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

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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!


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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.

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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
Ingredients
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

Directions
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
Ingredients
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
Directions
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
Ingredients
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.

Directions
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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