Makunouchi Bento

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Makunouchi Bento

Makunouchi Bento translates into Between-Act Bento. As you can imagine, they have something to do with theatre performances, served during Noh and Jabuki “between the curtain” theatre performances dating back to the Edo period 1603-1867. While waiting for the next act, you were served with a lovely two-section meal to keep you occupied, and ingredients varied depending on the season and the act.

Prepared by a caterer, the two-section meals typically included a rice dish while the other side had small seasonal side dishes including Salmon, Pumpkin, Chicken, Rice with a Plum and Chestnut Rice. Many recipe books were published during this time, covering detailed instructions on preparing and decorating Makunouchi bento boxes.

This type of boxes is readily found on shelves of departmental stores, supermarkets etc. Sections are provided inside for holding rice dishes on the one hand and several side dishes on the other. Caterers prepare the meals packed into these, and they were originally made available in Kabuki theatres as meal servings for members of the audience or the cast members.

Makunouchi Bento, Theater Scene Edo Period
Makunouchi Bento, Theater Scene Edo Period

Dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867), Makunouchi Bento (幕の内弁当) or “between act bento” boxes sold in tea houses “Shibai” located in theatres. Patrons watching Noh and Kabuki performances were entertained between acts with elaborately prepared makunouchi bento meals that included bite-sized portions that could easily be picked up with chopsticks. Maku (幕) represents curtain of theatres and Makunouchi (幕の内) implies the word “between acts”.

Traditionally Makunouchi Bento was served in tiered lacquered bento boxes which were shared amongst several patrons; the top tier typically consisted of several seasonal side dishes and the bottom were packed with barrel-shaped rice balls sprinkled with black sesame seeds and dried seaweed or tsukudani, small fish, shellfish, and konbu boiled in sweetened soy sauce. A varied assortment of accompanying dishes in small portions also included food from both the sea and mountains, broiled fish, Japanese omelette, sweet potatoes, kamaboko or fish sausage, deep-fried foods and Japanese pickles and burdock.

At the time, Makunouchi bento became so popular that many how-to cookbooks were published, including highly detailed images and instructions on how to cook, wrap, and decorate meals served in bento intended for people who were preparing bento for cherry blossom viewing celebrations.

From the Meiji period onward, Makunouchi become a common custom which eventually led to them being sold at convenience stores in train stations. Still sold as Makunouchi bento, they were later called ekiben bento or train station bento.

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