A bento is a single portion lunch box very common in Japan. The container can have different compartments to better divide the dishes and can be disposable or reusable. They can be made of different materials and have different seizes. Hand-crafted bentos are also very popular.
Bentos are small and compact and can be carried anywhere. Thanks to their practical use, they are very popular among students and workers.
Bentos can be homemade, but they are also sold in stations, convenience stores, bento shops, and by street vendors. The price is normally very affordable.
The main feature of a bento is that it contains a complete, varied and balanced meal. The second main feature is that it has to be aesthetically pleasing and colorful.
A typical bento contains a rice dish, one or two main dishes, and one or two side dishes.
The rice portion can range from plain cooked rice, to Onigiri rice balls (rice balls filled with fish, meat or vegetables and usually wrapped with seaweed), to fried rice, to Omurice (an omelet made with fried rice), to Takikomi Gohan (short-grain rice cooked with vegetables, mushrooms, seafood or meat).
The main dishes include meat or fish, while as a side dish most people opt for vegetables. All ingredients have to be cut in small pieces in order to be easily eaten with chopsticks.
The seasoning is mandatory. Not only does it add colors and flavors to the lunch box, but it also helps to preserve the food for a longer time. For example, Umeboshi (dried salty Japanese apricots) and ginger have a particular antiseptic effect that make sure that the Bento does not go off easily.
It is in the Japan of the Kamakura Era (1185-1333) that the Japanese bento was introduced. In that period, the Japanese invented the so-called hoshi-ii rice, a dried meal that can be eaten as it is or boiled in water.
Then, the bento continued its development during the Moyoma Era (1568-1600) thanks to the introduction of lacquered wooden boxes.
During the Edo Era (1603-1867), the bento culture became more refined and similar to the current bentos. In this period, Japanese people started to eat bentos in the theater between the acts.
During the Taisho period (1921-1926), the aluminum bento box was introduced. During that time, inequalities among classes became more and more visible and bento boxes became status symbols. Even in schools, the bentos often reflected students’ richness. For this reason, after World War II, schools started to provide standard meal boxes to all student and the practice of brining a personal bento box to school declined.
In the ‘80, as convenience stores started to open across the island, bentos regained their popularity. Still today, they are an important element of the Japanese daily life.
2. Different styles of Bento
Bentos can be prepared in different styles and shapes. For examples, the Kyaraben bentos (character bento) are typically decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese anime, manga, or video games. Oekakiben bentos are decorated to look like people, animals, monuments, flowers, etc. Those are relatively new styles of bento originally born to encourage young children to eat.
Kyaraben and Oekakiben bentos are now popular among adults too. Their popularity has grown so much that now there are many bloggers, Instagrammers, and Youtubers specialized in bento making and bento decorations. Even bento competitions became very popular in Japan. Expert bento makers compete for the most good-looking and pleasing bento arrangement.
Other kinds of bento include:
– Noriben, a very simple bento made with rice and seaweed;
– Makunochi, which includes rice, grilled salmon, umeboshi, eggs etc.;
– Sushizume, which is filled with sushi;
– Chuka bento, which is made of Chinese food.