Bento boxes are a quintessentially Japanese meal of rice, fish, and cooked or pickled vegetables inside of a hand-crafted lacquer box. With changing times, bento hasevolved from convenient bagged meals into a variety of forms, such that you cannow find mass-produced bento containing pre-made meals in department stores, airports, and specialized shops. No matter what form they take, though, their beauty and portability make bento boxes truly memorable meals.
From Bags to Boxes
This boxed dish evolved from 13th century bagged rice meals and the use of lacquered boxes for tea ceremony meals in the 17th century. Together, they became popular as the waist-worn koshibento meals of Japanese sightseers and the makuno-uchi bento eaten between Noh and Kabuki theater acts in the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). With the rapid modernization of the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), bento boxes became common among industrial and office workers as well as school children. Even as aluminum boxes arose as luxury items, though, bento fell out of favor in the Taisho Period (1912 to 1926), becoming a sign of low status. However, the arrival of microwaves and convenience stores in the 1980s breathed new life into this culinary practice.
Making Modern Bento
Today, you can find bento boxes at street stands, restaurants, convenience stores, train stations, and specialized bento shops. Most Japanese generally eat at least one bento meal per week, and this is partly because bento can take on any number of forms, including the following.
The Art of Bento
The basic bento includes rice with fish, meat, or tofu and vegetables, but arranging these elements often requires an appreciation for their textures, colors, and structures, as well as additional accessories and food coloring. The result is a vibrant food culture, including shops that specialize in various culinary accessories and tools. Annual kyaraben competitions also feature local and international cooks competing to create the most aesthetically pleasing bento. There are evenekiben otaku or nerds who travel the country to find and sample each distinct ekiben bento box found at the 20,000 plus train stations in Japan. For those making bento at home, the goal is often more complex. Although bento help improve their own or their loved one’s diet, these creative meals also encourage social interaction and strengthen relationships through the delight that they inspire. In short, bento boxes are not simply a culinary delight but a key feature of contemporary Japanese culture.