Between the Acts
Whether homemade or purchased, a bentō meal is a portable pleasure. It typically comes in a box, including rice as the main staple alongside a variety of side dishes, such as meat, fish, or vegetables.
This concept of a bentō as a box meal with specific ingredients began to take shape in the late sixteenth century. Entering the Edo period (1603–1868), it became associated with events such as hanami flower viewing, boating, and the hinamatsuri, or doll festival. One of the most famous types, the makunouchi bentō, was first intended in the nineteenth century to be eaten during the intervals of day-long theatrical performances, when the maku (curtain) was down.
Specialist outlets like Bento & Co.—a Kyoto store run by a Frenchman named Thomas Bertrand—sell a huge range of bentō goods. Ishikawa Prefecture's Hakoya, meanwhile, is known as a manufacturer of both lacquer and plastic boxes. Some of today’s bentō boxes have special features to keep soup warm or fruit cold, while traditional wappa boxes rely on the antibacterial properties of sugi (Japanese cedar) wood.
Room for Creativity
While many children eat lunches prepared at school, some have a bentō every day. Almost everyone has them at special events like school trips or sports day, though. Parents may put in extra effort by getting up earlier in the morning to create kyaraben (character bentō) lunches in which food is shaped to look like animals or other cute items. These designs circulate on blogs and forums, drawing admiration and imitation. On the flip side, though, busy parents struggle under the pressure to match raised expectations.
Lucky adults may have bentō lunches made for them by loving spouses, or they may prepare their own. Ready-made box meals are also available at convenience stores, supermarkets, department store basements, and even some restaurants. Convenience store clerks are always ready to heat meals up in the microwave. Customers can put together their own bentō lunches by ordering side dishes on the spot at specialist chains, where they can also enjoy miso soup with their food. And there are delivery services for ferrying box meals to workers at meetings or on other occasions.
Bentō box meals can include traditional Japanese food or international cuisine, with popular varieties being salmon, karaage fried chicken, or Hamburg steaks.
A Convenient Snack
For a simplified lunch, try onigiri rice balls. These round or triangular snacks can contain many different fillings. Umeboshi (pickled plum) is an old classic, which partly won its old-time popularity because the vinegary fruit helped keep the rice from going bad even on a scorching summer day. Other common fillings include tuna salad with mayonnaise, fried shrimp, salmon, konbu no tsukudani (seaweed cooked in soy-sauce-based seasoning), and mentaiko (spicy pollock roe). Wrapping the rice balls in nori (seaweed) sheets helps them keep their shape, adds flavor and texture, and provides plenty of minerals.
These easy-to-carry snacks are readily available in stores. For those who need help making their own, there are rice-ball molds available.
The word onigiri derives from the fact that it is packed by hand. A popular variation is the onigirazu, which is not packed by hand and is simpler to make. All hungry chefs need to do is lay out a nori sheet, pile rice and filling on top, fold the nori corners in, bundle with plastic wrap, and cut the rice ball in half. Unlike in an onigiri, the filling is visible from outside.
Meals on the Move
Bentō lunches are popular fare for train journeys and producers use local flavors to appeal to travelers. These ekiben get their name through association with particular stations (eki).
Many people take the opportunity to sample local specialties such as Yonezawa beef in Yamagata Prefecture or crab in Fukui Prefecture. The right packaging can also provide a competitive edge. Gunma Prefecture is famous for its bentō meals served in Mashikoyaki clay pots.
Bentō is one of many Japanese words that is slowly establishing itself in other languages, spurred on by interest in the country’s cuisine as well as the cute designs of kyaraben. As creative chefs around the world whip up their own variations, the possibilities for local adaptation are endless.
(Banner photo: Ekiben specialist Matsuri, which sells more than 170 kinds of bentō at Tokyo Station.)