About Bento Boxes In Japan, All You Need to KnowKatachiware Japanese Style Tableware
Bento boxes in Japanese culture are associated with a healthy meal on the go that originated many 400 years ago. Though the midday meal choices are endless, the bento box still remains a favourite mode to relish the lunch meal for a large section of the population.
The following article is an interesting brief that traces the origin of bento boxes in Japan, what goes into the making of the perfect bento, reasons for its popularity among all age groups and where they can be got in current times.
Table of Contents
Bento Boxes In Japan Contents
- What does a ’Bento’ mean?
- Tracing the origin of the Bento
- The material used in the making of the bento
- What does a Bento Talk about the Owner
- Varieties of Bento Boxes Available Today
- Where to Source Your Bento Box?
- What goes into the Packing of a Japanese Bento Lunch?
What does a ‘Bento’ mean?
The term bento can be traced to the Chinese Southern Song slang word ‘Biandang’ which means convenient. The term has come to symbolize the ideals and culture of Japan since the beginning of the 13th century. The bento in Japanese culture refers to a single portion meal that is neatly arranged in a box specially designed for the purpose. The bento food groups were a mix of carbs, proteins and vegetables. Carbs came from noodles or rice; proteins from fish or meat and vegetables normally came in a combination of cooked and pickled form.
The ease of use offered by the bento box and the well-balanced food contents make it a healthy lunch meal option for the working population as well as school going kids, helping to inject the right quantum of energy that is so needed at noontime. The convenience factor is obtained when you design the bento box in the right manner.
Tracing the Origin of the Bento Box
The term “bento” came into use much after the lunchbox was designed. The term used earlier was ‘Hoshi-ii’ which meant a dried meal; this was around 1185 during the beginning of the Kamakura Period. The meal was nothing fancy; it comprised of rice either boiled in water or in a simply dried form which had to be consumed in an as-is as-as-is state. as-is condition. The glamour was lent to the bento box as a condition. Glamour was lent to the bento as late as 1568, the period of Azuchi-Momoyama when the wooden lacquered boxes that we are so familiar with today came into existence.
Bento boxes in Japan became synonymous with everyday meals during the Edo period (1603-1867) with the contents differing depending upon the social class of the user and his means of livelihood. The food fare included in the koshin bento (waist bento) carried by travellers and visitors was normally rice-balls enclosed in bamboo leaves. Varied food varieties used to be a part of bentos carried for flower viewing parties known as ‘hanami’.
The twentieth century ushered in microwaveable bentos such as the konbini bento, ekiben and hokaben which respectively meant convenience store-bought bento, train station bento and take-out bento. The material used in the making of the bento today is plastic and aluminium.
The material used in the making of the bento and how it changed over the years
Before the bentos came to be mass-produced it was wood that went into the making of the bento boxes. The allure of hand-carved, lacquered and well-crafted boxes is something that cannot be found in today’s bento. The greater the effort poured into the box by the artisans, the greater was its cost. Two excellent examples that showcase the lavish work of the artisans are housed in the Shinjuku Historical Museum. One which is tower-shaped is almost a hundred years old and contains a beautiful gold pattern in fine lacquer. The other; a 19th-century piece has an unusual shape of a gourd and holds a drinks container, it is a bento that will add tons to the fun of a party in the park!
Today, the world’s production of the bento box largely comes from the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan. Bentos are mass-produced with the aid of moulds with original designs being fitted onto each piece. A specialized paint gun helps in doing the ornamentation work on the plastic bento; however, for more detailed patterns, screen printing is used as the best option. Sharp borders, circular or flat boxes can be exquisitely embossed with the help of stencils. Packing is done by hand after which the boxes are shipped across the globe, making lunch a convenient affair for all.
However, the tradition of making a lacquered bento is still followed by craftsmen of Ikawa, a small village in Shizuoka prefecture. Several months go into the completion of the bento called the lkawamempa. The process starts with the shaping and drying of the Japanese cypress which is followed by applying at least three coats of lacquer; a mix of persimmon powder and red iron dioxide. The process is time-consuming and tedious for sure but the resultant output is definitely worth waiting for! Nothing can match the rich gloss of the bento; a lunch box fit for a king!
Plastic is by and large the material that goes into the making of the bento in today’s times though there are several takers for the more eco-friendly option which is bamboo and wood bento boxes. The wood bento known as Maruge-wappa uses fine sheets of cypress or cedar which are bent and rounded to form the lunch box. The natural sheen of the wood is retained and the bento box which looks akin to traditional lacquerware is a perfect lunchbox option for a casual meal on a weekday.
The wicker bento which is known as Ajiro consists of bamboo slivers woven into the shape of baskets. Using them gives you the feel of a Ghibli animation protagonist.
What does a Bento Talk about the Owner?
In Japan, the bento box is an integral part of a child’s early years in school and talks a great deal about the social position of his family and life at home. Food presentation holds a place of high importance in every Japanese meal and hence a lot of care goes into the preparation of the bento box. In fact, mothers of school-going children set aside time to pack the most creative and colourful bento for their child’s lunch meal at school. Most of the prep work is, therefore, done the earlier night to make the bento packing an easier task the following day.
What are the Varieties of Bento Boxes Available Today
A wide array of bento boxes is available to satisfy the palate of every finicky eater as well as to suit the demands of specific occasions. We have listed the main types below:
One of the most commonly used is the Makunouchi bento box which comprises two sections. One side is meant for the main dish which is normally a rice dish while the adjoining section is meant for varied kinds of side dishes prepared and packed to add a colour boost to the bento. This kind of box is easily available in department or convenience stores.
There are types of bento boxes in Japan that are meant for a family get together or a picnic setting and this is called the Koraku bento. Whether it is viewing the cherry blossoms or just refreshing in the park, the box is large to suffice a bigger crowd and is normally used during the end of March and the beginning of April. The box comprises traditional Japanese food fare that is made from ingredients typical to the specific season.
One of the elaborate varieties of the Koraku bento is normally visible during the HinaMatsuri or the Doll Festival. This Picnic-Set bento comprises a set of Koraku type boxes arranged one above the other within an elaborate carrying frame. Other components include serving plates and sake bottles meant especially for use during travel. The box is meant to satiate your hunger pangs whilst you move around admiring the varied doll displays.
Another bento used during festive occasions is the Jubako Bento Boxes which are similar to the multi-tiered Koraku bento, though the use of this type dates back to the beginning of the 18th century. The boxes have a glossy gold sheen and depict scenes about dressing rooms and nature which is visible when arranged one above the other. The lunch box acts as a convenient model to carry food for all without occupying space.
Aisai (Love) bento boxes in Japan
Aisai bento is named so as a lot of love and care goes into its preparation. Made by a spouse the food contents are very appetising specially crafted delights and have loving messages engraved on them in furikake. The box is an excellent model to offer pleasant surprises for your significant other at lunchtime.
Chara-ben & Oekaki-ben
Chara-ben which stands for character bento and Oekaki-ben which means picture bento are two themed bentos that make lunchtimes interesting for kids and fans of anime characters. The bentos which pack food contents in the shape of trending anime characters and pop icons make the lunch meal highly interesting and a much to wait for an event for finicky eaters. A lot of creativity and effort goes into the creation of the characters, so much so that it tugs your heartstrings when you eat them for lunch.
Travel Bento Boxes in Japan
Tourists or visitors to Japan can avail of soraben or ekiben to satisfy their hunger pangs while sight-seeing the country. These are lunch box meals and translated as sky-bento or station bento respectively. They comprise local ingredients and showcase some of the best food preparations typical to various areas.
Where to Source Your Bento Box?
Various outlets sell bento boxes in Japan along with accessories in a wide array of designs and shapes. Some shops which are relevant in this context include names like Loft, Muji, Daiso and each of them offer bentos to suit the budget pockets as well as high-end clients. The designs are pleasing to the eye, the material is sturdy and the boxes are meant to last for the entire year of use. Customized accessories are available.
For those not residing in Japan, the boxes can be sourced from Amazon. The boxes come with varied features to suit the needs of its diverse customer base. Multi-tiered boxes with customized soup bowls, boxes that are microwave and dishwasher safe, boxes with matching carry bags, Eco-friendly handmade boxes are a few examples of the models that can be easily sourced from Amazon.
What goes into the Packing of a Japanese Bento Lunch?
The bento preparation is based on some common principles irrespective of the make of the box.
Food Types: The base of bento boxes in Japan are divided into sections and is supposed to hold four bento food groups which include carbohydrates, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Carbs account for a major portion of the total food content followed by proteins with fruits and vegetables accounting for a minimum proportion. One rule that is not meant to be forgotten is to include a minimum of one colourful dish as a part of the bento content. The colours can range from orange, red, green, yellow, black or white.
Textures & Flavors: The food contents of Bento Boxes In Japan offer an explosion of flavours and textures and every bite provides a unique eating experience.
Tight Packing is essential: The contents of the bento are packed tight so that movement of food items is prevented. Bento accessories such as silicone cups or dividers are also used to ensure the food contents remain in specific sections and the artistically arranged food items are not disturbed in any way.
Cooling before packing is a must: Cooling of the food content is a big must before they get packed into the bento as this ensures the food remains safe to be eaten during lunchtimes. Food dishes that go into the bento are chosen in such a way that they taste good even when eaten cold.
Importance of bento accessories: Bento accessories play an important role when it comes to packing a fine bento. These are very convenient as they help to save considerable time in your efforts to pack a visually appealing bento. Moreover, these are available for reasonable prices. If you want to go traditional with your bento then you can opt for furoshiki, a fine Japanese wrapping cloth for your bento.
Peek into Some Japanese Bento Classics
Today, the use of bento is not limited to Japan; it has become a global favourite of every individual who wishes to stretch his creativity to pack a tempting, nutritious lunch meal while on the go. Nevertheless, a mention has to be made of some Japanese bento classics that will remain all-time favourites for years to come. A few names that come to mind in this context include the Tamagoyaki, which is a rolled omelette and a common feature of most bentos in Japan; nori bento which includes tamagoyaki alongside grilled salmon; Tako-san wiener, another food dish that is a winner among young and old alike.
Summarising Bento Boxes In Japan
Bento Boxes in Japanese society offers a convenient mode for enhancing the nutritional content and visual appeal of your lunch meal. If you are unable to make your own bento the options for buying a ready-made bento are plenty in Japan and they come in varied flavours and price ranges. Convenience stores like 7/11 or Lawsons are very useful in this context. Most of the stores offer varied store specific meals which besides including traditional Japanese food classics also offer Western alternatives. Read more about the Bento Box History.