The bentō is an intrinsic part of Japan’s culinary culture, ranging from simple, made-at-home meals to convenience store fare, and all the way up to haute cuisine produced by top chefs. These portable meals combine visual aesthetics with taste and can be enjoyed at the office, under the blossoms, or wherever hunger may strike. Below are five typical bentōs found in Japan.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), kabuki-goers would enjoy this box lunch while the maku, or curtain, was down. Over the centuries it has moved beyond the theater and is widely available at convenience stores, train stations, and department stores. The makunouchi bentō normally contains meat, fish, pickled radish, stewed vegetables, and rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds and topped with a bright red pickled plum.
Box lunches featuring ginger-fried pork are a standard for those who enjoy a hearty afternoon meal. Easily made, shōgayaki is a tried and true choice for those brown-bagging it as well as for connoisseurs of convenience store and bentō shop lunches.
While not strictly a bentō, rice balls are perhaps Japan’s most versatile lunch food. Also known as onigiri, they can be squeezed together in a jiffy and gobbled down just about as quickly. They are often wrapped in squares of nori (seaweed) or sprinkled with gomashio (sesame seeds and salt). Standard gu, or fillings, include grilled salmon, pickled plum, kombu (kelp), fish roe, and tuna mixed with mayonnaise.
"Character bentōs" are not just tasty, they are works of art. These special lunch boxes are often made for school and kindergarten fieldtrips. Whether featuring the latest anime character or an original creation, these bentōs combine the chef’s imagination and sense of humor with a hearty dash of parental love to produce lunches that are almost too cute to eat.
Crumbled toppings made from chicken, meat, fish, shrimp, or egg help transform a dull dish of white rice into a mosaic of colors, pleasing to both the eyes and the palate. Ingredients are seasoned, slightly parched, and arranged over rice in vibrant patterns or carefully laid out to form playful pictures.
To find out how to make your own creative bentō, see the article below!
Your Own Japanese-Style Box Meal
Here we introduce some fun ingredients for box meals, along with a handful of the special implements invented to make their creation a snap.