Bento I — Bento Boxes

Makunouchi to Third Meal
Eki Ben to Artist Palettes

“Tradition-hallowed, honest-to-cherry blossom, real bento provide delightful picnics.” — Nina Froud [1]

Lacuer Bento Box

Lacquer Bento Box

Bento is a characteristic Japanese way of packing up a quick meal to eat on the go.

Technically a Bento box is a container, usually metallic, but often made of lacquer, wood,or plastic, containing rice, with meat or fish, vegetables and pickles and maybe a boiled egg. [2]

Bento is a serving for a single person.  They are available at stores, including transit kiosks and convenience food stores in Japan, and also made at home for family members or oneself.

The term Bento oiriginated in Song Dynasty China (960-1279), meaning “something convenient.” The concept migrated to Japan and Bento were eaten from around the Kamakura Period (1185 — 1333 CE).

According to some accounts, in former times Japanese people only ate two meals a day, at breakfast and an evening meal.  Bento were originally made to be eaten by farmers and other workers during a short mid-day break, and for travelers.

Because of their convenience, Bento came to be made and used at theatrical performances and athletic events like sumo tournaments, where they are still common.  This kind of Bento was called makunouchi, or “between the curtains.”

This variety of Bento evolved to often very luxurious and elaborate forms during the Edo Period (1600-1868).

Today many people in Japan carry Bento to school or work and they are eaten at lunch time.  So the markunouchi or farmer’s Bento was the precursor of the third meal, lunch, which is now common in Japan.

Bento has now moved back to China.  Bento are consumed in Taiwan, Korea and parts of the Philippines and in India as the tiffin or dhabba box. These regions of Asia may be considered the Bento Zone, with far-flung outposts in Hawaii and Djakarta, Indonesia.

You see Bento in train stations all over Japan.  Stands sell box lunches representing the local specialties of the place where the train has just stopped.

These are the Eki Ben, or station box lunches.  Whole books have been written about them.  There are Japanese fans of Eki Ben, like railroad buffs and airplane buffs, who like to hop off at famous stations and eat their celebrated Bento meals.

There are Bento boxes which workers carry to their offices or shop to eat at work.  A recent Japanese Prime Minister was even famous for carrying his lunches in a Bento box prepared by his wife.

And there are the Bento boxes carried by school childen in Japan.  In recent years some parents compete in making their children’s Bento lunches look artistic. They arrange the food to look like a landscape or decorate the food to resemble favorite cartoon characters.

And there is the Fusion Bento: As in the case of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who serves Bento Boxes in some of his restaurants, with exotic contents that might include a Thai salad and Ovaltine Kulfi. And some Japanese restaurants offer more conventional Japanese style meals in Bento boxes to customers. [3]

Bento Recipes: There is a large literature of recipes for making the different kinds of Bento, including kids’ lunches, in print and online, in Japanese and English. There is one major Web site in English specialized in Bento matters. Some of these sources also offer for sale products like Bento boxes and other accessories. American chef “Biggie,” formerly an expat in Tokyo and fluent in Japanese, has developed a major Web site devoted to Bento lunches.  [4]

Bento Problems:  As popular and common as Bento lunches are, there are some problems: Bento are typically made early in the morning and eaten several hours later.  By that time, there is a big fall-off in quality with many of the more popular items.

Recent research by cooks, housekeepers, and home economists in Japan has turned up some new ways to improve the quality of Bento meals. [5]  We’ll take a look at these findings in a separate Article.

For Further Information:

[1] Nina Froud, Cooking the Japanese Way (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1963) – has chapter on Bento —  http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Japanese-way-Nina-Froud/dp/B0007IZDZW
[2] “Bento,” article, Wikipedia —  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bento
[3] JGV’s Ovaltine kulfi in Bento box — Jean-Georges Vongerichen’s Thai-inspired cuisine — http://www.templeofthai.com/asian-food-life/blog/thai-food/chef-jeangeorges-thai-inspired-cuisine/Thai-inspired cuisine —
[4] Biggie, Building a Better Bento —  http://lunchinabox.net/
[5] NHK, Tameshite Gatten, October 31, 2012 — special program on Bento research —  http://www9.nhk.or.jp/gatten/archives/P20121031.html

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Shiitake Mushrooms cooked Japanese style for Bento

Bento Mushrooms

2 thoughts on “Bento I — Bento Boxes

  1. Pingback: Japanese vegetable burdock or gobo - not parsnips! | Pacific Rim Gourmet

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