Japanese cuisine and food culture with its astounding proportions and intricate nuances can make for a very interesting case study for every Japanophile. One of the most intriguing aspects of Japanese food and cuisine is the bento box – what is it, exactly, and how has it come to be - in many cases - the center of focus?
‘O-bento’ is what the Japanese call a packed meal, usually lunch. Bento boxes have internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments. The box is wrapped together with chopsticks in a cloth or special bag, the goal being to make the package look as attractive as possible.
“There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls […] The base of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles - the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. In addition, there’s okazu - side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action.” www.airandangles.com
Bento can take on many forms and divided between different types, to be precise – there are 9 different types of bento, and some that are very location specific. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements, like the following:
Bento can be very elaborately arranged in a style called kyaraben (‘character bento’). Kyaraben is typically decorated to look like Japanese anime, manga or video game characters. Another popular bento style is oekakiben (‘picture bento’), which is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments, or items such as flowers and plants.
Interesting Facts From History
The origin of bento can be traced back to the 12th century Japan when cooked and dried rice called ‘hoshi-ii’ (literally ‘dried meal’) was developed for travelers and workers that carried their lunch with them. Later on, the humble boxed lunch evolved into a very intricate arrangement to the point of resembling artwork.
Wooden lacquered boxes like today’s were produced during the 16th century and bento would be eaten during a Hanami (‘flower viewing’ - Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers) or a tea party. In the 17th century bento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and sightseers would carry a simple koshibentō.
One of the most popular styles of bento, called makuno-uchi bentō (‘between-act bento’), was first made during this period, for which numerous cookbooks were published detailing how to cook, how to pack, and what to prepare for occasions like Hanami and Hinamatsuri (‘Doll Festival’, or ‘Girls’ Day’, on March 3).
The first ekibentō (or ekiben - train station bento) was sold on 16 July 1885, at the Utsunomiya train station - as early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bento, as did many employees. A ‘European’ style bento with sandwiches also went on sale during this period.
In the early 20th century a move to abolish the practice of bento in school became a social issue. A bento too often reflected a student’s wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavorable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made bento or the richness of food. After WWII, bento was replaced by uniform school lunch.
However, by the 21st century even handmade bento have made a comeback, and they are once again a common sight at Japanese schools. Bento are still used by workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, for school picnics and sports days etc.
To enjoy a skillfully prepared bento, we invite you to Itacho Sushi in Sydney Airport, Departures hall, Terminal 1.
‘Bento’ originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), meaning ‘convenient’ or ‘convenience.’