There are four items in my bucket list I’ve been meaning to tick off since last year, but only had the opportunity and energy to really do this first quarter of 2014:
1. Ride a big bike.
3. Learn how to swim.
4. Cook and make bento.
These are arranged in ascending level of difficulty. And with item #1 almost out of the way (I’ve been practicing on a regular one; not a big bike just yet), you’d think I had moved on to either items 2 or 3, but no. I once believed that cooking was a skill that was next to impossible for me to learn. I was an exemption to Auguste Gusteau’s motto, “Anyone can cook” — yes, that chef from Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Coming from an all-girls school where we were taught to be domesticated in Home Economics (a subject in which I sucketh muchly), cooking was my Waterloo. I switched roles with whoever was assigned as the dishwasher whenever it was my turn to cook, which they would readily agree to. The one time I was asked to do a cooking demo in front of the class, a sort of a practical quiz because I was never seen cooking, I wore pot holders on both hands and wielded the frying pan lid like a shield, and the spatula like a sword; I was just frying bacon.
Fast-forward to present day. Thanks to a growing penchant for bento box aesthetics, I mustered enough courage to actually try to — wait for it — make scrambled eggs just to get things started. Believe me, that was the first edible thing I made, not counting the panda cake I helped my friend design. After that, I leveled up my meager cooking skills by making my first bento — a Rilakumma Omurice. The use of ketchup rice was limited only to Rilakumma’s body parts. It has a ham and cheese omelette for a pillow, and garnished with flower sausages, carrots cut into flowers and butterflies, and broccoli. I was able to find a bunny-shaped nori punch in Daiso which I generously used to design the scrambled egg blanket.
Before I proceed, note that I’m not about to list my ingredients and step-by-step procedures as these can be found online. You just need to make a few adjustments on the recipe to suit your taste buds. For instance, I discovered I like adding more sake and/or mirin to meat courses I’ve been cooking lately.
Next up was a Doraemon bento. I particularly got the recipe for this one from Ochikeron and followed it down to a tee, substituting the meat dish that came with it to simmered chicken in grated potato topped with shiraga negi. Yes, it wasn’t enough that I just learned how to steam and fry eggs and pieces of meat to include in my bento box creations — I needed to learn how to REALLY cook. Side dishes include baked beans, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and butterfly-shaped carrot slices. I also made tamagoyaki for this one just for Doraemon’s bell. As a side note in making tamagoyaki, you may use a mixture of sugar and soy sauce in place of Shiro Dashi.
The latest I made was a Hello Kitty bento consisting of apples made of red peppers stuffed with ground beef and onions, cores made of cheese with nori sheet for seeds; strawberries made of fish sausage, black sesame seeds, and edamame; and a flower sausage. This came with a matching bento box with two salmon onigiri, tamagoyaki and sausage flowers, a couple of the aforementioned strawberries, and an extra stuffed red pepper.
But it wasn’t just bento I made within the first four months of this year. Sometime in February, I made Pho Hai San (Vietnamese seafood pho) with lots of basil and a sprinkling of lemon. A week before I made the Hello Kitty bento, I decided to try cooking okonomiyaki. I was lucky enough to find nagaimo at nearby New Hatchin, one of my go-to Japanese grocery stores along with Yamazaki in Little Tokyo. Slathered in homemade sauce (no okono sauce was in stock at that time), it has a layer of strips of bacon on top, and is sprinkled with aonori and katsuobushi.
So there, achievement unlocked! I’ve been cooking whenever I feel like it during painting breaks these days or when I’m not training, which is a huge and rewarding accomplishment for me. As for surfing and swimming, we’ll see about that on June. But for now, I’m taking my bento making seriously.
Addendum: I’ve been asked a lot of times where I get my bento boxes. The answer — Daiso. They have bento boxes in all shapes and sizes for just Php 80. It’s also where I bought my veggie cutters and tamago non-stick skillet. If you’re lucky, you might find oddly-shaped nori punchers and onigiri molds in there as well (although I would encourage getting creative in shaping rice balls yourself).