The Japanese have a reputation for being meticulous and fussy about food. But their culture of precision extends far beyond table manners, sushi etiquette and wasabi-laden snacks. It's even apparent in their packed lunch. Ultimately, the bento box is just a humble storage container that happens to be made with love and attention to detail almost every day by workers at thousands of factories across Japan. However, there's so much more to these little plastic or wooden boxes than meets the eye: they've become a cultural symbol for homemade lunches everywhere. So, let's look at the history of bento boxes, where they come from and why everyone seems to be obsessed with them right now…
What is a bento box?
A bento box is a single-portion meal that comes in a box. It may include a rice dish, fish or meat, and soup or other beverages. It is often a lunch box and also may be used for other meals. Likewise, it is distinguished by the careful selection and arrangement of its contents to create a balanced, aesthetically pleasing meal.
Its contents are often artistically arranged and decorated with Japanese cuisine’s traditional attention to detail and colour. Two types of bento are commonly seen in Japan.
The first and most common is the simple b made with an aluminium or rectangular plastic tray and plastic covering. The tray is filled with rice and one or more savoury items, such as tempura or a bowl of curry, with a side dish and a small portion of oshiruko (red bean soup) and is usually consumed at home or school. The other type is traditionally eaten at restaurants and is usually a more significant, fancier meal that may include sushi, sashimi, or other fish.
A brief history of bento boxes
The word “bento” comes from the word “box” in English. When the word “box” travelled from Europe to Asia in the 18th century, it morphed into “bento” in Japanese. When the word entered Japanese, it was used to describe the equivalent of a packed lunch.
There are various theories about how bento boxes came about, but the most common is that they came about as a form of food preservation. In more recent years, the concept of bento has morphed. Now, it’s not just about food preservation — it’s about the art of the Japanese bento. The bento boxes we see today are far from the single-portion meals served on wooden boards or in baskets we’d find in Japan almost 100 years ago. Instead, they are now a delicious, multisensory affair.
Why are bento boxes so popular?
Because of the precision with which they are made, bento boxes are the ideal way to serve a single portion of food. They are also great for storing leftovers, making them perfect for eating at home or working. They are often decorated and come in various styles and designs. Not only that, but they can be made of plastic, ceramic, or wood and decorated with images or designs to suit your tastes and preferences. The boxes are also reusable and dishwasher safe, making them an environmentally friendly way to pack your lunch. They are great for portion control, too: one single-person serving will fit snugly inside the average bento box.
Bilingual Bentos: English and Japanese
As the popularity of those Japanese boxes have increased, so has the number of designers who have created their personalized designs. There are now bento boxes with English words printed on their lids or English-language designs printed on them.
They are designed to make it easier for non-Japanese speakers to understand what’s inside the box. These bilingual boxes are great if you are sharing your lunch with someone who might not be as familiar with Japanese food as you are. They are also a good idea if you eat your food box at work or in a public place where you don’t want people to see what’s inside.
The boxes are incredibly easy to pack for a healthy and nutritious lunch. Because they are designed to fit one single portion of food, they are great for portion control. And because bento boxes come in various styles and designs, it’s easy to create a personal, unique lunch every day. Investing in a bento box is an excellent idea if you are a fan of Japanese cuisine or simply looking for a new way to enjoy a healthy lunch.
You can also download the Bento Box Master mobile game, which is available on the App Store and Google Play, and enjoy a fun Bento experience.