Cooking: Super Simple Kyara-Ben (Character Bento) Making for Beginners
Nowadays, you see the extremely skilled works of kyara-ben, character bento made by mothers of kindergarteners, posted all over Facebook and Instagram. You may have given up saying “something like this can only be made by the Japanese…” Actually, as long as you have the right tools and the inspiration, kyara-ben is quite easy to make. First learn how to make an easy kyara-ben. Once you do so, you can add your own arrangements to make your own original kyara-ben.
Step 1: Getting the Necessary Ingredients
The basic ingredients that are needed to shape a kyara/character are ham, carrots, sliced cheese, yaki-nori (sheets of seaweed), black sesame, egg and rice. Ham and carrots can be used for cheeks on characters or used in the shape of hearts; sliced cheese can be used to show the white parts of a character or can be used as cut-out stars. Yaki-nori and black sesame can be used to make facial expressions by using them on eyes or on the mouth. The egg can be cooked into a thin sheet to use for yellow-colored parts of characters. These are ingredients that can be used for any kyara-ben, so it is good to have them stocked in your refrigerator.
The food item that works to glue or stick these separate ingredients together is mayonnaise. This is also a necessary ingredient so make sure you’re not out of mayonnaise.
Another important component of kyara-ben is the vivid coloring. Cherry tomatoes, broccoli, snow peas, cherries, paprika… make sure to have colorful food items ready. If you boil some extra broccoli and keep them stocked frozen in the freezer, it’s readily available when you need to use them.
Step 2: Prepare the Necessary Tools
The important point to making kyara-ben is how closely you can make it resemble the character. In doing so, it is important to get the color and shape as accurate as possible. The 3 must haves that you want to prepare are deco-furikake (sprinkled seasoning with delicious flavors like salmon), cut-out shapes (cookie cutters work too – shapes used often are stars, hearts and circles), and small scissors to cut the sheets of seaweed. Additionally, if you can get them, it’s very helpful to have small tweezers to pick up small cut out pieces of seaweed, seaweed hole-punch that lets you cut out eyes or mouth shapes without having to use scissors, and rice-molds that let you easily shape figures like bears and cats.
To make your kyara-ben even cuter, little toothpicks and colorful silicone cups shaped like animals or stars to match the theme of your bento make for good accents.
You can get all of these at 100 Yen shops like Daiso or Seria so try to check them out if you are ever in Japan.
Step 3: Make a Simple Main Dish that is Filling
It is also important in a kyara-ben that the bento contains an appealing dish. We saw some tofu-hamburg-steak mix and chicken & herb sauté mix at the 100 Yen shop so we got that along with the other things.
For the tofu hamburg, you use 400 grams of firm/momen tofu wrapped in a paper towel and heated in the microwave for 1 minute, for the herb sauté you use 300 grams of chicken thigh meat cut in bite size pieces. For either dish you add the mix and heat until completely cooked. It is so simple that you don’t even have to read the instructions on the back.
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Meatballs, a favorite in bento dishes is easy to make too. Use 200 grams of ground meat, 1/2 an onion, 1 egg, mix in with some bread crumbs and salt and pepper. Shape into balls and sprinkle with starch. Heat with a mixture of 100 grams of water, 3 tablespoons of ketchup, 1 tablespoon of sauce, 1 teaspoon of soy sauce in a frying pan over medium heat. It’s tastier than a frozen meal so it’s recommended.
Step 4: Simple Shaping
Once you have the above ingredients and tools ready, all you have to do is to make the shapes of characters with attention to color coordination. Here we have made a “Frozen” bento in the Disney Tsum Tsum version. If you draw out a simple illustration of the character before you get to work on the bento, it is easier to envision how it should turn out when it’s complete.
Elsa and Anna’s faces are colored using pink and yellow deco-furikake, made into oval shaped rice balls then placed in silicone cups. A small knife is used to cut pieces of sliced cheese and thin-cooked egg and made into the hair. The thinly cooked egg is easy to break so it is good to use a thin and sharp knife for this process. The sheet of seaweed is cut out with the scissors in the shapes of eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows. For the cheeks, we used ketchup.
Once the main part of the task is complete, we put the main dishes such as meatballs or tofu hamburg into silicone cups; use cut-out shapes to cut out pieces of ham, carrot and cheese into stars or sparkly shapes and position them as you like. Using cherry tomatoes and cherries add more color.
This time, we made another animal themed kyara-ben. This one uses rice colored with deco-furikake, packed in a rice-mold then taken out and placed in the bento-box. It was then completed by attaching sesame and cut-out pieces of ham and cheese using mayonnaise.
If you have the main dish or some boiled vegetables stocked and ready for use, all you have to do is the decorating task which should take no longer than 20 minutes even to the unpracticed kyara-ben chef.
So how was it? Although kyara-ben is seemingly difficult, as long as you have the proper tools and ingredients, the shaping itself is not so difficult. It can be nice to envision your children’s happy faces while you are making it, or it’s also fun to make it as a hobby, just like this writer did. We encourage you to mix in your own ideas and make your one and only kyara-ben. Perhaps there isn’t a custom of making bento in countries outside of Japan, but it sure would be fun if kyara-ben spreads around the world for us to see kyara-ben of popular characters from around the world!