This is the perfect road trip meal

When it comes to eating on the go, there are some schools of thought out there. Some pack pretzels, fruit, and lunchtime meat in a cooler with Tetris-like precision. Others prefer to roll the dice on street stalls and gas station burritos.

When the avid traveler and chef Marc Matsumoto is out and about, his favorite dishes are bentos – Japanese-style packed lunches that often contain combinations of rice, meat or tofu and vegetables. “If my trip included a lot of physical activity like hiking,” says Matsumoto, co-author of Ultimate Bento: Healthy, Delicious, and Affordable: 85 Mix-and-Match Bento Box Recipes and host of the Bento Expo at NHK World, “Me would pack a bento with a lot of protein and carbohydrates. ”

In Japan, the predominant form of transportation is by train, and the modern form of bento comes from Ekiben, which literally means station bento. “These were bentos that were sold by vendors at train stations across Japan for travelers looking for a meal on their trip,” says Matsumoto. “Bento” refers to the lunch box and the food, and there are entire online communities devoted to the art of making them.

In addition to being portable, bentos are eaten at room temperature and usually not refrigerated, making them perfect for your next road trip or camping adventure. “A typical Japanese bento box is about the size of an American butter packet,” says Matsumoto. “It may seem small, but the idea is to keep it compact so it can be easily taken with you when you are on the go.” Matsumoto estimates that the average bento box can hold at least a pound of food, which is around 600 to 1,000 Calories equals what makes them hearty enough to support you on a rigorous hike. A few of Matsumoto’s favorite meats are Loco Moco (burger patty with mushroom sauce) and Chicken Nanban (fried chicken with batter). You can buy the bento box container from any Asian grocery store or from Amazon.

Matsumoto gave Outside some tips on how to properly wrap a bento.

Keep it clean: Be sure to wash your hands, utensils, and lunch box thoroughly before packing up the food. “The more microbes you introduce in packaging, the more likely the food will spoil,” says Matsumoto. “For the same reason, you also want to use fresh ingredients that are not on the verge of expiration.”

Go boldly with flavors: Salt and acid can prevent spoilage, so the ingredients packed in a bento are usually flavorful. Rice mixed with rice vinegar and a pinch of salt makes a great base for any bento dish.

Reduce moisture: Bad microbes thrive in damp environments, so Matsumoto recommends avoiding watery sauces or wet ingredients. Just One Cookbook author Namiko Hirasawa Chen agrees, adding that since bentos are served at room temperature, “foods soaked in oily sauce will not work because the oil will set”.

Pack it tight: A properly assembled lunch box is compact enough to prevent its contents from slipping along the way. “You should be able to shake it gently and not have the food shifting all over the place,” says Matsumoto.

Use edible separators: “Nobody wants the taste of their fruit and their hearty food to be confused,” says Matsumoto, who suggests using green leaves like lettuce, radicchio, and kale to create partitions in the bento. “This keeps food you don’t want to touch separate and adds a pop of color,” he says. “You can also eat the separators if you want.”

Make it colorful: You want to whet your appetite when you open the bento box. “Having lots of colors in the bento not only makes it more appetizing, it also helps you have a good balance of micronutrients,” says Matsumoto.

Ready to start? Here are four of my favorite bento boxes to pack for your next trip.

Summer vegetable spring rolls

(Photo: Rachel Ng)

The beauty of fresh spring rolls lies in their versatility – you can use any of your favorite vegetables and proteins. The rice hulls can tear easily, so be careful not to overfill them.


  • 2 rice wraps 8.5 inches in diameter
  • Green leaf salad
  • Whole basil leaves
  • 1/4 carrot, julienne
  • 1/4 cucumber, julienne
  • 1/4 red pepper, julienned
  • 1/4 yellow bell pepper, juliennated

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)


Fill a shallow bowl with warm water. Dip the rice wrap in the water for a few seconds to soften it. Lay the casing flat on a cutting board. Place in the middle with lettuce, whole basil leaves, carrots, cucumber and bell pepper. Fold in the sides and roll the sleeve tight. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Cut into bite-sized portions and dip in a salad dressing of your choice.

Marinated mushroom maki with eggs, cucumber and crab sticks

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)

This maki contains flavorful marinated mushrooms and crunchy cucumber. Leftovers from sushi rice and mushrooms can be incorporated into other bento boxes.

Ingredients for sushi rice

  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 3 cups cooked short grain rice


Mix the rice vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Place the hot cooked rice in a large wooden salad bowl. Drizzle the vinegar mixture over the rice and stir with a rice paddle or large wooden spoon until the rice has cooled.

Ingredients for marinated mushrooms

  • 1 1/4 cup vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 6 to 8 shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed


In a medium saucepan, mix the stock, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. Add the shiitake mushrooms and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer until sauce has evaporated. Cut the mushrooms into thin slices.

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)

Ingredients for maki

  • 1 sheet of nori seaweed (approx. 7 by 8 inches)
  • Sushi rice
  • A simple egg omelette (cook in a pan, then cut into strips.)
  • Crab sticks
  • Cucumber, pitted and cut into strips
  • Marinated mushrooms, sliced


Place a thick kitchen towel on a cutting board. Cover the towel with plastic wrap and lay the nori sheet flat. The “rough” side of the nori should be facing up. Wet your hands, take a handful of sushi rice and gently place your hands on the nori sheet. Spread the rice over the entire nori sheet, leaving a half-inch rim on top. Place the omelette strips, crab sticks, cucumber and marinated mushrooms in the center of the tray. Using the kitchen towel as a guide, slowly roll the maki into a cylindrical shape. Cut immediately with a sharp, wet knife.

Japanese fried chicken

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)

One of the most popular additions to bento boxes is Japanese fried chicken, or karaage. This well-seasoned chicken tastes good straight out of the deep fryer or when cooled to room temperature. Pack it with mini rice balls, steamed broccoli, and cherry tomatoes.


  • 1 pound skinless chicken thighs, boneless, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 tablespoon of grated ginger
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of sake
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • Corn starch or potato starch
  • Rapeseed oil

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)


Place chicken in a ziploc bag. Add the ginger, garlic, sake, soy sauce and sugar. Seal the bag and shake it to distribute the spices evenly. Chill for at least four hours. Heat the oil in a deep pan to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the chicken with cornstarch. Fry the chicken in small portions for four to six minutes. Drain on a wire rack lined with kitchen paper.

Japanese croquettes

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)

If you’re looking for extra protein for this recipe, you can add ground beef or pork when cooking the onion. Drain the excess oil before mixing it with the mashed potatoes. Place the croquettes on a bed of rice and vegetables, or serve on lightly dressed, shredded cabbage.


  • 1 tablespoon plus 4 cups of vegetable or rapeseed oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 2 red-brown potatoes, boiled, pureed and seasoned with salt and pepper
  • Rapeseed oil
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups of panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

Food(Photo: Rachel Ng)


Heat a tablespoon of oil in a medium-sized pan. Add the diced onion. Fry over low heat until the moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. Add the onion mixture and butter to the mashed potatoes. Shape the mashed potatoes mixture into patties by hand and place on a small baking sheet. Cover with cling film and let the patties rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Heat the remaining oil in a deep pan to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn the meatballs in flour, then roll them in beaten eggs and then cover the meatballs with panko. Fry the meatballs until golden brown, about two to three minutes each time. Drain on a wire rack lined with kitchen paper. Alternatively, you can bake the patties in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.

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