Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from the supermarket

Way back in January when I posted my first Bento Tidbits from Japan article, Jason asked about the availability of ready made bento components. There are many traditional food products that are used in bentos with no or minimal cooking, such as furikake and pickles, but I went looking for things that are usually home made and are available readymade at a regular supermarket. Basically, it’s possible for someone in Japan to assemble a complete bento without cooking anything barely, should they want to, using pre-cooked, pre-packaged foods from the supermarket - and, I guess, call it a homemade bento.

Let’s start with the rice, the basic staple of a Japanese meal. Here are some ready-to-microwave precooked, vacuum packed rice packets. These no-refrigeration needed rice packets are available in the U.S. and elsewhere too. Quite convenient, though rather expensive compared to cooking your own. Besides plain white rice, brown rice and various mixed rices are available.


Ready-to-eat fried foods have been around for ages; korokke (croquettes), menchikatsu (breaded and deep-fried hamburger steaks), tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) and so on. Readymade foods like this are called osouzai (お惣菜), and every supermarket and department store food hall has a big section dedicated to them.


Here are some pre-portioned osouzai from the refrigerated section of 7-11 - a packet of meatballs in sauce, and potato salad. (They also have things like stewed chicken and vegetables and braised pork belly.) Each packet is priced at around 100 to 150 yen, and last for a week refrigerated and unopened. Very handy - and not that bad actually.


The frozen food section is stacked with all kinds of ready-to-go foods for bentos. Here’s some breaded fried fish with egg, and heat-and-go chicken karaage.


Looser foods come pre-packaged in paper cups. Many don’t even require heating up in the morning - they can be packed frozen in a bento box. Here you see some butter-sautéed spinach and corn, kaki-age (a kind of tempura), yakisoba noodles, and pre-flavored spaghetti, all in ready-to-pack paper cups.


Even healthier vegetable sides come packed this way. Here’s kinpira gobo and stewed hijiki, again just ready to pack and go.


Frozen Spaghetti Napolitan, a favorite with Japanese kids. The serving suggestion on the bottom half of the package says to stuff the pasta into a bread roll. Mmm, double-carbs. (This kind of noodle-stuffed sandwich is quite popular in Japan.)


A creamy gratin in a cup…also ready to pack and go, says the package. Defrosted cold cream sauce…yummy. (Yes I’m being sarcastic.)


Ready-to-go charaben parts

Even charaben parts are available ready to go. For instance, those tiny cute quail eggs - so fiddly to peel, yes? No worries, you can buy them precooked and packed in water.


Here’s some cute cheese-and-kamaboko (fish paste) rolls…


Speaking of kamaboko…how about a kamaboko with Pikachu’s face in every slice? Instant kawaii for your little one’s bento box. (You can see some Minnie Mouse kamaboko on the bottom shelf too.)


I actually bought one of these decorative kamaboko…one where each slice is a little pig face. The top part even has ears. The taste? Well….


When the kamaboko is sliced, indeed each slice is a little pig face. Aww.


Moving on to another charaben standby, tiny sausages. These ones (which I previously uploaded to flickr) are just plain sausages with clever, Hello Kitty packaging….

Hello Kitty Sausage!

These ones go a step further: the casing is printed with an image of Kamen Rider, an old time favorite superhero, especially with boys. (You are supposed to only cook them carefully on the other, unprinted side, to preserve the printed image.)


Hmm, these tiny sausages remind me of the ones I’ve seen in a certain American lunch product…


But the ultimate charaben wee sausage has to be the tako (octopus) wiener. And, yes, they too are available ready-made.


This is how they look straight out of the package.


And, after a couple of minutes in a frying pan, this is how they are transformed. They even have eye-holes.

The taste? Well…they look about as good as they taste, and vice versa. I cooked them in a dry (non-oiled) frying pan. The oil and that red stuff came out of the sausages.


Do Japanese moms (or wives, or dads) make bentos entirely out of these ready-made components? Probably not, but the fact that so many of these things are available shows that there is a demand for them. In fact, companies like Ajinomoto (maker of many frozen foods) regularly popular charaben bloggers to make bentos featuring their products.

So, the next time you read somewhere that all Japanese mothers spend hours lovingly creating homemade, healthy bentos in the morning…you’ll know that that’s not always the case.

Readymade bento components - how about you?

What do you think? Would you use such products in your bentos? What kinds of readymade bento components do you wish were easily available to you?

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Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I used to eat spaghetti sandwiches as a kid too! Boy that takes me back.
I would like to have the veggie parts of the bento readily available. Cutting up / boiling / preparing vegetables & fruits takes up most of the time for me. Not enough time to be an excuse not to make a bento though ;) But I admit that lately I've been sticking to one-in-all dishes like curries, pastas, stir-fry's to pack to lunch, just to be quicker.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I've tried some of those things when I was in Japan -- I remember the already made potato salad from 7/11-- but I didn't like it. :/ I guess I'm old fashioned but I prefer to make most things from scratch. (Unless it happens to be something sweet or bread! Japan has fantastic bread.)

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Pre-made items can be quite convenient, if one hasn't got that much time, or one can't make them that professional, like kamaboko, but I think that ingredients are okay, and not whole dishes. Bentos are (also) about eating healthy, and you can't be really sure what's in canned food.
I personally would never use pre-cooked rice, I can cook it myself with little ease (and much love ^_^).

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

In the vein of ready-made, I make what I call "bachelor bentos". I actually cook my own rice, but for the rest I use frozen chicken chunks and frozen vegetables. This really cuts down on the hand-made aspect of my bentos, but it also cuts down on the preparation time. (I'm lazy. :-)
In less than an hour I can make the rice (most of that time is just spent waiting) and package up 6 bentos. I freeze them, throw one in my lunch bag, and after 5 minutes in the microwave they're quite tasty.
They're simple, somewhat home-made, not very traditional or kawaii, but they work just fine for me.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Bachelor bentos - love that term! ^_^

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Thanks! :-)

I'm a typical bachelor. I can _barely_ boil water, so simple and pre-made things are incredibly important to me. Well, that and TV dinners. :-)


Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I could see myself using anyone of these products to pack a bento faster than I do. Like the bachelor bento, I make the same in a way but I do recook frozen foods so I don't have to deal with the microwave at work. ;) Most my time is spent deciding what of my precooked on the weekend frozen arsenal am I going to use.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Pre-cooked rice saved me when I was on the Kitty Hawk. I would stock up at the 100yen store before we got underway. Many got sick from the food but I had rice and loads of curry. I just miss having the supermarket full of surprising treats to put in my bento. One woman showed me her pickle selection and would laugh at my faces (vinegar at times causes me to make faces, like sweet and sour candy) when she would have me taste some. I would go weekly to get pickles and she would always have my favorite ready. I also miss the bakery that had some of the most unusual breads I have ever seen in all my travels. Who would have thought about putting mashed potatos in a bun?? I am glad I didn't know how to read too much Japanese so I would buy things that ended up being a surprise.. it was like a treasure hunt. I so wish I knew how to make those awesome pickles.. :D

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Hey, Tina B., I recently bought two books on Japanese pickling, because everyone tells me I can't really say I love Japanese food if I haven't tried the pickles. I haven't yet gotten to try any of the recipes (time crunch), but from reading them I gather that the only hard part might be locating the ingredients. The method doesn't seem like a killer. The two books I have are:


I'd be interested to know which pickles you loved the most, which might give me a sense of what to try first.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I would like some of the premade options but it is a lot of fun to make your own lunch. I would be nice though for timesaving if you are have a really busy week.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Wow! I can't believe the variety of things available! I'm not sure I would use ready-made things too often but it would be nice to have a little stash of things on hand for super busy days!

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I rarely even buy bread, much less readymade meals, so no, I wouldn't buy them for my own household's bento. I do bento at least in part to get away from preservatives and prepackaged food. But there's no denying the cute and pretty factor is a lot of the motivation as well!

This isn't to get down on people who choose to eat prepackaged foods, by the way. It just isn't my kink.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I'm afraid that in my old age I've developed a horror for the prepared foods of my childhood (except for that nuclear-orange mac 'n cheese--I realize it's not actually a food, but I love it so!), so I would use only a few of the items you list. But, oh, to have those pre-cooked quail eggs available! I'd use those A LOT. And I'd like to try some of the thaw-and-eat veggies, although I'm predisposed to think they'd pale in comparison to homemade.

I'm in the American northwest, and I do use some of the pre-packaged foods available here, most notably mozzarella cheese sticks and, on occasion, the store-bought mini-muffins.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I love thepig shaped kamaboko. I think I would use small amounts of decorative foods if I was in a hurry and wanted something to make me smile when I opened my lunch, but precooked rice? Waaay too far!

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

My son LOVES kamaboko and I love adorable things so those pigs and pikachus would be awesome if I could get them here! I also like the idea of already cooked and peeled quail eggs. Those things are such a pain that I rarely buy them.

I don't think I'd use the pre-cut octodogs. Part of the fun for me is giving them different faces and trying not to cut off a leg!

I wish we had more access to the cute die-cut nori that I've seen on some pictures and to mame-nori. Since The Tiny Evil can't have artificial dyes I'd like more ways to make his food cute and colorful without resorting to making everything beet or spirulina flavored!

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

LOVE the pig kamaboko. Where can I find it in L.A.?

i used to...

eat spaghetti out of cans and store oranges, and loaves of bread outside my window - that is, until the squirrels started stealing my food! but when you only had US$25 a week and were a poor college student living in a one-room bedroom with no cooking, one had to be creative!

Re: i used to...

Spaghetti-Os 3 for a dollar...ah college days.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I think that having at the least the OPTION of ready-made foods makes the concept of bento compiling way more feasible. I mean, we all have our off days, our sick days, our oh-crap-I-didn't-set-the-alarm-correctly days. Having a quick-fix in the freezer/pantry can save a bento from becoming "I'll just have to buy lunch out" scenarios. I'd definitely have a small stock of bento things like the veggies, meats, and even things like either the sausages or kamaboko, for those Oh Noes Days.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

I am with you. Earlier this week I was staring at my kitchen right before I needed to leave for work and thinking, 'I didn't make rice!' I had to buy a little something to supplement what I could pack. I also hate having to go out to get food or making complex food when I am sick. That said, I would opt for the frozen veggie sides and maybe some of the fried stuff as the occassional treat. I got into this partly to eat healthy, and I like having multiple veggies to vary the flavor.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Thanks for this post! I've been inspired to venture out and get some of these little guys to make my husband and I some "homemade" bentos instead of eating katsu everyday at our university's cafeteria. Those prices are great, BTW! About half the price of the stuff found in our local supaa in Gifu.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

Premade items that are fried, or too tedious to make are great to have premade, but I'd rather cut my own tako from home, boil my own eggs and such if there was time.

Re: Bento tidbits from Japan: Ready-made bento foods from ...

love the photos of the things you saw in Japan! kawaii! and makes me miss the convenience of getting good food in asia..

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