Japanese Bento (弁当): Much more than just a box of food

You would be very mistaken to think that Japanese bento is merely a quickly prepared meal for busy people. In essence, it is the love of ones who make wrapping for ones who take.

Japanese bentos form an integral part of the food culture, which cannot be simply traced from a packed meal. 

The word bento (弁当), imported from Chinese, means the “useful thing”, “convenient” and has a double meaning, standing for both the container and the content

The Worker’s Lunch & The Noble’s Snack

Historians found that the tradition of preparing conveniently packed meals dates back to the 12th century. This was when dried rice was prepared to be eaten outside.

Far from being refined, those meals were mainly carried by people who worked outdoors – farmers, fishermen etc. However, the habit eventually spread to the high society.

It eventually became a convenient meal for travelers during the Edo Era. More importantly, it also became a must for outdoor excursions, tea parties, and theater since plays could last several hours.

The famous “ekiben”, from bento and eki, train station, first appeared during the Meiji period. This was despite historians being divided about which station first sold it.

However, the 20th century (between the wars and food shortages) saw the decline of what could be seen as a luxury. The development of school canteens for students chased away the need for homemade lunch.

The bento found its salvation in the 80s after the emergence of microwaves and convenience stores. Once again, the homemade/industrial lunchbox became a common sight at school and at work.


A Style for Everyone’s Taste

One thing’s for sure, bentos cannot be monotonous. First of all, there are many types of bento boxes to buy, from the traditional lacquered box to the rather cheap plastic models, aluminum or bamboo boxes. The market follows trending fashion and designers’ imagination and it seems to never end.

The box is usually divided into several parts that can hold several dishes typically including rice, meat, vegetables, pickles etc. The dishes are usually prepared and packed in a way so they will not move when the box is carried and so they can tolerate the ambient temperature.

The most important characteristic of all is certainly the visual presentation based on color assortment. Japanese people take pride in preparing visually appetizing bento, and the style is left to one’s imagination.

From mass production to cooking books and presentation, bento covers a wide range of styles. Let’s see some few emblematic examples:

  • Ekiben (駅弁): A packed meal sold at railway stations.
  • Kyaraben (キャラ弁 short form of キャラクター弁当): Ingredients are elaborately arranged to feature a popular character of popular culture, animals, plants. etc.
  • Makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当): The traditional style of bento that was served at the theater. It contains several dishes: rice, meat, fish, egg, a pickled plum, vegetables.
  • Noriben (海苔弁): Simple in nature, containing less than 4 ingredients. The rice is covered by nori (seaweed).
  • Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当): Resembles the Japanese flag with a pickled plum being in the center of the rice.

The Bento of Love

Nowadays, the Japanese bento is the symbol of picnics (usually during the Hanami season) and of parties, as packed in advance, elaborated, dishes that are very convenient for large groups of people.

But beyond the convenience of a prepared meal, it stands as an essential communication tool in Japanese society.

A homemade bento, prepared with care and attention, conveys the feelings of the maker to the eater. What best than a nicely prepared dish to tell your love to someone?

In a society where rather than speech, the value is given to action, the bento is the perfect example of the Japanese way of communicating. The kind mother, who takes the time to prepare her child’s meal with an appealing presentation, will try to encourage her child to eat eggplants even if the child dislikes them…

Or, on a more funny note,  the revengeful wife who prepared a rice only lunch for her husband, will use this to signify her anger. Nevertheless, always remember to use Itadakimasu and Gochisousama to thank those who have spent time to make the meal for you! A little gratitude would sure go a long way.

The word bento is very emblematic of Japanese culture and has been adopted abroad, with a broader meaning. From take-out services to IT company, the “bento” now stands for a useful, convenient and modern tool box

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