Bento Box is a container which is divided into several sections for carrying single portions of different items of a meal, to be eaten at work, school, play, picnic or while travelling. It originated in Japan and the term ‘bento’ means ‘convenience’ in Mandarin. Obviously, the bento box was so named as it is a convenience box. It is also used in Phillipines, Korea, Taiwan and India, known by different names. For instance, in India it is known as the Tiffin. A common usage of bento box can be seen at airports and on trains and flights, when local cuisine is served to be eaten while travelling or waiting to catch a flight. Bento box is also popularly referred to as – Boxed Lunch.
The bento box has been used in different forms, during various periods in Japan where it originated –
- The first bento box originated during the Kamakura period – 1185 A.D. to 1333 A.D. – in Japan. It was used for carrying dried meal.
- From 1568 – 1600 during the Azuchi - Momoyama Period, it was found in the form of wooden lacquered boxes and were popular during a tea party or a ‘hanami’.
- From 1603 – 1867, during the Edo Period, the popularity of the bento box spread and it became more refined. It was commonly found to be carried by travelers and sightseers, which would contain ongiri wrapped with bamboo leaves. The most popular type of bento – makuno uchi bento – was introduced during this period. Various cookbooks were released to depict how to cook, pack and prepare a bento box.
- From 1868 – 1912 during the Meiji Period, the ‘ekiben’ type of bento was first sold. Ekiben bento denoted the ‘train station bento’. The ekiben bento was first sold at he Utsunomiya train station, in the year 1885. It contained two onigiri and one serving of takuan wrapped in bamboo leaves. This was also used in schools and offices as at that time schools did not provide lunch to students and teachers. During this time the European style bento containing sandwiches, also began to be sold.
- From 1912 – 1926 during the Taisho period, the bento box came to be made with aluminum and was considered to be a luxury item. It was easy to clean and had a silver appearance. However, after the second world war the practice of carrying a bento to school declined because by that time schools had started providing uniform food to all students and teachers.
- It regained its popularity in 1980s for convenience of use in the microwave ovens. They were made of disposable materials like polystyrene – more commonly known as thermocole.
Shokado Bento – This is the traditional black lacquered bento box.
Chuka Bento – This is usually filled with Chinese food and is mostly used for a midnight snack.
Kamameshi Bento – These are sold at train stations. They are cooked and served in a clay pot which is a souvenir item.
Makunouchi Bento – This is the classic style of bento box containing, rice, pickled fruit, rolled egg and a slice of broiled salmon.
Noriben Bento – This is the simplest type of bento box and it contains nori dipped in soy sauce over cooked rice.
Sake Bento – This too is a simple bento box which contains the slice of broiled salmon as the main dish.
Shidashi Bento – This is made by commercial establishments like restaurants and delivered for parties, office lunches or funerals. It consists of traditional Japanese food like tempura, rice and pickled vegetables. It is also available with European style food.
Tori Bento – This is a popular bento box in Gunma Prefecture and contains a piece of chicken cooked in sauce and served over rice.
Hinomaru Bento – It is made of metal and carries only rice and umeboshi.
How to Buy a Bento Box
In order to buy a bento box one could visit supermarkets as well as online stores. Depending on who is going to use it, one can choose from kid-friendly or other designs. One should look for boxes with ample sections for keeping food items of various textures. It is helpful to buy a box which is microwave, freezer and top rack dishwasher safe.
Popular Brands Selling Bento Box
- Zojirushi– They offer a round vacuum insulated stainless steel jar with 4 microwavable bowls, for hot or cold lunch storage.
- Lock and Lock– They offer a bento box made from BPA free material, which is microwave, freezer and top rack dishwasher safe, made of polypropylene.
- Easy Lunch Boxes– They offer a kid-friendly design with easy-open lids. They are microwave and dishwasher safe and made with FDA approved polypropylene and is BPA free.