Japanese Bento Box

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- Bento Boxes Collection -

Bento boxes are a traditional complete individual meal of Japanese culture, ready to eat, consisting of various cooked dishes of Japanese cuisine. It usually includes rice, fish or meat, and a vegetable-based garnish or side dish. It is handmade and usually comes in a tray or container, such as a wooden box.

History of Bento Boxes

The origin of bento boxes can be traced back to the end of the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when a cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii, which used to be packaged in a small bag, was served. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 to 1600), lacquered wooden boxes began to emerge as a traditional container, and bento was usually consumed during a hanami or tea ceremony.

In the Edo period (1603 to 1867) bentō culture began to develop throughout the country and moved to greater sophistication in some cases. The bento came to offer greater variety in the preparation of dishes such as koshibentō (onigiri rolled with bamboo leaves) or makuno-uchi bentō.

In the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) prepared bento such as ekiben began to be marketed, and their use also became widespread among students and workers because companies and schools did not serve food and it was convenient to prepare it at home.

Aluminum box became a luxury item during the Taishō era (1912 to 1926), due to its ease of cleaning as well as its silver appearance.

It was during this time that disparities in wealth began to become evident due to the booming exports during World War I, as well as crop failures in the Tohoku region.

At this time, there was a movement to abolish the use of bento in schools. This was because the food in bentos too often showed the social background of the student.

Many people questioned the psychological and physical influence of bentos due to the lack of balance. Therefore, after the Second World War, they were gradually replaced in schools by canteens.

After a period in which the use of bento fell off among the population, it regained popularity in the 1980s with the help of the microwave and the spread of grocery stores, and was once again used by many students and workers.

Types of bento boxes

These are different types of bento available and they are called:

  • Shōkadō bentō (松花堂弁当) is a traditional Japanese black lacquered bentō box.
  • Chūka bentō (中華弁当) is filled with Chinese food, which is usually served cold.
  • Makunouchi bentō (幕の内弁当) is a traditional bentō with rice, a piece of fruit, salmon, egg, and so on.
  • Noriben (海苔弁) is a simple bentō with a nori dipped in soy sauce covering the rice.
  • Shidashi bentō (仕出し弁当) is made in a restaurant and served during the meal. It usually contains traditional Japanese food such as tempura, rice or vegetables, although there are also other variants with Western food available.
  • Sushidzume (鮨詰め) is a bentō filled with sushi.
  • Tori bentō (鳥弁当) are chicken pieces cooked in sauce and served with rice.
  • Hinomaru bentō (日の丸弁当) consists of a bentō stuffed with rice with an umeboshi in the center.

What does a Bento Box contain?

A bento box usually includes a composite dish or a varied assortment. Traditionally it may contain:

  • A standard portion of gohan rice (a bowl) accompanied with a sushi or umeboshi in the center to represent the flag of Japan.
  • A portion of fish, usually fried fish such as tempura or salmon, and/or meat such as pork or chicken. There may also be seafood in tsukudani or even a rolled omelet.
  • A small portion of marinated or marinated legumes.
  • Pieces of fruit in small portions.
  • The bento is usually eaten cold, although since the proliferation of microwave ovens the food can be heated.