As it’s subtitle promises, JapanEasy Bowls & Bento: Simple and Satisfying Japanese Recipes for All Day, Every Day by Tim Anderson is all about quick, easy and absolutely delicious recipes that can be enjoyed for any meal of the day.
Regular readers will know how excited we get about new Tim Anderson cookbooks (see our reviews of Your Home Izakaya, JapanEasy, and Vegan Japaneasy). JapanEasy Bowls & Bento is no exception, packing into its pages another round of accurate, achievable, straightforward and tasty recipes, further insight into Japanese cuisine and culture, and more of Tim’s inimitable humour and wit.
When Tim explains (in the Preface) his initial suggestions for the title of this book, the concept becomes even clearer. First, he proposed ‘Your Home Combini’ (a riff on Your Home Izakaya, but this time focusing on the fresh, exciting and hugely varied food sold in Japanese convenience stores) and then Bento, Breakfast & Bowls (which conveys the different ways recipes in the book can be used). A sharp slice from the editor’s knife reduced the latter into the snappier Bowls & Bento.
Bowls & Bento is all about a clever mix-and-match approach – a “strategy guide”, as Tim calls it, to dishes that can be combined in many different ways to create an infinite variety of meals. Most recipes in the book can be made ahead and eaten later, some cold and others reheated. Many even improve from a day or two in the fridge, making it even easier to create meals that have a spoonful of this, a portion of that, and a little bit of the other.
The heart of the book is based on the idea of rice with one or more things around (or on) it. Sometimes the rice is served with one big thing, and at other times, an assortment of little things is assembled. At the core of a typical Japanese meal is the triangle of rice, pickles and soup; Tim references Atsuko Ikeda’s Japanese Kitchen as a great resource about this way of eating.
How does Tim make sense of the endless way that dishes can be combined, so that the reader is not overwhelmed? By categorising the recipes into eight groups – A (rice), B (pickles), C (soup), D (small sides), E (big sides), F (rice bowl toppings), G (one-dish dinners), and H (bread and pastries). Next comes a double-page spread of different ways to combine dishes from these categories to create a variety of meals including “a classic, healthy Japanese breakfast”, “a simple but filling bento“, “a minimum effort maximum wow-factor dinner“, “something to shovel into your mouth while binge-watching… oh let’s say Bojack Horseman because I think more people should watch Bojack Horseman. (It’s really good!)“, amongst others.
Other guidance before the recipe chapters includes useful equipment for Your Home Conbini Kitchen, including a microwave, a good rice cooker and a selection of “the right crockery”. There’s a passage here on refrigerator and pantry staples, and drinks. And finally, in Read These Notes Before Cooking, Tim shares important tips such as which kinds of soy sauce, rice, vinegar and salt to use, and that most recipes can be scaled up or down, unless they specifically mention otherwise.
Recipes are organised into four chapters: in the first chapter are A (rice), B (pickles), C (soup); chapter 2 is dedicated to D (small sides), chapter 3 covers E (big sides), F (rice bowl toppings), G (one-dish dinners), and lastly all the H (bread and pastries) are in chapter 4.
If you fancy using the recipes in the book to create bento (box-packed meals) – either for simple packed lunches or for elaborate arrangements like the osechi bento created to celebrate the new year – a tutorial on Bento Basics features at the start of chapter 2. As well as a grounding in how bento are enjoyed in Japan, this section gives you a few different ideas on how you can assemble your own – perhaps you want to spread your topping(s) over a layer of rice, or would you prefer to separate everything using a bento box with multiple compartments or by using lettuce leaves or reusable dividers inside your box? These days you can buy a wide range of bento boxes online, including lovely two- and three-tier ones that make mealtimes feel like you are unwrapping a wonderful gift!
The artwork throughout the book is a delight of bright colours and bold graphics; the graphic design work dovetails perfectly with these perky illustrations. Just flicking through the book lifts your spirits (though that may also be ascribed to my excitement about the glorious food!)
Food photography combines the styling skills of Aya Nishimura (who’s book Japanese Food Made Easy we are a big fan of) and the photography expertise of Laura Edwards, who’s worked on several of Tim’s books. Like the illustrated artwork, the photography is light, bright and fun with lots of colour from beautiful crockery, cutlery and kitchen paraphernalia sat on a variety of work surfaces, table cloths and place mats. One detail I particularly like is the way that bowls of food still carry the tidemark of oils and juices around their sides, instead of being wiped clean in that cheffy way we see on food TV. These are the things that show me this is real, home-made food that we can realistically recreate ourselves. My only minor negative is that I wish there were photos for every recipe, though that’s a very personal lament – I devour recipe books visually as much as textually.
At the top outer corner of every recipe page are the labels that tell you which category the recipe fits into – note that many recipes are labelled for two or more categories, such as Smoked Salmon and Seaweed Rice (A and G), and Pork Belly Bowl with Salted Leek Relish (D, E, F and G). This really is a very versatile collection.
I love that recipe names are given in English, in romaji (Japanese transliterated into the roman alphabet) and in Japanese script. The recipe summary, which sits directly above the method, gives (often humorous) insight into the recipe, either its background for more traditional dishes, or how Tim came up with the idea for some of his more unusual riffs on classic recipes. Ingredients are listed with both metric and imperial measures, and Tim provides both English and American names for many ingredients such as aubergine / eggplant, cornflour / cornstarch, and spring onion / scallion. We are two countries separated by one language, as they say! Judiciously pared back yet sufficiently detailed to follow with ease, recipe instructions are presented in a paragraph, rather than as distinct numbered steps.
After the four recipe chapters are Fundamentals (which gives recipes for Dashi, Tsuyu, Master Ponzu, Japanese Brown Sauce and Japanese Mayo), a Glossary (which provides short but helpful descriptions of 39 key ingredients), and a Resources page (where Tim recommends other books that are useful to learn more about the kind of day-to-day food featured in Bowls & Bento, as well as a list of Instagram accounts that share great recipes and inspiration).
Right at the end is an excellent Index – a full five pages allow for recipes to be listed under English language and Japanese romaji ingredient names, making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.
The first few recipes we cooked were two rice bowl toppings, and a one-dish dinner, each a great choice for a quick lunch or dinner during the working week.
First, the Gyoza-Filling Rice Bowl, a clever alternative to making home-made gyoza – the fiddly wrapping, even if you’re skilled and quick, is nonetheless time consuming – by way of creating a rice topping that mimics a typical pork and cabbage gyoza filling. We had Savoy cabbage to use up, which worked well in place of Chinese leaf. So good!
Next, the frankly revelatory Microwaved Mabo Aubergine. Mabo aubergine is a popular Japanese riff on the famous Chinese dish of mapo beancurd, replacing the beancurd with soft, silky aubergine. Like beancurd, aubergine takes on flavours well and pairs beautifully with minced pork and the punchy sauce ingredients of this recipe. The clever trick here is the use of a microwave to not only speed up the cooking of the aubergine (it being a vegetable that is dire when under-cooked) but to also do away with the need for copious amounts of oil – a common feature of traditional aubergine cooking techniques. The entire dish is crazy quick to make and ridiculously good. We made it twice in two days, because we couldn’t stop thinking about it, and it’s already a regular in our household. And of course, you can make it vegan by switching out the minced pork for a vegan alternative.
Next, Smoked Salmon and Seaweed Rice, a one-dish dinner. Inspired by one of Tim’s favourite varieties of onigiri (rice balls), it substitutes fresh salmon with hot smoked, and pairs the smoky fish with dried wakame (kelp seaweed), aonori (dried green laver seaweed), fresh ginger and sesame seeds, plus some store cupboard staples including mirin, soy sauce, dashi powder and sesame oil. It’s another very satisfying and tasty dish that is low effort and quick to pull together.
On the list to make soon are Smoky Pickled Daikon and Miso Pickled Garlic (both from B – pickles), Homemade Instant Miso Soup (from C – soup), Dashimaki Tamago (rolled omelette), Shoyu Butter Squash and Edamame Croquettes, Microwaved Runner Beans with Yuzu Ginger Miso, Miso-Maple Salmon, and Mackerel Simmered with Onions and Ginger (all from D – small sides), Sausage and Egg ‘McDonburi’, Steak Bowl with Warishita Butter Sauce, and Crab and Spinach Doria, and Cheesy Curry Hotpot Udon (from F – rice bowl toppings and/ or G – one dish dinners), and Hot Dog Rolls (from H – bread and pastries).
Whether you’d like to create a delicious Japanese breakfast spread, pull together an enticing bento box lunch, or make a quick and flavoursome topping to enjoy with rice, JapanEasy Bowls & Bento is full of recipes you need. Like all Tim Anderson books, the recipes work exactly as written, and they are mouth-wateringly marvellous to eat; this is simple, easy and tasty Japanese cooking at its best.
Recipes from JapanEasy Bowls & Bento
We have permission from Hardie Grant to share these three fantastic recipes with you from the book:
Kavey Eats received a review copy of JapanEasy Bowls & Bento by Tim Anderson from publishers Hardie Grant. Book photography by Laura Edwards.