Fascinating Makunouchi Bento (Between-Act Bento)

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Fascinating Makunouchi Bento (Between-Act Bento)

Makunouchi Bento (makuno-uchi bent) is a Japanese term that translates as Between-Act Bento. As one might expect, they have something to do with theatre performances, having been served during Noh and Jabuki “behind the curtain” theatre acts during the Edo era (1603-1867).

You were served a wonderful two-section lunch to keep you busy while you waited for the next performance, and the food varied based 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 Plum and Chestnut Rice.

Many Japanese recipe books were published during the time covering detailed instructions on preparing and decorating Makunouchi bento boxes for particles and celebrational events.

This type of bento box 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 Caterers prepare the meals packed into these, and they were originally made available in Kabuki theatres as meal servings for members of the audience or the cast members.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

Makunouchi Bento History

In Japan, dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867), Makunouchi Bento “between act bento” were sold in tea houses “Shibai” located in theatres. Patrons watching Noh and Kabuki (Japanese drama performed by male actors) 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 wooden 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 onigiri 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 Tamagoyaki 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 which is intended to entertain travellers on their long journeys, they were later called ekiben bento or train station bento.

Patrons Watching Noh And Kabuki
Patrons watching Noh and Kabuki
Japanese Drama Performed By Male Actors
Japanese drama performed by male actors
Makunouchi Bento Patrons
Makunouchi Bento Patrons

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