Bento refers to a single portion home-cooked or takeout meal popular in Japanese culture. The box in which the meal is packed along with the meal inside it are important aspects of the complete meal and a whole subculture and industry exists in Japan surrounding the bento box and bento meals. Bentos are sold at railway stations and convenience stores throughout Japan as an easy takeout meal. Those who prefer homemade versions carry the box (packed by housewives) to work or to school. Traditional home cooked versions may be covered or wrapped in an intricate furoshiki or woven cloth. However, modern day bentos are carried in kinchaku or drawstring bags.
Traditionally, bentos can be traced to the original Kamakura Period. during this period of time, the Japanese first produced dried rice called Hoshi-ji. The rice was boiled and then dried. It could be rehydrated to produce the same soft fluffy rice. Travelers used to store the dried rice in small bags while traveling. Later on, the bags were replaced with wooden lacquered boxes. The boxes were filled with rice and other condiments and small flavored food items which could be combined into a single meal. However, as time passed, the Japanese sense of esthetics and tastes started to influence the bento meal. By the Edo period, the bento meal started to get refined and rules were invented about arrangements, bento box content, color and size. Travelers would carry complicated bentos which were filled with onigiri or shaped rice balls wrapped with bamboo leaves and stored in a woven bamboo box along with other smaller boxes for other food items. Different styles and types of boxes also originated in this time period. Bamboo boxes were very popular and they were usually disposable. One of the most popular styles during this period was the makuno-uchi bentō. This bento was served during theater play intermissions and they were very detailed and intricate. Interest in preparing the bento and serving it resulted in several detailed cookbooks filled with instructions on how to cook, what to cook and how to fill bento boxes during this same period of time. By the late Meiji Period, train station bentos became popular and they usually contained two onigiri along with a serving of takuan. In the Taisho Period, different styles of reusable boxes became popular with aluminum being the most popular metal. However, the actual contents of the bento also became a status symbol among employees and students. The richness and complicated nature of the food could indicate the economic status of the person and as a result, companies and schools prohibited the bento box and replaced it with uniform canteen food.
However, the box became very popular in the 1980s. Food bloggers and the proliferation of several bento-based blogs have resulted in a sudden surge of western as well as local Japanese interest in the packed meal. The bento box is also very popular in Taiwan where it is referred to as bendong or biendang.
Types of Bentos
There are many different types of bento boxes but the most popular ones are as follows-
- Shōkadō bentō is a special variety of bento which is made from traditional Japanese lacquered wood. This style has come back into style in the last few years.
- Kamameshi bentō is a meal served in a clay pot and usually sold in the Nagano prefecture in Japan.
- The Chūka bentō is filled with Chinese food and is consumed as a snack
- Noriben is the simplest variety of bento meal in which nori is dipped in soy sauce and covered with cooked rice.
- Makunouchi bentō is a classic meal in which rice, pickled ume fruit, broiled salmon and rolled eggs are served.
- Shidashi bentōs are restaurant made bento meals that are served at funerals or parties. It may contain European food or traditional Japanese food.
Common Bento Foods
There are so set rules to what a bento box can contain. Housewives usually prepare different parts of the box beforehand and prepare a healthy nutritious meal in a few minutes. A few components which are commonly seen include the following.
- Rice forms the essential component of every bento. Steamed or boiled white rice is preferred. It is usually shaped or molded to form triangular, round, capsule or disc-shaped balls which might be stuffed with salmon, seaweed or pickles. Modern day bento stores retail a large range of molds which can be used to make shaped onigiri for children and adults.
- Soba noodles, rice noodles or somen noodles may be used instead of rice. These are usually served stir-fried with different ingredients.
- Egg is an essential ingredient of bento boxes. The egg may be hard-boiled and molded and then colored, scrambled, or fried into a layered tamagoyaki or sweet omelet.
- Sausages or mini sausages cut into different shapes are also used as bento box fillers.
- Fish in the form of grilled fish or fish cakes (chikuwa) are popular fillers. Salted salmon combined with rice or shaped into cutlets is also common.
- Minced meat in the form of yakitori or meat kebabs, flavored stirfried meat, or meat balls stuffed into sandwiches( yakiniku) are commonly used in boxes
- Condiments or furikake are used to flavor simple ingredients. Common furikake include nori or seaweed, dried shrimp, bonito flakes, toasted sesame seeds, etc.
There are no specific rules in modern day bento box arrangements as chefs can use any fvood that they like. However, in Japanese culture there are specific rules on the size of the box, its contents and arrangement. For example, vinegary foods should be placed in foil cups or silicone cups to prevent the flavors from mixing. Grain dishes should be served in three part boxes while vegetable dishes should be served in two parts. Foods with sauces should be served separately with the food in silicone cups and the sauce in tiny specially made bento sauce bottles. Lettuce leaves, hollow tomatoes, etc can also be used as containers. Plastic dividers are to be used to separate different types of food. For example, soy egg or sauced vegetables should be placed next to ohitashi while teriyaki should be placed next to hijiki or over rice. Sliced fruits should be placed in paper or plastic cups.
A whole subculture of specialty food stores that supply bento box fillers exists in Japan. Online stores like Ichiban Kan, Sanko and Katachi specialize in a range of bento box accessories and food items. Food bloggers like Just Bento and About Bento carry detailed instructions on how to make bentos and other bento related information.