or slightly less, to taste)
2 tsp each sugar, mirin, and sake
4 tbsp water
2 tsp cornstarch, mixed into 1 tbsp. of the above water.

Peel the burdock root and cut it into slightly oversized matchsticks and immediately put in bowl filled with water. When ready to prepare, drain off water.

Heat oils in a pan and saute the gobo for a few minutes, and add the julienned carrot. Mix evenly and add the seasonings. Cook for two minutes or longer and add cornstarch slurry. Let thicken, and then serve. Sprinkle with black or brown toasted sesame seeds if desired.

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14 Responses to “Gluten-Free Vegetarian Bento: Gobo Kinpira Recipe, Lotus Root Sesame Stir Fry Recipe, and Inari Zushi Recipe”

  1. [...] Wednesday: Korean and Japanese Gobo Kinpira with renkon saute (Rated 9/10) Grilled Tofu Steak recipe and Cold Bibbinba (bibimbop) Rice with vegetarian toppings [...]

  2. YAY!!! I had no idea there was tofu sheets that were gf!! I thought they all had soy sauce in them. Oh Sea, once again you have made my day. I’ll be going to the local asian store asap to see if I can get some. Thanks!!

  3. First off, cute “Hello Kitty” lunch box! And second, what a wonderful post. I love burdock root (and it’s so healthy). I often add it to wild rice, but this looks like a great way to use it. I will definitely try your gobo burdock root kinpira. Thanks, Sea.

  4. Hey there Gaile- Yup, most fried tofu pouches should be gluten-free. I’ve only found soy sauce in the canned varieties. Hope you can find some! :D They can be a bit oily, but they’re a good treat and DH loves them. Thanks for coming by!


  5. Hi Melissa, Thank you for the bento box love! I got that box in Japan and am especially fond of it. Burdock root is great, isn’t it? I usually prepare it in this way, but I should branch out. I’ve made fried croquettes with it that were interesting, but a bit oily. Love those Japanese cookbooks- there are whole chapters on gobo. Glad you came by! :)


  6. Oh – I love inari =) My favorite – so versatile, but I always fall back ont eh tasty sweetness of the basic rice-filled ones.

    Sea – have you seen the bento flickr groups? Your photo of your Hello Kitty Bento Box would be a huge hit. lol :)


  7. I LOVE bento!! I just haven’t gotten myself organized enough yet to do it.

    And fried tofu sheets? I did not know they existed. I am def. getting some of those. Looks like an awesome recipe.

  8. Hi SS:

    These look really tasty. I love gobo kinpira and have made it a few times. It’s especially wonderful with organic carrots. Your inari zushi looks great too. I actually haven’t made it at home yet ’cause it’s so easy to get at the market, but soon I’ll have to, since I’m moving back to Canada in April.

    Love the look of the renkon, too.

    You know about battered things, there is no problem at all in making any of them with a gluten-free flour mix. I’ve made glorious karage chicken (when I was still eating meat), and very good fried tofu, inspired by your southern fried tofu recipe.

    The bento kits here are getting fancy. Now, at the hyakku-en store you can get a self-locking box, matching small knife and fork and chopstick set, plastic glass with snap-on lid, and cloth bag to keep them in, all in matching colours (and with slightly strange English: eg “happy fruits for your delicious life”. I always add a bright cotton bandana as a napkin. I made up a few kits to send to my family at Christmas.

    Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking; maybe I’ll have to make a bento post before long. Thanks for the inspiration! :)

  9. Sea – You did a wonderful job on your bentos. I love the red Hello Kitty box too. I always make bentos when we travel. My kids are fond of fruit salad, fried rice (of any version), angel hair rice noodles with chicken, pizza cut in squares, taquitos and a small dessert of some kind. My husband and I like just about anything. Stews tend to work better than soups, unless the soup is less liquid and more veggies. We also like to put in mixed nuts for a snack.

    Sheltie Girl @ Gluten A Go Go

  10. Hi Kate- I poked around the Flickr groups a bit. There are definitely some fun bento pics out there! Thanks for the tip.

    Hi S.M.- Fried tofu pouches are great, although it can be hard to get the oil out of them. It’s really a pretty easy snack to make, and goes over well with DH’s and kids. heh heh.

    Hey Veg-J- The quality of the ingredients make all the difference, don’t they? Organic produce can make the best dishes, definitely. It is easy to get inari zushi, but hard if you want to avoid wheat-based soy sauce. :( That pesky little “komugi” always tends to be at the end of the ingredient list thanks to soy sauce.

    I’ve made tons of GF battered things, although not so much recently, and they can be really tasty. I just tend not to like deep fried things cold- I like to heat them up in the oven or toaster oven so they get toasty again. This is why I usually don’t add them to my bento. But I do have a good recipe for fried tofu balls that is oh-so-yummy and is great just re-heated in the microwave.

    Love that “Engrish,” haha. I should have bought more bento while I was in Japan- I have more Indian tiffins than bento boxes, somehow. Look forward to seeing your bento creation!

    Hi Sheltie Girl, All those things sound good. Bento boxes are so convenient, aren’t they? You can really put any type of cuisine in those little boxes, unless they are too liquidy. Thanks for the ideas!


  11. these images look so good! these were so easy to make and my kids loved them as well. we order a number of our veggies so we always have plenty of them. thank you for the great recipes!

  12. Couldn’t help but jump in here. Bento (literally boxed lunch) can be anything – even a sandwich, if it is put in a box and eaten at lunch (Japanese do not refer to breakfast or dinner/supper as ‘bento’). For the sake of adding s vegan protein, please consider using miso as a seasoning for just about anything, even kinpira and especially nigiri. In fact, a stir fry of slivered abura age and miso with a little mirin (Japanese cooking wine) is wonderful and protein-rich. Also, *change of subject* I have replaced sugar in all of my Japanese recipes with mirin. Whenever I use any recipe (especially ones published outside of Japan) I ask myself one simple question: “How would my husband’s grandmother have prepared this?” She was a farmer’s wife, and I guarantee that she rarely, if ever, used white sugar. She also used animal protein quite sparingly, as it was close to being prohibitively expensive; soy products, however – including the boiled and prepared beans themselves – were used at every meal to provide good quality protein and fiber. I am certain she did not think of it that way, but these days we know it is true. And speaking of fiber, try okara – the solid leftovers of soybeans after tofu is made – in any stir-fry or soup. Or bread. Or muffins. Like tofu, okara will take on the taste of whatever seasonings you use, and like cornstarch, it will help to thicken and give substance to sauces. Unlike cornstarch, however, it is not a simple carb.

  13. A blog after my own heart — I LOVE lotus root! I wish it was easy to find. I’ve never cooked it, but if I ever find the root here, I’ll try your recipe.

  14. [...] International Lunches from the Book of Yum: Vegetarian Bento with Burdock and Lotus Root and Inari Zushi Fusion Tiffin with Thai Lemongrass Corn and Quesadillas Spinach Sesame Onigiri (Japanese Rice Ball) [...]

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