Bento (弁当) is a single person portion lunch or dinner box usually packed from home or bought as a takeaway meal, which is basically any lunch box. It can be found all over the world, but Japan, in particular, has expanded this boxed meal culture massively.
Bento was not popularized until 1600 since ancient Japanese only eat two meals per day. As the concept of eating three meals a day developed, the need for a lunch box bento became necessary. Farmers used to bring multilayer jubako with onigiri (rice balls), pickled vegetables and tableware to work and share it with other workers during lunch breaks. From 1800 onwards, bento was not only made for workers but also special occasions like cherry-blossom viewing and long cruise ship or train trips.
The word bento can also be found in an early Japanese-Portuguese dictionary, which described bento as a tool box-like structure with food that is made for carrying around.
One of the most famous bento combinations was “Moku no uchi bento”, which translates to bento for behind the curtains. This name is referring to door curtains of theatres in the past, as this bento was made for theatre visitors, performers and staff. Common items included in the bento were 10 onigiri, mushrooms, fish cakes, tofu, taro, egg and grilled konjac. “Moku no uchi bento” nowadays has evolved drastically, and this name describes any lunch box with rice and 6 or more different sides.
A bento lunch box can be prepared with a simple transparent plastic box from Walmart and disposable tableware. But for a more appealing presentation, there are multiple accessories that are very common in Japan.
1) Bento box, bento band and lunch bag.
The above three items are the most commonly used accessories. A two-layer bento box tied up with a stylized elastic band and carried around within a trendy looking lunch bag.
2) Muffin cups, toothpicks and sauce box.
These are used to separate different items and decorate the inside of a bento box. Toothpicks are usually cute decorations like flowers, animals or even tiny hands of a character.
The idea of bento has brought convenience to many of us during a full-day school or work, and also long hour transportations. It definitely made up a significant part of the Japanese food culture. So don’t forget to try out a bento box during your next visit to Japan!