All About Bento

A bento box meal is probably synonymous to Japan. Bentos usually contain curry, okonomiyaki (savory pancakes of fish, meat and/or vegetables), tempura (battered, deep-fried seafood or vegetables), teppanyaki (grilled meats), tonkatsu (fried and breaded pork cutlets), or yakitoi (chicken grilled in skewers). They are all usually served with pickled vegetables, rice, and noodles.

The evolution of bento

The word “bento” (弁当) came from southern Song Dynasty slang, from the word “convenience” in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) when cooked and dried rice, or hoshi-ii, came about.

Bento, Japan. | razel.mella

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, from 1568-1600, intricate wooden lacquer boxes held bento at hanami (tea parties). Bento culture rose during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Bentos consisted of several onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box and were carried in a koshibento or “waist bento”. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), the first ekibentō or ekiben, “train station bento” was sold at the Utsunomiya train station in the northern Kantō region of Japan.

The very first ekiben is said to have contained two onigiri and a serving of pickled radish wrapped in bamboo leaves. Schools at the time did not provide lunch so students as well as teachers brought their meals in bento boxes.

Bento meals, Japan. | Aram Kudurshian

Many employees in Japan also brought their own meals to work. “European” style bentos containing sandwiches were also a popular item at the time. The Taishō period (1912–1926) ushered in the aluminum bento boxes that became a luxury item because of its appearance and it was easier to clean. There was also a move to abolish the practice of bento as it became a social issue. Bento was said to have reflected a student’s wealth. After WWII, the practice of bringing bentos to school declined gradually and was replaced by uniform food provided for all students and teachers.

Bento in modern times

Bentos became popular again in the 1980s with microwave ovens and the boom of convenience stores. Bentos became an easy, affordable and convenient way to get a satisfying and delicious meal. Expensive wood and metal bento boxes were replaced with inexpensive, disposable polystyrene boxes. Although these have contributed in making bento meals popular, it is nowadays being discouraged with the growing concern in waste management.

The handmade bento is making a comeback and are slowly being a common sight. Bentos are still the norm for workers, families going on day trips, school picnics, sports days and the like. Kyaraben or “character bento” is also popular in Japan.

Kyaraben, Japan. | saori usuki

It was originally intended to whet children’s appetites and make vegetables and other ingredients more interesting for them to try. Kyaraben has become so popular that national competitions are held where enthusiasts compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements.