Matthew Amster-Burton's 10-Minute Japanese-Inspired School Lunch

Quick Lunches From the Experts

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Are you looking for some fresh ideas for lunches you can pull together on busy weekday mornings? So are we — which is why we are turning to the experts this week, asking chefs and food writers for their favorite 10-minute lunches on the go. Today writer, father and co-host of the Spilled Milk podcast Matthew Amster-Burton talks about why Japanese rice balls should be your new lunchbox staple, and shares a helpful how-to video for making them at home.

If you only had 10 minutes in the morning to pack a great school lunch, what would you make?

My go-to lunch would unquestionably be onigiri (Japanese rice balls). They need to be made with hot rice, so putting them together in ten minutes requires a rice cooker humming away with fragrant contents. But that's easy: most rice cookers will keep rice warm safely for hours, and some have a timer function to start it cooking in time for breakfast, like a coffee maker.

Great fillings: Leftover flaked salmon; umeboshi (pickled apricot); leftover bulgogi or other strongly flavored meat (taco meat would be great and would bring to mind Okinawan taco rice); marinated tofu; stewed seaweed (kombu or nori tsukudani).

Send nori along for wrapping the rice ball, packaged separately so it doesn't get soggy. It's not at all traditional, but I find that Korean seasoned seaweed snacks (now sold at Trader Joe's) are great for wrapping onigiri. I love the hint of toasted sesame oil and crunchy grains of salt.

Onigiri is really a satisfying meal in itself, but I'd also send along a piece of fruit and a bit of Japanese candy: Hi-Chew (mango is my favorite flavor, and you can often find it at 7-Eleven), Choco Baby, or a Japanese Kit Kat.

Any tips for making onigiri?

Making onigiri is really easy. The old-school macho Japanese granny way to do it is to burn your slightly wet hands with hot rice, but using a mold or plastic wrap is fine. Molly Wizenberg and I devoted an episode of Spilled Milk to them.

And here's a video of Molly showing how easy it is to make one:


What is your best advice for making lunches that appeal to kids?

Don't try too hard. My daughter Iris's favorite part of her lunch is the little stick-figure cartoon I put in every day. I believe in showing love through food, but the realities of the school lunch period make it very hard to get the message across: kids don't have a lot of time, and they want to spend it catching up with each other, not thinking about food. Not how I'd prefer to spend my lunch hour, but I'm not nine years old.

Thank you, Matthew!

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More from Matthew Amster-Burton:

→ Read his newest book: Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo, available on Amazon
→ Check out his website: Roots and Grubs
→ Listen to his podcast: Spilled Milk

(Images: Salmon and Black Sesame Onigiri/Anjali Prasertong; Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Quick Lunches From the Experts

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