Bento no. 1: A basic bento in 20 minutes


Bento contents:

  • Brown rice (1 cup, 220 calories)
  • Atsuage tofu (deep fried tofu) with green onions and oyster sauce
    (250 calories)
  • Quail egg (30 calories)
  • Blanched carrots and green beans (40 calories)
  • Black sesame seeds (5 calories)

Total calories (approx): 545 calories (how calories are calculated)

Time needed: 20 minutes

Type: Japanese

No. 1 is a basic 20 minute bento. It consists of 4 elements, of which 3 are prepared right before the bento is assembled. Only the rice is precooked - either in a timer-set rice cooker, or frozen. The idea of cooking three things at once may seem a bit daunting, but it really isn't if you have all the ingredients on hand and you work efficiently. The first time you make a bento like this it may take a few minutes longer, but after a little practice it will become a breeze.

The main protein here is deep fried thick tofu, called nama age or atsu age in Japanese. It's available at any Japanese, Chinese, Thai or Korean grocery store. It's usually vacuum packed, and will keep for about a week in the fridge. Although the main protein is non-meat, the bento itself is not classified as vegetarian since there are oysters in the sauce (and there's the egg, too.)

Don't let the 'deep fried' part of atsuage scare you: it's around 150 calories per 100g, and I use 150g (about 5 ounces) here, which is half of a large block (or 1 1/2 small blocks if you get the 3-to-a-pack kind). I usually make bento for two so I use half a block or pack per person. If you're only making bento for one, save the other half for later in the week in a tightly sealed container in the fridge. Some of the surface oil is washed off by blanching in boiling water, and it's dry-sauteed in a non-stick pan. I like to use atsuage quite a bit for bentos, since it has a denser, meatier texture than regular tofu. Oyster sauce adds a lot of umami and richness.

I have used fresh green beans and carrots here, but you can also use frozen.

If you can't get a hold of fresh quail eggs, just boil a small hen's egg and use one half per bento - or just the whole egg; it'll only add about 40 calories to your total after all. Remember that a hen's egg will take longer to cook to the hard-boiled stage ( a quail's egg is done in about 3 minutes).

To make this bento vegan, just leave out the egg and use a vegan mushroom based oyster sauce.


Per person:

  • 1/2 half of a large (300g) fried tofu block (atsuage dofu)
  • 2 green onions
  • 1 medium carrot (or half of a large one)
  • Handful of fresh green beans
  • 1 quail egg or small hen's egg
  • Oyster sauce (available at Asian groceries and some regular supermarkets. Lee Kum Kee is a widely available brand)
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (2 cups for a hungry eater)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Salt


  • Electric water kettle
  • 1 non-stick frying pan
  • 2 saucepans
  • 1 bowl


  1. The first thing you should always do is to pack the rice into the bento box and to leave it until the rice has cooled down. Rice retains heat longer compared to other ingredients, and closing the lid of the bento box while the rice is still hot can cause excess condensation. This leads to spoilage in the warm months at worst, not to mention a soggy bento. If you're using pre-frozen rice, microwave on high for about 3-4 minutes until warmed through and pack into your bento box.
  2. As soon as the rice is in the bento box, fill the water kettle and switch on.
  3. Take out the tofu and vegetables from the fridge while the water boils, and take out your pots and pans.
  4. Put the egg in a small pan and cover with cold water. Turn heat on high.
  5. Cut the tofu into bitesize cubes. Place in the bowl and pour hot water over it. Leave for a bit while you deal with the vegetables.
  6. Cut up the green onion into 3-4 inch lengths (7 cm or so). Cut the tops and tails off the green beans. Peel and cut the carrots into sticks.
  7. By this time the egg should be boiling. Turn the heat off, and put a lid on.
  8. Put the second saucepan and the frying pan on the heat. Add the rest of the boiling water from the kettle in the saucepan, and add salt. Add the carrots and green beans.
  9. Put the green onions in the frying pan with a little bit of boiling water. 'Stir-fry the green onions in the water (this cuts down on the amount of oil in the dish.)
  10. Drain the tofu cubes and add to the frying pan. Stir-fry (the oil on the tofu cubes is enough to do this).
  11. Drain the carrots and green beans. Run cold water over them from the tap.
  12. Drain the egg(s) and run cold water over it. Peel the egg and slice into two.
  13. Add 2-3 tablespoons of oyster sauce to the tofu and green onion. Stir rapidly and take off the heat. Pack into the bento box. Let cool for a couple minutes.
  14. Pack the green beans and carrots into the bento box.
  15. Pack the egg into the bento box. Sprinkle sesame seeds on the rice. Close the bento and pack.


This timeline illustrates how to proceed within the 20 minutes. (Click on the image for a larger version.)


The critical time is the 5 minute mark, when all the parts of the bento should be cooked. The remaining time is used for packing the box and letting things cool a bit.

You may want to use a kitchen timer to time yourself, at least to start with - though I find that having to catch the bus is enough for me!

To do the night before

  • Cut up the vegetables if you can
  • Lay out all the ingredients and equipment ready to go if you can
  • If using a rice cooker, wash the rice and set the timer!

I often forget to do the first two things but they do shave a few minutes off prep time. The third is critical if you don't have a stash of frozen rice packets waiting for you.


  • Use gomashio (sesame seeds mixed with salt) or furikake (flavorful sprinkles) instead of the plain sesame seeds, if you feel you need a bit more salt. Since there isn't as much rice as in normal Japanese bentos in this bento though, I find there is more than enough saltiness and flavor in the tofu with oyster sauce and the veggies.
  • Add a few dried red pepper flakes to the tofu for spiciness.
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