Building the Best Local-style Bento

A few weeks ago, I was thinking that if Zippy’s opened up restaurants on the mainland, particularly in college towns on the west coast, they could do well. This conversation lead to another idea: What if you just opened up a bento place, sort of like K’s Bentoya in Waipahu–where they only have two premaid bento options. But what if you tried to top the Zip Pac–that is make a bento that’s better. Is there a better bento than the Zip Pac? I’m not saying it’s the best, but it’s a good one. (The ubiquity of Zippy’s probably contributes to it’s popularity.) Anyway, what would you include in the best bento? To me, if you could make one or two great bentos, that’s all you’d need to make a killing. On the west coast, I think this could become popular with non-Asians/Hawai’i people as well.

(Note: This was originally part of a thread that discussed bentos and plate lunches, but I decided to create separate threads for each topic.)

One thought on “Building the Best Local-style Bento

  1. In attempting to build the best local-style bento, let’s break down the bento down into it’s critical parts. What I’m saying isn’t necessarily gospel, so if anyone disagrees, please say so. Off the top of my head, here are the ideal components:

    Rice, chicken, seafood, and beef. People will differ on the three proteins, but for me I think I’d like these three components, although some seafood item could actually be more of a optional/secondary entre.

    Some other secondary entre possibilities: spam, corned beef hash or sausage/hot dog, maybe eggs.

    Some veggie side dish, which I think of as optional: tsukemono, takuan.

    Now besides these different types of components, I think there is one important criterion: the items must be tasty after many hours. Bentos are generally meals that we make or buy in the morning and then eat many hours later for lunch. Obviously people will buy a bento like a Zip Pac for dinner and this criterion won’t matter in these situations. But generally, I think this quality is important, and helpful in building the best bento. Do you guys agree with that?

    OK, now let’s take each component one by one.

    Rice
    This is pretty essential, but we could flavor the rice (with furikake) or even serve different styles of rice (e.g., fried rice). Besides furikake, is there another way we could boost the rice? Oh, what’s the teppanyaki place that made garlic rice or something like that? I would love a bento with rice like that.

    Here’s something else to consider: What about a brown gravy? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bento with any type of gravy. Generally, I think too much gravy probably wouldn’t work, but what about a dollop? If you had a hamburger patty, that might be real nice. (I can’t think of any bentos with a small hamburger patty. I think that has potential.)

    Could we make a local style bento with fluffier rice–like Middle-Eastern style? Off the top of my head, I’d be against that, but I’d be open to considering this.

    Chicken
    Some kind of fried chicken, American-style, seems like the best–primarily because it can taste good even after several hours. That’s not so truth with katsus, mochiko, or even karaage. Then again, I think the garlic chickens from Sugoi and Mitsuken may keep for a long time, but I’m not certain. (Anyone know?) Zippy’s broasted chicken will be good after a long while in my opinion–which makes it a good bento item.

    I like a good teri-chicken, but somehow I think I prefer fried chicken. Is there a grilled chicken or any other style of chicken that would be good? A good chicken lulah, which I believe is ground up and grilled, is an intriguing idea. Oh, what about huli-huli chicken? If you could make a huli-huli chicken thigh, that kinda appeals to me. Shoyu chicken, as long as it didn’t have too much sauce, might work, too–but I would prefer fried chicken.

    Beef
    Teri-beef seems ideal. It keeps well. Is there a beef or pork item that would be better than teri-beef? What about a good steak, beef kabob, or even smoked meat? I think steak would be really good. I’m not sure it would taste as good over time–not as good as a teri-beef. I like the hamburger patty idea–or even a teri-hamburger patty, maybe.

    Seafood
    Personally, I like eating the fried fish, with tartar sauce, in the Zip pac. I like the fish taste, while adding that mayo flavor into the meal. (The mayo part is just as important as the fish part to me.) What about the idea of adding English style fish and chips (sans chips)–i.e., fried cod? I would love that–I prefer that type of fried fish to the local style fried fish that they serve in the Zip Pac.

    I like the eating of eating shrimp tempura, but tempura won’t taste as good as several hours sitting in room temperature. What other types of seafood could work? Shrimp scampi came to mind, but you’d have to control the amount of sauce. Or what about a grilled shrimp? (A steak and scampi bento sounds good, though. Maybe replace the fried chicken with a boneless grilled teri-chicken. I think this could work well on the mainland.)

    I like the idea of poke, but would it still be good after several hours?

    A lump-crab cake sounds really good.

    A discussion about spam

    Spam (not the other types of processed meats) actually might be an essential meat for me–maybe more than seafood. We’ve talked about the way spam in a musubi is almost a magical synergy, and in thinking about this, I think it relates to the special saltiness, plus the meat flavor it brings. I’m not sure if everyone puts salt when making musubis, but my mom generally did so. To me definitely makes the musubi better; almost satisfying to eat by itself, even without nori. Basically, spam provides the salt to the rice and then takes it to another level by adding that juicy, fatty meat flavor component. (I’m not sure how or why nori works with rice, though, but I do think nori is critical component.)

    (Side note: I think the way spam provides salty and fatty flavor to rice is a critical reason spam is so popular among locals. Spam by itself is not as popular–it’s the relationship with rice that is crucial. I don’t think locals would like spam without rice–say with bread or any other starch. Is there any local dish with spam that doesn’t include rice? I guess one can eat spam and eggs without rice.)

    If this is true, then theoretically a salty type of meat could work just as good, if not better, than spam. What if you got a Chinese style roast pork, lechon, or even kalua pig, chopped it up, fat included, and made a patty and fried it–so it was a juicy, salty pork slab? A kalua pig patty sounds kinda good particularly if it was dense like spam and not stringy. (This type of patty in a musubi might work fairly well.) Or what if you just cooked spam in an imu? Anyone know if this was ever done? (I think the spam would fall a part, though, and that might not be good. I guess, you could just smoke the spam before it fell a part.)

    In any event, I don’t necessarily think spam with a bento is crucial, personally.

    Other processed meats, etc.

    I’m not a big fan of adding hot dogs–unless someone could make a better hot dogs. For some reason, portuguese sausage doesn’t work so well in bentos to me. I also like breakfast sausages, but someone I don’t think it would work so well–not with the other items, and not without eggs.

    Deep fried items like gyoza don’t work as well to me, but lumpia sounds kinda cool, and I think it might still be good after several hours. Also, steam and pan fried gyoza/mandoo/potstickers or steamed pork hash appeals to me. I would love a bento with one of those.

    Sides

    Is there any good sides besides the traditional takuan or ginger? Some mayo-y thing would be great, but that violates the lasting hours in room temperature criterion.

    I would like eggs. My mom frequently made eggs, the shoyu sugar type. My sense is that it’s hard to get them in the bento. I like the thicker Japanese style scrambled eggs, but I would think the pieces would have to be kinda small.

    In the next post, I’ll try to offer suggestions for bentos.

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