The meaning of Bento: Types of Bento and Why do People Make Bento Boxes in Japan

  • What are bento boxes? For people who aren’t Japanese, many will be familiar with the word, but you may not know exactly what they are. You may also wonder what one puts in a bento box.

    Basically, a bento box is a convenient lunch box. Come to Japan for any length of time, you will no doubt have the pleasure of trying one. You will find bento boxes in all shapes, sizes, prices, and for all appetites, and you can find them basically anywhere in Japan.

    All of the Japanese convenience stores will have a selection of bento boxes for decent prices, and you will likely see people eating homemade bento boxes at lunchtime. There are also bento boxes available now in many restaurants, where you can eat them there or take them away.

    Bento boxes are a tradition, a necessity, and a way of enjoying food that looks ridiculously pretty and is easy to eat on the go. Bento boxes also tend to be very healthy, usually containing many different foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, rice, and fish.

    Read on to find out about the history of bento boxes in Japan, where you can find them, what is in them, and also how you can make them yourself!

    The History of Bento

    The bento box has a long history in Japan, and although modern times have encouraged some weird and wonderful bento inventions and designs, the bento box as a concept has been around for centuries.

    The first verified historical record of a bento-style lunch in Japan was during the Kamakura Period from 1185 to 1333. During this period, a process of cooking rice and then storing it and eating it later became popular among the people of Japan. The rice was often stored in traditional lacquer boxes and kept to eat later.

    This process came about as it was very convenient and allowed people to eat whilst working or traveling. The word bento literally means ‘convenient’. The reason for this word to describe this type of lunch box is because it is usually nicely packaged and easy to eat on your lap or on a trip. The food is usually bitesize and doesn’t need to be heated up, and it is usually tightly packed into small boxes which are easy to carry around!

    However, the word convenient doesn’t necessarily apply to the way in which it is usually made. Bento boxes do take a bit of time and skill to make properly, and unless you get used to it, it might not be worth the effort when you can just buy something from a convenience store!

    A typical bento box has several different things, including rice, fish or meat, eggs, vegetables, pickled foods, and sometimes fruit. Modern bento boxes have tried to offer a bit of variety, and some now contain sandwiches, sweet desserts and yogurts, salads, and fried potatoes.

    Store Bought Bento Boxes

    In the past, bento boxes were almost exclusively a homemade lunch, made by working people before their day, or made by mothers to give to their children before school. Nowadays, this has expanded and you can find them in all sorts of stores and restaurants.

    If you step into any convenience store or supermarket in Japan you will notice that there is a whole section devoted to bento boxes. There is usually quite a good choice, too, and the boxes are more often than not made fresh that day. In the past, bento boxes were served in wooden lacquer boxes but nowadays they come in plastic containers which are usually nicely decorated!

    You will find varieties of different sizes depending on your appetite, different prices depending on the amount and quality of food, and with a wide selection of ingredients. There are also many restaurants nowadays that serve bento boxes which you can buy at lunchtime and take back to an office or eat at home.

    A further tip if you are looking for great deals on food is to visit a supermarket late at night. You will probably notice that the bento boxes which are left there will be heavily discounted as they will otherwise have to be thrown out before the morning. Sometimes these discounts can be pretty big, so look out for them!

    A real perk with this type of ready-meal which contrasts to ready-meals in other countries is that they are usually very healthy. They will contain several different food groups and use high-quality ingredients. You will often get fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, and lean meat in these boxes, which differs greatly from the cheesy pasta bakes and calorie loaded greasy and fried foods you can get in the west, for example.

    Kyaraben キャラ弁 – Cute Character Bento

    Perhaps the most well-known international image of the Japanese bento box is the one with cute designs and intricately crafted cute details. This has become something of a craze, and some parents will make the cutest bento boxes for their children, painstakingly shaping and cutting out smiles and choosing colors to make the food look attractive!

    In Japan, it is said you eat with your eyes. This means that food should good as well as taste good and that this is the best to really savor a meal and feel satisfied. One trend which has taken off it that of Kyaraben, or cute character bento. The original idea behind this was to make lunch boxes look attractive so that children were encouraged to eat properly.

    It is not uncommon for a housewife to get up early in the morning especially to prepare wonderful looking boxes for her husband and children. Personally, I don’t know how people have the time for this! Characters including cartoon characters, animals, people, and landscapes are often included in the boxes.

    How to Make a Bento Box Meal

    If you want to create your own bento box meal, follow these easy steps:

    1. Prepare a box. You can use a normal Tupperware, or buy a specially made bento box that has a fitting lid and several compartments. You can find some decorative ones in any 100 Yen shop!

    2. Figure out your ratio of food. The traditional method is the 4:3:2:1 ratio, which is 4 parts rice, 3 parts side dish, 2 parts vegetables, 1 part pickle. The side dish is the protein part of the meal, which will be fish or meat. If you don’t like pickles, the last part can be made up of a small dessert!

    3. Pack the food tightly into the box, regardless of whether it has separate compartments or not. If you want to make a cute design like a Kyaraben, think about it carefully before you prepare the food. Think about which colors you will need to make your design and choose foods that are the correct color.

    You can use thin pieces of nori (seaweed) to add the details, or use an edible pen to draw onto food items such as cheese slices or ham. Try sketching your design on some paper first so that you have a guide to follow!

    To get some inspiration for cute bento boxes, have a look at these websites to get some good ideas:

    Parenting Website

    Greatist Website

    I hope this article has given you a good overview of the marvelous bento box. Try making one yourself, and most importantly, enjoy eating it!