WHETHER you're back to work or back to school, why succumb to the lure of fast food when you can feast on simple, fresh flavors packed at home. I don't have any figures but a lot of us seem to be bringing our lunch to work these days. There even seem to be some kids who prefer to take something recognisable from home for their school lunch that isn't a $10 note.

So it behoves us to take a closer look at lunch-box cuisine. The Japanese have been doing it for some time now, artfully combining something fried with something raw with something pickled with a bowl of rice, all in very cute compartmentalised TV trays.

The rest of the world, however, has never quite got the hang of the lunch box, settling for a meagre sliced ham sandwich, an out-of-season apple and a Tim Tam. The other problem is our insistence that we should be able to make all the week's lunches in one go and then freeze them. Practical, yes. Efficient, yes. Exciting and appetising, no.

Maybe we should rethink the packed lunch as a terrific opportunity to eat exactly what we want, instead of queueing for never-quite-satisfying take-aways. We can use it to balance the vagaries of our eating patterns - if we work late and are forced to eat out or gobble convenience foods most week nights, lunch can feed our body grains and pulses. If we eat meat at every evening meal, lunch can give us some of those five servings of fruit and vegetables we are meant to have each day.

The main rule is that if you wouldn't eat it on a plate, don't put it in a lunch box. Three hours in a plastic box is not going to improve anything, so you have to start with something pretty exciting that will survive the incarceration.

Go for big flavors at the height of their ripeness, and punchy contrasts - lemon with chicken, prosciutto with pears, lamb cutlets with fruity chutney. Reduce and intensify flavors before you pack them in your lunch box. Give halved tomatoes, eggplant, purple onions and beetroot a toss in olive oil and an hour in a moderate oven until their water content is reduced, thereby intensifying the flavor and making them less drippy to handle.

At this time of year, you'd be a bit silly to do anything to fruit other than give it a wash. The magic is in combining two fruits to give you a complementary experience: a passionfruit to cut open and empty over a peeled wedge of pawpaw; berries to eat with fresh ripe figs; rambutans, lychees and mango for a tropical fruit salad.

Or partner fruits with savory items to refresh both body and mind: fresh sliced nectarines with sweet ham, wedges of pear rolled in prosciutto; grapes with basil and goat cheese; blackberries or gooseberries with cold chicken or quail.

Lunchbox ideas
The following recipes are Asian by inspiration, because they share an ease of making, storing and eating that is lunch-box-friendly. Nor will they end up looking glumpy after three hours in a plastic box.The final trick with great lunch-box cuisine is to be easily bored: to ring the changes so often that even you don't know what you'll find when you open the lid at lunchtime.

20 ideas in a box

BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato) on Turkish bread

Herbed roast chicken with a celery, apple, walnut, mayo salad

Japanese cold noodle salad with seaweed

Crumbed lamb chops with tomato chutney and couscous salad

Raw vegetables with goat cheese dip and olives

Parmesan-crumbed schnitzel and caramelised onions

Pear, prosciutto and radishes

Goats cheese ricotta and char-grilled peppers on Turkish bread

Smoked trout and cucumber in a bagel

Grilled eggplant with parmesan cheese

Pasta salad with tuna and anchovies

Cold sausages with oven-roasted tomatoes on focaccia

Prawns with lemon pepper mayo

Smoked ham and crisp coleslaw

Hard-boiled eggs with smoked eel and baby potatoes

Ham with white bean and herb salad

Rare roast beef with pickled onions and cheddar cheese

Lemon chicken wings with mixed olives

Tomato, basil and bocconcini salad

Cold grilled salmon with lightly pickled cucumber rolls

ALT


Japanese chicken wings on sushi rice

Crisp-skinned chicken wings marinated in Japanese flavors and grilled until golden, sitting on a lunch-box bed of rice. Makes 12 portions.

INGREDIENTS

6 medium chicken wings

sea salt

knob of fresh ginger

4 tbsp sake

4 tbsp soy sauce

4 tbsp mirin

1 lemon, quartered

300g white rice, cooked

2 green (spring) onions, finely chopped

For rice:

 1 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp mirin

1 tsp sugar

1/2 tsp salt

METHOD
Wipe chicken wings dry. Cut off the wing tips and discard. Bend each wing until you can see the join, then cut through the join with a sharp knife or cleaver.

Rub each wing with sea salt. Peel ginger and grate. Mix grated ginger with sake, soy and mirin. Toss wings in marinade until well coated, cover with plastic and leave for 30 minutes.

Heat grill. Drain wings and grill on both sides until half-cooked, then remove from grill and dunk back in the marinade until well-coated. Grill again, until golden and tender, turning once or twice. Cool before packing into lunch box on a bed of rice, with green onions and wedges of lemon.

Note: Toss the cooling cooked rice in a sushi rice dressing of rice vinegar, mirin, sugar and salt, and allow to cool.

* This story originally appeared in Epicure in 1998.