A BRIEF HISTORY
You will always picture something cute when you hear the word bento. Your packed lunch might be designed with characters from an animation or a comic book, beautifully arranged in order and a feast for the eyes. Bento, or packed lunches, is a convenient way of preparing your meals to take to school or work and have been a staple in Japanese culture since the early days.
The history of bento can be traced back to the Kamakura Period when people carry their hoshi-ii (dried rice) in small bags. Hoshi-ii can be eaten as is or boiled with water to make cooked rice. As the transition to Azuchi-Momoyama period occurred, wooden lacquered boxes became available to use and bento would be eaten during tea parties. In the Edo Period, bento evolved to what we call koshibento (waist bento) used to carry onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves. Makuno-uchi bento was also made during this period, a luxurious bento served during intermissions in theater performances. In Meiji Period, the first train station bento was sold. It was called ekibento or ekiben for short. It was also during this period that bento became more popular since most schools didn’t provide meals for students and teachers during lunch so they carry with them homemade packed meals. But as bento rose to its growing recognition during Taisho Period, it became a social issue for most people, especially students. They were being questioned with the way they carry their bento with them, scrutinizing whether there was a lack of nutrition in their diet or not. Uniformity in food was then granted after the World War II to kill the growing social issue.
Bento was back on its game during the 1980’s. Because of the growing number of convenience stores popping out in the city, expensive and wooden bento boxes were replaced with a friendlier, inexpensive and disposable bento boxes. They were usually made of plastic. In Japanese culture, it’s common for most mothers to prepare and make bento for their children when going to school or to their husbands when going to work. Bentos are usually easy to make and most ingredients are already on hand. The popularity of bento is seen with how the design evolved from the traditional rice and fish or meat with pickled vegetables on the side to intricate designs like Japanese animation, comic books, or even inanimate objects like a PlayStation controller.
The beauty of bento is seen everywhere, not just in train stations or convenience stores. Being quick and easy, bento will always hold strong and will remain one of the most important meals of the day.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF BENTO
Kyaraben (Charaben or Character Bento) – a more popular and common one, kyaraben is a feast to the eyes of the people who will eat his or her meal. Designed like that of the characters from an animated series or a comic book, the colorful array will surely make you excited to eat it. Mothers often used this type of bento to entice children who are picky with their food.
Makuno-uchi (Between-Acts Bento) – it was first seen during the Edo period, having been called as a between-acts meal during intermissions in long theater performances. It was also considered luxurious back then. Now, it can be purchased at a more inexpensive price, being sold to department stores and convenience stores throughout the city. It’s meant to be eaten at a table and the contents may vary but the usual ones include white rice that is in small rectangular shapes sprinkled with black sesame seeds and sides with either fish or meat and pickled vegetables.
Ekiben (Train Station Bento) – this bento was made for travelers. It’s mostly sold out to train stations, especially during long train rides, or department stores. What’s unique about ekiben is how cheap it is without skimping on the ingredients used for the meal, making the traveler’s stomach (and his pockets, too!) happy. There’s also a commemorative day for ekiben, which is on July 16th, the day the first ekiben was sold.
Koraku (Picnic Bento) – often comes in big boxes and large portions, koraku is meant to be eaten outside, especially for picnics and excursions with family and friends. It is also used during Hanami or tea parties. Ingredients may vary but onigiris and maki rolls are usually served.
FUN FACTS ABOUT BENTO
- Shikaeshi Bento or revenge bento is the kind of bento you wouldn’t want to receive, with a bento brimming with sour umeboshi or bento with uncooked rice.
- Bento actually means convenient, coined from the Southern Song slang called biandang.
- There’s not much difference between a bento box and a lunch box.
- Bento boxes have separate compartments in which you can portion on what goes on to that space and so forth, making the food not mix together. Most people who are watching their diet use bento boxes.
She’s cooking and baking for her family and friends. She finds grocery shopping therapeutic, always takes the longest time in the Asian section and debates with herself whether she needs that extra pack of instant ramen. A lover of sweets, she dreams of owning a patisserie and publishing her book but most of the time, she’s just really thinking of what to eat for breakfast the next day.