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Miki had a young daughter who she packed a bento for every day to take to school. On many occasions I was in her home during this process. I was fascinated as I watched Miki lovingly prepare her daughter’s bentos. Little bits of different foods would be meticulously placed in a small bento box, and somehow the finished box always seemed to look like a work of art—a beautiful mix of color and texture. Although it would be several years before I had my first child, I acquired quite the collection of bento supplies during that first year of living in Japan.
Fast forward a few years when we found ourselves living in Japan for a second time. My first daughter, nicknamed “Squirrel,” was born in Tokyo and my bento collection continued to grow. When Squirrel started preschool, I was excited to start packing her bentos and use all of the bento gear I had accumulated over the years. Now I have three daughters, “Squirrel,” “Bug,” and “Monkey,” though Monkey is in preschool and still eats lunch at home. Over the past 10 years of bento packing I have developed my own way of doing things and have been posting pictures of my bentos on Instagram (@lafujimama) as a way to keep track of what I’ve been packing.
I love bentos, both for kids and adults. I am a visual person and love how bentos provide a method of packing a meal that is visually appealing. It makes packing them fun and helps take away some of the monotonous tedium of packing lunches every day. I also love bentos because they are a connection to the country that holds a piece of my heart and a way for me to send a bit of love with my kids to school each day.
Makes about 4 servings
8 ounces broccolini (including stalks), cut into 3 – 4 inch lengths
4 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds, divided
1 ½ teaspoons soy sauce (or gluten-free tamari)
2 teaspoons maple syrup
Rinse the broccolini under running water. Trim the ends and cut them into 3 – 4 inch lengths.
Set aside 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds. To make the toasted sesame sauce, grind the remaining 3 tablespoons in a mortar and pestle. Stir in the soy sauce and maple syrup, then set it aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add a pinch of salt. Put the broccolini pieces into the boiling water.
While the broccolini is cooking, prepare a large bowl filled with ice water.
Boil the broccolini for 2 minutes, then drain it and immediately transfer it to the prepared bowl of ice water.
Once chilled, drain the broccolini and toss it with the toasted sesame sauce. Garnish with the 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately or pack in a bento.
Goma-ae is one of my favorite side dishes to pack in a bento. It is a classic Japanese dish made with vegetables tossed in a toasted sesame sauce. Two of the more common versions are made with spinach or green beans, but almost any vegetable will work! In my version I use maple syrup, instead of the traditional granulated sugar, but you can use any sweetener you prefer. Although I have included measurements, this is just a basic idea of how this dish works. I always adjust my amounts based on how the produce tastes. Sometimes I add more soy sauce or maple syrup, depending on what is tasting good with the vegetables I have chosen. Season it according to your tastes!