Anyone who does any kind of art or craft work is familiar with the concept of a stash. A knitter for example has a stash of different kinds of yarn. This really helps to get the creative juices flowing. In bento making terms, the equivalent of a stash is joubisai (or johbisai) (常備菜). Literally this means ‘always available food’. They are stored foods that can be kept for a while, which can be pulled out and used on short notice, and enrich and streamline the bento making process. It’s a combination of what we know of as kitchen staples plus pre-prepared little tidbits, specifically meant for making bento (or any other meal, but here we’ll talk about bento-specific johbisai). Japanese people who regularly make bento almost always have their own stash of johbisai secreted in their refrigerators, fridges and cupboards.
For example, I usually have several kinds of Japanese pickles and tsukudani (various foods cooked for a long time in a soy sauce based sauce) in the fridge, things like store bought furikake (though I usually prefer to make my own) and nori seaweed n the pantry, and various frozen tidbits in the freezer - mini meatballs, a mushroom mix, braised pork cubes, little stacks of pre-prepared vegetables.
Building up a bento stash is not too difficult, and you don’t have to have dedicated cooking sessions to make them. Whenever I make meatloaf or meatballs for dinner, I always make something with the ground meat mixture that be used in future bentos - mini meatballs, tiny hamburgers, even mini meatloafs. I will usually pre-cook them, let them cool while I’m making the rest of dinner, freeze them on a metal tray then dump them all into a plastic freezer bag. (I’m a big fan of plastic bags because they take up minimal space.) If I blanch spinach, I’ll take out some, make small bundles of them and freeze in a similar way.
Whenever you are cooking, think of ways in which you can set aside a little or make a bit extra that can be used for bento making. Just having your own stash can really ease your mind and enrich your bento boxes.
See the list at the end of this article for bento-friendly johbisai recipes.
Refrigerated johbisai items should be well wrapped to keep odors out (or in). Unless they are preserved foods like pickles, you should never keep them for longer than a week at maximum; meat items should be used up within 3-4 days or be frozen.
When freezing, think of the nature of whatever it is you want to freeze and store accordingly. For example, anything that should be moist should be wrapped up in plastic while it still a little warm, to retain that moisture. Rice is the best example of this type of food, as are something like steamed dumplings or anything made with flour. Other items should be cooled completely to room temperature before freezing, in order to prevent a buildup of moisture and ice crystals on the surface, which may cause it to defrost in a soggy state..
Putting items in small portion-sized quantities on a metal tray helps them to freeze very fast, which is what you want to do. It also helps to keep each portion separate once you pack them into well-sealed plastic bags or containers.
Try to use up any frozen cooked food within a month for optimum quality.
Don’t get too hung up on growing your bento stash though. As long as you have at least a couple of things stored away that you can pull out when needed, that’s fine. I’d really like people to get away from the idea that you need to get together a lot of ‘stuff’ before embarking on their bento making adventures! Just take it easy and jump in!
In the freezer:
In the refrigerator:
In the pantry:
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