With the way Shirley Wong, better known as Little Miss Bento, prepares her more-kawaii-than-yours bentos, you’d think she has been doing this her whole life. She effortlessly prepares all the components of a Christmas-themed bento while fielding an interview and photoshoot, but she’s only been doing this full time for a year. She’s already amassed a cult following on Instagram, done numerous TV shows, and has her own series of cookbooks showing people how to create kawaii versions of everything from Japanese-style bread to bento. Step into her home and it’s clear that “playing with her food” is more than a hobby, it’s an obsession. Besides cute plushies and figurines of various cartoon characters, the self-described food artist’s bento-making studio cum home is stocked-full of food-styling equipment and props: from food-grade paints to boxes overflowing with craft tools, and even custom-made branding irons (for tamagoyaki, or wagashi).
Hi Shirley! Can you tell us a little about your bento-making journey?
I never expected myself to go down this route! I actually used to do dance full time at a dance company. I then moved to a corporate job, and the adjusting was a difficult period for me, so I started out making bentos or myself as a way to cheer myself up — this was about 6 years ago. I used to wake up at 6am in the morning to prepare the bentos, and took photos of it before I left for work. A colleague suggested that I start a blog about my daily packed meals and here we are!
What’s the biggest change in your life ever since you’ve started being Little Miss Bento full-time?
I get a more sleep! My schedule is more flexible now that I’m not working a nine to five. I am also running around a lot more. I travel a lot to do classes both in Singapore and overseas, and I even have some people coming in from overseas to learn.
Your character bentos and bakes are so cute! Were you always artsy?
I would say so. I studied art in college, and I have a background in the performing arts. It helps to be able to sketch out the designs beforehand too.
What advice would you give all the aspiring bento-makers who can’t draw to save their lives?
It’s really not that difficult! There are a lot of tools out there that can help, like cutters and moulds that can puch out shapes to put together. People also tend to make the mistake of trying something too complicated from the start — if you do too many things in one lunch box it’ll look very messy. Just focus on one design.
Do you have a favourite character?
This is a very hard question! (laughs) I like the more trendy and cute ones. Although some of them have been around for some time and are still very popular — like Totoro (from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro) and Hello Kitty.
The centrepiece of this festive boxed lunch is a super-cute santa and snowman moulded from rice. The side dishes can be anything you like, as long as there’s a good balance of colours and textures! Here, Wong’s using tamagoyaki, sauteed pork loin, and blanched broccoli.
For the tamagoyaki
1tsp shiro shoyu
- Mix all the ingredients well, and put an oiled, non-stick tamagoyaki pan on medium heat.
- Start by pouring a thin layer of the egg mixture in your tamagoyaki pan, folding it up towards one end once the egg has set.
- Pour another layer of egg into the pan, and repeat the previous step, folding the omelette in the opposite direction. Repeat until you have used up all the egg mixture and you’re left with a rectangular block of egg.
- Trim the sides of the tamagoyaki and slice into blocks.
For the santa and snowman:
1 bowl cooked Japanese rice (Wong suggests Japonica, soaked for 30 minutes and cooked with mineral or filtered water in a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 1⅓ – 1½ cups water. You can also add a small sheet of kombu for a hint of umami)
2 Imitation crab sticks, the kind with a red layer
Ground sesame or sesame powder
One tiny piece of carrot
Note: you might need a few tries to get the shapes right, so prepare a little extra of all the ingredients.
- To build the rice santa, first color half the rice with the sesame powder until it’s a light beige. Form one 2cm, and one 9-cm ball or rice by placing a portion of rice in the centre of some cling film, and then twisting the cling film shut, squeezing the rice into a ball shape. This will be Santa’s nose and head.
- Make santa’s hat by removing the outer, red layer from the crab stick and wrapping it around a cone of rice. Next, make another 2cm rice ball with uncoloured rice. This will be the pom-pom on top of the hat.
- Add the hat to santa’s head, and spread a layer of uncoloured rice on the top and bottom parts of Santa’s head. This will be his beard and hair.
- To make the snowman, shape a smaller rice ball of 5cm for the head. To make the snowman’s scarf, take a small rectangle of the red layer of the crab stick and cut a slit about ⅓ way through one end. Twist the end and trim until it resembles a scarf.
- Quickly blanch a thin slice of carrot and cut a tiny triangle out for the snowman’s nose. For the eyes and mouths, use a hole puncher or a small pair of craft scissors to cut out the shapes from a piece of nori.
Arrange some of your greens like lettuce as a background before placing the rice Santa and snowman in the centre. Fill up all remaining gaps with the other side dishes.