Beyond the boring sambo: no-cook packed lunches to beat back-to-office blues

Noodles, tortillas and curry doughnuts are among the many ideas you could try

Bento box: pair a vegetable of your choice with cold noodles and, just before you eat, pour a dressing over it and toss. Photograph: iStock

Bento box: pair a vegetable of your choice with cold noodles and, just before you eat, pour a dressing over it and toss. Photograph: iStock

 

If my office fridge, microwave and kettle are out of bounds thanks to Covid, what can I look to for a tasty packed lunch? I’m already lugging a Thermos of tea, so nothing that needs to live in another weighty flask. – Fred

It’s hard enough navigating the many pitfalls of the packed lunch, but remove the ability to heat or chill it, and no one would blame Fred for hotfooting it to his nearest deli. Meat and fish, say, don’t take kindly to sitting in a sweaty sandwich bag for hours on end, so it’s wise to keep things veggie.

For this culinary challenge, use your noodle. Chef Tim Anderson, whose new book, Your Home Izakaya, is published in October, takes soba or udon as the base of his bento. “Cook the noodles, then run them under cold water and dress in a little neutral oil.” The key is to keep the dressing (for Anderson, that means equal parts soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar, with onion and ginger blended in to thicken) on the side.

Anna Tobias, of Café Deco in London, puts “cucumber, carrots, boiled peas or whatever veg you want in a container with the cold noodles, then, just before you eat, pour over the dressing and toss”. Anderson says other good additions include spinach and crushed sesame, green beans with ponzu, pickles, or a rolled omelette.

Spanakopita: ‘Filo pies are really good cold.’ Photograph: iStock
Spanakopita: ‘Filo pies are really good cold.’ Photograph: iStock

Speaking of eggs, tortillas are another Tobias go-to. “I’m a purist, so I usually go for onion, potato and egg, but you could add any number of other things from peppers to peas.” Eat as is, with salad or sandwiched. And if sandwiches are more your bag, it’s worth thinking outside the box. “At this time of year, I like tomato sandwiches, sometimes with ricotta,” says Missy Flynn, co-founder alongside Gabriel Pryce of Bodega Rita’s in London. “Remember, a sandwich doesn’t have to start off as a sandwich.” Put chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs, olive oil and salt in a container and grab a fresh roll on your way to work. “By lunchtime, the tomatoes will be soft and seasoned, so tear the roll in half, pile them in and use the oil and tomato water as a dipping sauce.”

Leftovers are another of life’s great pleasures and, happily, Tobias says, “filo pies are really good cold”, so stash slices of spanakopita in your bag. If leftover curry is up for grabs, Anderson makes curry pan – a savoury doughnut. Yes, it’s a bit of a faff (hello, Sunday baking project), but it’s delicious eaten at room temperature, so negates the fridge/microwave problem. “Make a basic doughnut dough, roll into baseball-sized balls, flatten, then put a good spoonful of Japanese curry in the middle.” Fold over the dough, seal and chill, brush with egg wash, roll in panko and prove until nearly doubled in size, then fry or bake.

Perhaps the simplest solution, however, is to look to vegetable dishes that are traditionally eaten at room temperature (think ratatouille or Italian roast veg), though they won’t quite cut it come autumn, so Fred may then have to bite the bullet and invest in a second flask (sorry). As food columnist Ravinder Bhogal says: “They’re excellent at keeping soups, dals, pasta, leftover curries and stews hot, and at providing a warm, comforting hug when the back-to-office blues hit.” – Guardian

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